Valuing a Startup Culture
What does it take to get a promising social media startup or any startup for that matter off the ground? In the absence of capital, you need technical expertise along with knowledge of how to make a product scalable, how to market it and how to pitch your idea to investors. And you need a supportive environment that values a startup culture.
Startups have been on my mind after recently attending Startup Riot and Startup Lounge here in Atlanta. I had gone to both events in an effort to identify companies that were using social media in their business models or as their principal marketing strategy.
As of late, I am on a mission to profile companies that have embraced social media. My goal is to help build awareness and ultimately foster widespread adoption of social media here in Atlanta. Our jobs as PR professionals are so much easier when we can point to local companies that are using it effectively.
At Startup Lounge, one of the interesting companies I came across was Fuzzwich (blog). Fuzzwich lets users create and publish animated shorts. More than a tool for those with a casual interest in animation, the real potential is how Fuzzwich helps companies extend the user experience. From a social media perspective, customers can use animation to creatively interact with their favorite brands and virally spread their creations online.
Fuzzwich is based in San Francisco. It was until recently an Atlanta based company. Now, this is not going to be posting about a company that got away, though it could be. Its co-founder Rob Fitzpatrick is a 2006 Georgia Tech graduate who realized that there was more opportunity in San Francisco.
Rather Fuzzwich is a story about a company that discovered the power of social media to make a business model scalable. It’s also a story of how they made their discovery and what startups need to do to get the ball rolling.
Fuzzwich is succeeding in part because of a program known as Y Combinator.
Y Cominbator is a venture fund, which focuses on seed investments to 2-4 person startup companies. It offers financing as well as business advice and other opportunities.
Twice a year (once in Boston and once in Mountain View, CA) Y Combinator selects a group of companies to help finance and advise. In exchange for a small ownership stake, participating companies are given a modest stipend. Somewhat like a bootcamp for startups, the three-month program is intense. As participants work developing their business models, they receive technical and legal advice and learn how to pitch ideas and make products marketable.
Beyond providing important skills, the program builds an esprit de corps and the confidence needed to excel in the world of entrepreneurs.
It is at Y Combinator that Rob and his 3 co-founders chucked their original business model and came up with the idea of a social application that lets others make their own animation. Initially, their idea was to create games as a way to promote music, “but the idea was not scalable.” As Rob confided, they “never could have done it without Y Combinator.”
After Boston, Rob and his partners returned to Atlanta. Besides the Georgia Tech connection, Rob and Devin Hunt (one of the co-founders) shared a Turner connection. Rob had worked at GameTap and Devon at Cartoon network. But their momentum stalled, and they made a decision to move. Rob went first and “grabbed a one-way ticket to San Francisco.” The others soon followed. In a very short time, they had “financial stability” in a supportive culture.
As Rob said, “Walking down University Avenue in Palo Alto, there is no getting away from the startup culture…In Atlanta, everything is distracting you away from doing a startup. In Silicon Valley, everything is distracting you toward one.”
Today they are building a client base and trying to achieve the startup dream.
I am not sure if a Y Combinator in Atlanta would have kept Rob and Devin from moving. But it would certainly provide skills and mentoring to help give startups the confidence they need to launch new ideas. Equally important, it would help create a stronger sense of community.
I suspect most advocates of social media would benefit from a similar supportive environment in learning how to pitch initiatives to a reluctant management.
There is, however, a broader lesson from Fuzzwich and Y Combinator. Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. In pitching social media to companies, I am realizing more and more that what exists outside the corporate walls influences what happens within. A strong community supportive of new ideas and entrepreneurialism will go a long way in helping larger companies embrace new ideas and entrepreneurialism.
Let me get back to you.