The first company to take up residence in BendTECH’s first-ever Startup Founder’s Office is Rupie, a platform that connects game developer talent with game studios. CEO Austin Anderson, previously a lead software engineer at LinkedIn, founded the company in late 2017 as a way to help small to mid-sized game studios find and engage developer talent.
On the morning of Monday, December 18, 2017, Will Warne strolled up to his desk at the BendTECH coworking offices, opened his laptop and checked his email. His eyes widened. Then they widened again.
Instead of the three or four daily emails Will was used to receiving about his startup KidRunner—manufacturer of “the only natural form, multi-terrain jogging stroller”—Will was staring at an inbox virtually overflowing with emails. Hundreds of them. And they were all from parents who wanted to buy a KidRunner.
KidRunner had gone viral.
The Bend startup bills itself as the first high-performance sports equipment intentionally designed for parent runners. The device is effectively a two-wheeled trailer in which children can ride while being pulled by a running parent who is attached via a padded waist belt.
“Our website was blowing up,” Will remembers. “Our Facebook page was blowing up. I’m getting hundreds of emails. I thought, ‘Wow! We’re in! We hit the jackpot!’”
But there was a problem: KidRunner, a company used to receiving only a small amount of web traffic per day, simply couldn’t handle the massive number of site visitors, emails and orders.
“Up to that point, people would come online, see the product and contact me directly. I mean, I was invoicing through PayPal and emailing back and forth a hundred times. When all this happened, we weren’t ready. I mean, we didn’t even know where the traffic was coming from.”
KidRunner had enjoyed some limited visibility after Will appeared with his invention on the television show Shark Tank. But this traffic was the result of a third-party content producer using online footage of a KidRunner to create a short video posted on Facebook. The video was shared 50,000 times within the first day, and total views eventually topped two million.
“It was a tsunami,” Will says. “In 36 hours, it just washed over us, and then everything went back to normal.” But how many KidRunners did they sell over the course of those 36 hours?
“I think we probably sold 14 rigs,” he recalled. “But when you look at the number of people who engaged with us at that time, we closed nothing. Had we closed 1 percent of that traffic, we’d still be out of inventory today.”
Will still shakes his head when he recalls KidRunner’s viral moment.
“I think what happened is a lot of people got exposed to our brand through that viral media, and when they came into our site it just seemed hokey to them,” he says. “They couldn’t really figure out whether we were a real company, how they would take delivery, how they would pay, when they would get it, or who they needed to talk to. So almost all of those people were scared off or just kind of like, ‘Oh, this isn’t ready yet.’ We thought we were, but we weren’t.”
The unexpected social media explosion did leave Warne two big takeaways, including how consumer product startups can better prepare for a sudden influx of customers:
- Make sure your website is ready. “If you’re a B2C company, you have to set your company up online from the start with optimized B2C capabilities. And those skills aren’t organic,” he says. “They’re things that you need to collaborate on with other people who are experts in the B to C environment, people who can help you understand the resources and the technology, and can help you integrate it at an affordable cost so you can actually convert an online sale.
- Invest in digital marketing. Will notes that great digital marketing is not simply social media posting. Digital marketing is a functional technical skillset that is far more like accounting, or finance or sales operations. It involves a whole domain of expertise, expertise that’s more than just sitting in a hammock and posting on Instagram. That’s not digital marketing. That’s what a 12-year-old does for fun.”
“We didn’t know this, so when the tidal wave hit us, we thought we had an online commerce portal, but we didn’t. We scrambled, and within 18 hours, we had a totally new website up. We had Shopify completely integrated. We had a shopping cart, and we had all the scaffolding of a proper ecommerce platform. But by then, it was too late.”
KidRunner takes off
Today, KidRunner employees a digital marketing professional. Will meets with the consultant every week to discuss ad spends, Google site mapping, analytics, organic search, domain authority and, yes, even social media. The company’s website is optimized for online commerce, including automated email replies to customer inquiries, meaning Warne no longer needs to personally reply to every email KidRunner receives.
