I was fortunate enough to spend a solid chunk of my adolescence strapped into an ill-fitting vest and shooting lasers at friends of mine, but a group of technically minded youngsters and their mentors in southern California didn’t just want to play laser tag.
No, the crew at San Diego-based ThoughtSTEM wanted to whip up a (slightly) more subtle laser tag system of their own, and they’re just about there — now they’ve kicked off a Kickstarter campaign to help bring it to market.
The wearable sensor the team has cobbled together is rather neat if only because of how unobtrusive it’s meant to be. Rather than go with a traditional (and bulky) vest, ThoughtSTEM has instead put together a small PCB that’s meant to be worn under a layer of clothing so all that’s visible are the six LEDs that change colors to display your remaining hit points.
For better or worse, you won’t have to lug around any plastic guns either. The sensors on the wearable unit can be triggered by any gadget that can emit infrared pulses at 38kHz, which means most of the remote controls currently cluttering up your living room will probably do the trick. That also means that with a little hackery, you could probably rig up a more traditional IR gun without too much trouble (there seems to be more than a few people who’ve already tried doing just that).
Alright fine, it may lack the panache that come with some more expensive, elaborate setups, but it’s a very neat first project for a crew of savvy young students and their college-age mentors. All told, the ThoughtSTEM team is looking for $10,000 in funding to improve the design of the wearable PCBs and produce them on a larger scale, as well as put together an online storefront to sell them from. $75 will net you a fully assembled target unit, but if you’re willing to apply some of your own elbow grease you can pick up the schematics and a pre-programmed processor for $25, or a bag full of parts for $49. While the proceeds of the Kickstarter campaign will help lock down the particulars of production, ThoughtSTEM aims to funnel whatever future money they make into the program’s coffers so those SoCal mentors continue to run workshops and summer camp programs for tech-savvy middle school and high school kids.
Go here to read the rest: Savvy SoCal Students Bring Their Take On Laser Tag To Kickstarter
Entrepreneur-turned-investor is a classic story arc in Silicon Valley but recently the plot has earned a twist. Certain operators are foregoing the traditional path of joining a traditional VC to instead create a studio-like holding operation. By doing so, they remain engaged with the grit and grassroots challenges of building a startup. They remain company builders.
John Borthwick and his New York City-based technology studio, Betaworks, was one of the recent pioneers of what Borthwick calls a “new asset class” in the VC world. And Bill Gross started this in the nineties with IdeaLab. But we’ve seen many others follow.
Twitter co-founders Ev Williams And Biz Stone launched the Obvious Corp.; Mike Jones and Peter Pham run the LA-based studio Science; Max Levchin debuted his R&D lab HVF; Snapfish founder and Mayfield partner Raj Kapoor is in the process of launching his studio cofounder.co; Michael Birch has Money Inferno; Groupon co-founders Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell, along with partner Paul Lee, are incubating ideas and startups at Lightbank; Kevin Ryan operates AlleyCorp; and most recently we heard that entrepreneur and Menlo Ventures partner Shervin Pishevar is creating is own startup-creation venture, Sherpa. Even VC giant Andreessen Horowitz is building an army of marketers, business development execs, recruiters and more to help aid in the creation of startups.
Each model differs slightly. Some take bigger chunks of equity than others. Some of the studio creators take co-founder titles on certain startups. Many studios not only create and incubate ideas in-house, but also make seed-stage investments in startups outside of the company. But at the heart of what each of these studios is doing is using entrepreneurial expertise and in-house resources to help generate ideas and build companies at scale.
As this trend takes off, it raises the question why?
Lee, who has helped Lightbank incubate a number of ideas including loyalty startup Belly, explains that because it is so easy to build startups these days, that there is a need for models that allow companies to leverage certain functions like sales and marketing, hiring, legal and more. It’s important to note that this is probably one of the biggest differentiators between studios and accelerators.
If the studio has some of these functions built in-house, then startups can actually leverage these repeatable services and scale more quickly with less capital. In Lightbank’s case, the firm has built and scaled sales teams across a number of industries and companies and can help startups quickly manage this area.
