Inside an effort to build a startup community in Camden: The UP Conference
Technical.ly Philly by Matt Magee
How about Camden?
That was the message from James Haley of City Invincible, a newly formed urban planning, interior design and architecture firm based in Camden. At the UP Conference last weekend, James outlined the potential for Camden as a significant waterfront destination, with resources ideal to the startup community noting low overhead and proximity to the major markets of Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore.
The potential of Camden as fertile ground for startup development was reinforced by Bill Moen, Camden County Freeholder. A resident of Camden, who lives and works just blocks from the Camden Waterfront Technology Center, Moen reminded attendees of the fact that “this is the only side of the river that you can expect to get a grand view of the Philadelphia skyline.”
Hosted by the Camden-based nonprofit Waterfront Ventures, the UP Conference brought those with the “unified purpose of growing a sustainable startup culture in Camden” together with seasoned startup professionals from the region. (Though, notably, most of the speakers lived and worked in Philadelphia, though several had ties to Camden.)
The Tech Center, where the event was held, is located in the same facility as Camden CoLab incubator, and the offices of Waterfront Ventures. Waterfront Ventures was founded by Khai Tran.
Undeterred by the cold, or the forecast of afternoon snow, an array of startup executives, angel investors and venture capitalists met to provide insight, encouragement and pragmatic advice to a broad array of some 250 Delaware Valley entrepreneurs.
Here are some of my takeaways from the talks, emceed by Yuval Yarden of Philly Startup Leaders:
Chad Stender on the importance of being nice
Being an upstanding and approachable person is significantly more effective than being a cutthroat, take-no-prisoners entrepreneur, said Chad Stenderof Seventy Six Capital. In fact, Chad’s advice is that “being nice” is one of the first characteristics he looks for in a leadership team, when he and his team are looking for those they wish to invest in.
Melissa Schipke’s creative side hustle
Melissa Schipke, CEO and cofounder of Tassl, an alumni engagement and relations management solution for universities and also a former member of the Camden CoLab, discussed her evolution from college student to cofounder of Tassl. Hers is a story of the intersection between her experiences on the Penn alumni board and a desire to address the absence of alumni data for the university. I personally connected with Melissa’s story about the creative way she generated income at Penn, by designing and selling European style scarves with Penn logos through offshore manufacturers. Her story demonstrates the characteristics, drivers and motivations of many entrepreneurs.
How Ted Mann turned a “Bowl of Shame” into a startup
Another story of startup success was that of Ted Mann, now CEO of Slyce and founder of SnipSnap, a couponing solution that was once the second most popular couponing app on the Google App store.
Ted, humorously, told his story of a simple family problem of saving money via coupons, tied to his inability to bring those coupons with him, shopping. As a constant reminder of his forgetfulness and lost savings, Ted’s wife filled a bowl with all the expired coupons Ted would leave behind, affectionately referring to it as the Bowl of Shame. Ted’s simple solution was to photograph all the coupons in the bowl, and use the photos at the checkout stand, rather than the coupons themselves. An inexpensive MVP test, if ever there was one.
Eventually, this evolved into an application for the cataloging of his coupon photos for easier retrieval and use, which eventually turned into SnipSnap. Since then SnipSnap has been purchased by Slyce, a Canadian company which offers a white-label visual search platform that is used by the likes of Best Buy, Urban Outfitters and Home Depot. (The company just went private and made Philadelphia its official HQ.) It allows consumers to photograph products on the shelf for instant information and coupons within the store.
Bob Moore’s early days as an online poker entrepreneur
Our final speaker of the day was Bob Moore, currently head of Magento Analytics who told the story of his startup experience as CEO of RJMetrics. Bob’s story began with an experience in the unregulated market of online wagering. Bob, who was then a student at Princeton, wrote software for calculating the odds of winning at online poker. During this time, Bob stated he would go to bed and awake to find several hundred dollars in his account. This isn’t a bad take for a college student.
Bob’s small venture was earning satisfactory until October 2006, when U.S. legislation required all online gambling be hosted in states where licenses were issued. The market collapsed shortly thereafter. However, failure was not in the cards for Bob. After numerous failed attempts to recreate a similar software-based profit engine, Bob sought work in sales. It was there that he met his future business partner Jake Stein.
Working together at a venture capital firm, they soon realized an application to assist marketers in rapidly analyzing business data to select high performing sales targets could be invaluable. Thus was born RJMetrics, in the attic of Bob’s Collingswood apartment. As their venture grew to a team of four members, they eventually would relocate from Collingswood to the Camden CoLab. There they sought low overhead, a more professional environment as well as an air-conditioned office. (Bob noted that the temperature in their attic office was nearly 100 degrees in August.)
Although the business was growing, there was a high influx of massively funded competitors in the market. Bob then provided a very straightforward explanation of market dynamics, and SaaS profit to expense curve that was a likely a primer for most of those in the room thinking about a SaaS business. It was then that Bob explained how he and Jake, realized they needed an exit strategy with an appropriate suitor. In the end, negotiations lead to splitting the business in such a way that Jake would lead a new business, Stitch, while Bob would go on to head up Magento Analytics.
Overall I found the UP Conference to be an extremely positive experience, with an exemplary set of speakers with great stories that were inspirational, motivational, delivering very pragmatic advice. The organizers at Waterfront Ventures did a tremendous job of coordinating and delivering the event, at a great venue that was perfect for the target audience. Furthermore, the opportunity to network, discover other startup events and activities was invaluable. If you didn’t make it this time, I highly suggest you attend the next time around.