The transformation does have some drawbacks.
When I was talking to every single customer on PayPal, by the time they gave me $1,000 for a product, we were friends. I mean, was getting family photos from these people,” Will says. “But the last 20 customers that bought from us, I’ve never heard from them. I see Instagram posts and I get a thank you note, but I’m not getting family photos anymore. And frankly, I miss that.”
However, Will says, that maintaining personal connections with every customer is unlikely as KidRunner sales accelerate. “I miss the photos and everything, but I know that’s the cost of success. It’s the tradeoff we make to get where we’re going.”
And where is KidRunner going?
“We have a radically innovative product,” says Warne. “We’re creating a whole new category. This is not going to be an overnight thing.”
Unless it is, and Will wakes up to again find his inbox crammed with hundreds of KidRunner orders stemming from another viral video. Thankfully for KidRunner, if that does happen, this time the company is ready.
LuDela is part of the 10-company cohort, which includes six startups from Colorado. Founder Jamie Bianchini is headed to Boulder for the three-month program. His company is currently housed at BendTECH, and Jamie plans to return Central Oregon after Techstars wraps up.
Jamie took second place at unConference and was a BVC early stage finalist. He started his company after experiencing a candle fire while on a bike trip in western Africa. He wanted to develop a safer candle that still offered that real-life experience.
Congratulations to Jamie and the LuDela team.
“Without an early source of non-dilutive capital, promising companies cannot live up to their full potential. Early public investment in these innovative companies will support the ability to scale up in Oregon, creating new technologies, products, and jobs,” according to the RFP.
The grants target startups with science or research in the following industries: active lifestyle, advanced manufacturing, natural resources, life science applications, advanced materials, and clean tech/impact investing.
To ensure that applicants have or are receiving adequate wrap-around services, “eligible companies should have existing relationships with service providers like Signature Research Centers, University Tech Transfer Offices and related incubators or accelerators, awardees of Oregon Growth Board funding, or Business Oregon innovation partner organizations.”
The list includes 80 different organizations, including our very own OSU-Cascades Co-Lab. The applications are due Feb. 1. If you’d like more information, here is the RFP and there’s also more information at the Business Oregon website.
In our house, we like to talk about “doing the work.” Want to be good at soccer? Gotta do the work. Want to improve your math? Do the work. Well, Cascade Angels has been quietly doing the work of building its investment fund and our startup ecosystem since its inception in 2014, and the effort is absolutely paying off.
His leadership seminar will outline the foundations of leadership, including vision, principles and values, leadership best practices and the concept of servant leadership. Attendees will also learn how to practically apply Rod’s leadership lessons to issues such as motivation, relationships, delegation and more.
The founder of Talkoot expressed a similar sentiment upon winning more than a $1 million in investment Friday. “I didn’t know this even existed,” Brian Hennessy said, referring to Bend’s startup and venture community and thanking the crowd and people that make BVC happen.
Because I’m a recovering lit minor, I always like to find an overall theme in things I write about. This year after talking to numerous people about BVC, the prevailing notion was one of everything moving “upstream,” as one investor described it. The early stage seems less early and increasingly polished. The growth stage seems mature and ready for more dollars. Even the unConference pitches earlier in the week were just all around strong. Basically: it’s no one’s first rodeo. Perhaps after 15 years of BVC, this is expected. However, especially when it comes to Central Oregon founders and pitches, this overall elevation also speaks to the hard work that ecosystem players have been doing to build a larger, stronger entrepreneurial pool.
More on that in a moment. But first, let’s talk about the winners, the keynote, Seven Peaks endowing a CS Scholar at OSU Cascades, and more. It’s a good old-fashioned recap. Here we go:
The early stage
This is the first year that the early stage included companies from outside of Bend. The prizes included a $2,500 cash award from PrideStaff and $20,000 investment from Portland Seed Fund. As mentioned, the pitches were impressive, and also exceptionally varied.