Borthwick echoes Lee’s thoughts on the value of a shared platform of data, analytics and monetization tools. Betaworks has a layer of tools that its companies, which include Chartbeat, Bitly and others, all use. He compares this to the movie studio model, where companies like Disney and Universal create individual movies but have a layer of services in-house that promote films, and provide other functions across these various content plays.
LA-based Science has a similar approach to Betaworks and has built a number of B2B companies that can provide its other consumer-facing startups with marketing technologies. TripleThread, which launched in November and powers personalization for styling and clothing companies, supports another Science company, Fourth and Grand, which offers a personalized styling service for men.
Andreessen Horowitz has been building its layer of services for startups by hiring an army of talent to help portfolio startups. The firm’s partner, Margit Wennmachers, explains that Andreessen sees entrepreneurs as the epicenter to an idea, and works on helping with everything else that the entrepreneur doesn’t have time to do. So if an entrepreneur is a coding genius, Andreessen will work on helping with go-to market strategies, marketing, recruiting, and more. The firm has developed a network of talent in-house to help with this. Andreessen just brought on Wildfire product exec Tom Rikert and Twitter marketing exec Elizabeth Weil.
While these services help startups get their products built, shipped and marketed in a speedy fashion; speed also has its benefits when things don’t go so well in development of an idea. The ability to quickly scale ideas can also be advantageous when an idea doesn’t work and you need to shut it down.
Borthwick explained to us that part of what makes this studio model work is that there’s the opportunity for rapid experimentation and company development. “Failure is part of the model. The traditional VC model is predicated on the fact that failure happens in the marketplace. But our model is a more flexible platform for innovation. If things don’t look like they will work out, we can easily pivot because there hasn’t been as much capital and investment put in,” he says. “Death and breakage is part of the system.”
Ev Williams refers to this model on a Branch (which is a communications product that is investment and part of Obvious) thread from last year, as “parallel entrepreneurship.” In a lot of ways, this seems like an accurate description of these company building studios.
Stone and Williams, Kapoor, Borthwick, Pishevar, Jones, Levchin and others have all had experience being able to build and grow startups. They can all work in tandem with talent in-house, and help this new generation of entrepreneurs turn ideas into actual businesses. The benefit for the company builder is that they can scale their experience across a number of startups and ideas, take a hands-on approach to helping in product and engineering and take equity stakes in each. The new, young entrepreneur gets to learn how to build a company from someone who has had success and can scale more quickly. As Pham puts it, “collective knowledge is always better than singular knowledge.”
Kapoor, who announced his departure from Mayfield to create his own startup studio, explains that an experienced entrepreneur can give founders an advantage by being able to short-circuit lessons that the entrepreneur learned when he or she founded a company previously. Kapoor co-founded and was the CEO of Snapfish, which was sold to HP for $300 million. His model at Cofounder.co centralizes around co-founding startups and helping in all areas of the company including financing, recruiting, strategy, product development and mentoring the CEO. While he hasn’t yet officially launched, he explained that he found the traditional VC model doesn’t allow VCs to go as in-depth in the trenches with entrepreneurs as with the studio model.
His view is that entrepreneurs are looking for help as much as money, especially at an early stage. “Entrepreneurs are open to and expecting help that goes beyond just investing. In the traditional VC world, it’s done it through mentors and advisors,” he says. “But it is very difficult for someone who isn’t really close to the company to add value on a regular basis.”
Lee adds that for a young entrepreneur who may not have a lot of work and technology experience, it is still extremely hard to build a company on your own, even in a traditional accelerator or incubator. He feels that the company-building model fills a gap in the market.
He also points out that there will always be a class of entrepreneurs who don’t need to participate in the studio model. “There are some entrepreneurs who don’t need to strongly lean on the learnings of those who have succeeded previously, but there are some founders where it makes more sense to have a stronger network surround them,” he says.
In his experience, Borthwick notes that there are certain types of entrepreneurs that the studio model scales well for, and this sort of partnership isn’t for everybody. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all model for the entrepreneur.”
Another area where the studio model can differ from traditional VC investment or even accelerators is in the equity handout. Science takes mid-to-high, double-digit equity in their startups (compared to Y Combinator’s 7 percent). All models are different in terms of how they are breaking down equity allotments, but it can be daunting to give away that amount of equity and it begs the question of whether this is entrepreneur-friendly.
But clearly as more and more entrepreneurs flock to Betaworks, Science, Obvious Corp. and similar companies, it’s clear that some entrepreneurs see that there is a tradeoff in equity versus the value that people like Williams, Jones, Stone, Borthwick, Pham and others provide. Lee says that this exchange may make more sense for younger entrepreneurs who see value in the experience of working under these leaders and founders.
However, it’s still early days and too soon to determine the longevity of the companies that emerge from these studios, as well as how the entrepreneurs that these studios are nurturing will perform in the greater technology market.
The other question is whether this new model will produce the sort of iconic VC firms like Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins. This will largely depend on whether the bets that these studios and company builders make turn into the next Googles, Microsofts or Facebooks of our world.
Borthwick is confident that this model is succeeding in the seed-stage investment world. He notes in his yearly letter to shareholders. “Our approach allows us to achieve a velocity that other parts of the seed and VC stacks find hard to achieve…betaworks has played a part in the emergence of this larger, more diverse, more independent, and loosely-coupled seed financing marketplace; we believe its existence and growth tends to validate the betaworks model and its emergence as a new asset class.”
In a way, company building allows the experienced entrepreneur to keep playing the game. It’s like when Apollo Creed retired from professional boxing, but then decided to coach Rocky Balboa against Clubber Lang. As Pham explains, for some founders this is the best of both worlds. They get to raise a fund and invest in people they believe in, but also keep their hands dirty in the nit and grit of startup creation. It’s the classic story of an entrepreneur who has been through her own roller coaster ride and now wants to invest in others who have an appetite to do the same — only now, she wants a seat on the ride.
Continued here: The Rise Of Company Builders
Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) provider ActiveState recently scored a sweet deal with HP: It is the official PaaS for the entire HP cloud business.
ActiveState won the HP deal through the strength of Stackato, its PaaS that uses Cloud Foundry to offer a distributed developer platform. ActiveState executives say it hardened CloudFoundry for the enterprise. This means Stackato offers additional languages and provides more hypervisor and infrastructure support, as well as application lifecycle tools and monitoring capabilities.
Stackato is packaged as a virtual machine and can run both in a private data center and a public cloud environment. That’s the appeal to HP – Stackato has dual capabilities.
Stackato’s strength is that it was built with a “security first” approach, which makes it appealing to enterprise buyers. It supports multiple programming languages, enabling developers to push apps from their desktops to different cloud environments. That might mean a public cloud service, a hybrid one or a deployment that is entirely on-premise.
That gives Stackato the opportunity to leverage HP and its massive customer base. But therein also lies the problem. ActiveState could get ensnared in the roiling internal politics that are pitting HP’s traditional server business against its cloud strategy. The fissure is apparent in the recent departure of Zorawar Biri Singh, HP’s head of cloud computing. But it’s also connected to HP’s deep ties to the traditional enterprise hardware and software market where it makes the majority of its revenues.
HP is the global leader in x86 server sales, so the company faces a paradox: sell more servers and attract businesses to a public cloud service. A customer doessn’t need servers if it uses a public cloud environment. HP can get better margins if it sells into the traditional data-center market. These days, like a lot of companies, HP postions this as a private or managed cloud strategy.
But the bigger challenge for ActiveState may come with Cloud Foundry, the PaaS developed by VMware. It had once been promised as an open-source PaaS platform. Developers loved it. But there was always this question about VMware’s true intentions? Would it really support an open-source effort and foster a community?
Sacha Labourey, founder and CEO of PaaS provider CloudBees, said that when Cloud Foundry was released, he was extremely bullish, but then it made no sense after awhile. What was the real strategy? Cloud Foundry represented an open-source services play. But virtualization software made VMware a power in the enterprise. The company increasingly looked to that power base to establish a cloud strategy. Cloud Foundry seemed out of place.
Fast forward to December of last year and what does VMware do? It spins out Cloud Foundry, creating the Pivotal Group under the direction of Paul Maritz, EMC’s chief strategist.
Today, Cloud Foundry is a big question mark in the PaaS market. There are rumblings of a fork. AppFog, Tier3, and Uhuru all rely on it. Adopting a fork would mean a deep investment in engineering for the company that took that path.
But if any company can manage these waters, it’s ActiveState. Founded in 1997, the company is well-established as a provider of development tools for dynamic languages. It has the engineering resources to manage a Cloud Foundry fork if it chooses to do so.
In the meantime, the PaaS market is still quite nascent. HP may be able to leverage its vast customer base, but the customers using PaaS are very few.
Labourey says companies need to try a service like AWS and build a stack on it. Using AWS helps developers see the differences between services and software plays, and it will help them see that a PaaS can remove a lot of the complexity inherent in developing custom stacks.
Bart Copeland, president and CEO of ActiveState, says Stackato can provide speed and simplicity on-premise and in the cloud. The PaaS can provide the dual capability that companies seem more comfortable with using.
ActiveState will increasingly compete with Cloud Foundry while using its technology. How that competition plays out will depend a lot on ActiveState’s success with HP and the direction Cloud Foundry takes as part of the Pivotal Labs group.
Read the original here: PaaS Provider ActiveState And The Paradox Of Aligning With HP And Cloud Foundry
Facebook announced today at the Open Compute Summit that it is open-sourcing more of its data center designs for storing pictures, high availability and power consumption in data centers.
Facebook stores 300 million pictures per day. They needed ways to store the pictures but not archive them so people could access them if needed.
Facebook used the OpenCompute “Open Rack” to create a cold storage rack for photos. The specs are now available for anyone to use.
The company is also contributing DragonStone — a design spec for a low-power database server, one CPU board and redundant power, for “cold data” storage. DragonStone has been integrated into Facebook’s data center in Lulea, Sweden, and is seeing 40 percent more efficiency.
Finally, Facebook is contributing Winterfell, a new web server design for fitting more servers on a rack.
Facebook needs the innovation that comes with opening data center designs, not only from the social network but also from traditional providers, as well. Intel, for example, collaborated with the community to make its specs available for a silicon photonics technology with 100-gigabyte-per-second connectivity with unprecedented latency characteristics.
SigFig, the startup that tracks your financial assets and provides detailed visualizations of your investments and recommendations on how to manage them, is now officially playing in the big leagues.
SigFig tells TechCrunch that it just crossed $50 billion in assets on the site’s platform.* For comparison, that’s in the ballpark of decades-old financial planning stalwarts such as Edward Jones, which reportedly has some $68 billion in assets under management. Not bad for a startup with around 40 staffers that officially launched its app to the public just nine months ago.
SigFig’s growth has almost certainly been bolstered by the fact that it has inked some big-name partnerships in its relatively short lifetime. The company’s technology already powers portfolio trackers for the likes of Yahoo Finance and USA Today, and just recently signed a deal to power brand new portfolio tracker apps for CNN.
It also bears mention that SigFig is not as new of an entity as it seems on the surface. The company was formerly best known for building Wikinvest, the financial Q&A site that also provided portfolio tracker tools — in December 2011, the company had $20 billion in assets under management thanks to Wikinvest users. But I’m told the majority of growth in terms of assets under management has happened over the past nine months with SigFig as the main driver.
SigFig is certainly not the only startup looking to lead the trend of bringing the financial planning industry into the digital realm — Personal Capital and Betterment are just two prominent players also in the space, although it bears mention that they are not all completely direct competitors. Just as there has historically been room for a plethora of traditional financial planning and advisory firms to prosper (and how), we may see a variety of web-based companies to establish themselves as the new generation of money management experts.
*UPDATE: SigFig has reached out to clarify that $50 billion in users’ assets have been plugged into its platform and managed through it. The term “assets under management” is typically used by licensed broker/dealers, which SigFig is not. SigFig users keep at their respective brokerages and sync their accounts with SigFig; SigFig does not actually control money and invest it on its users’ behalf. This story and headline have been updated to clarify that.
Watch the video embedded below for a closer look at what exactly SigFig is; this interview is from May 2012, when co-founders Mike Sha and Parker Conrad stopped by TechCrunch TV to demo their app and talk about their aim to disrupt traditional investment consulting.