Plover, a Portland-based startup that makes a carwash machine that uses only steam and water and no chemicals, won the stage, earning the five-figure Portland Seed Fund investment. LuDela, whose founder recently moved to Bend, won the audience vote and $2,500 cash prize. That company makes remote-control, real-flame candles. Literally every time founder Jamie Bianchini turns on one of his candles, you can hear the crowd say “whoooooaaaaa.” Because it’s a remote-control, real-fire candle.
The impact track
Now in its third year, the social impact track kicked off the BVC on Thursday afternoon. The four companies tackled everything from reducing carbon dioxide to creating more affordable housing to finding new sources of fresh water.
The OCO Corporation, out of Vida, Ore., won the $100,000 investment. The company converts carbon dioxide generated by industrial and fossil fuel burning power plants into a value-added platform chemical, formic acid.
The growth track
The BVC hands out lots of big checks and this year was no exception. Seven companies overall received some sort of cash or investment. But there was a clear winner and that was Talkoot. Brian, the founder who pitched, has created cloud-based software that helps brands create and organize high-volumes of product copy. Several people noted that he did a fantastic job of illustrating the problem: giant brands like Adidas or Old Navy have hundreds of thousands of product descriptions that they create and manage and there’s no good way for doing so. Brian also seems like the right person to solve this, hailing from the industry and previously running a content agency that creates product copy for companies that are now Talkoot clients.
So the audience got it. Investors did too, because Talkoot won the following:
- $135,000 from the BVC Fund as the Growth Stage winner.
- $500,000 investment from Seven Peaks Ventures.
- $200,000 from Cascade Angels.
- $300,000 Elevate Capital.
It was definitely a big check party for the Hood River-based startup. The other growth stage awards included:
- $100,000 to CommLoan, a commercial real estate finance marketplace company, from the BVC Fund as the runner-up in the growth stage competition.
- $250,000 from Seven Peaks Ventures to Caligoo, a mobile journey software platform providing predictive and personalized experiences that sense, learn, reason, and react in real-time to target customers and reach applications goals. The founder of this startup recently moved to Bend.
- $200,000 from Cascade Angels Fund to Stabilitas, an AI engine designed for security teams that allows them to do the work of 1,000 human analysts in real-time.
Friday’s keynote: Tech is a Brotopia
Friday’s keynote featured Emily Chang, the author of Brotopia, and host of Bloomberg Technology, interviewed by Corey Schmid, a partner at Seven Peaks Ventures. Corey asked great questions and the resulting conversation was illuminating, wide-reaching and perhaps, if you’re a woman or just a general human who has been paying attention to any news for the past year, infuriating. Emily offered her well-reported take on the evolution of the brotopia in Silicon Valley and why tech jobs, tech founders and tech investors remain primarily men.
“If we can build self-driving cars, send rockets to the moon and connect the world, we can hire more women and pay them fairly,” Emily noted early in the talk. And you do wonder, why is it so hard? Yet, the ensuing conversation between Emily and Corey revealed how deeply engrained the gender disparity is in the industry.
Emily recalled prominent tech founders who lamented not having any women on their founding teams and the notion of some LPs in VC funds that investing in women and making money are somehow mutually exclusive. Turns out, they’re not. Emily said, and in fact research shows, that founding teams that include women are more profitable. She dug into the trouble with the concept of “meritocracy” and how it allows men in tech to sidestep the acknowledgement of their own privilege to focus, instead, on why they’re so deserving of their success.
She had some heartening reports—tech companies committed to hiring women into leadership positions, the founding of All Raise, a collaborative effort by women in VC to address gender disparity in the VC world, and the success reported by companies who do prioritize diversity. One audience member asked whether it would take an entire generation to get the industry to a place of equality. Emily noted that’s she optimistic it could be sooner.
I certainly hope so. Even when it seems like everyone is discussing gender inequality and in agreement that it should be remedied, the progress is exhaustingly slow. Consider that the five growth stage presenters immediately following Emily’s presentation were all men (Talkoot does have a woman cofounder who wasn’t on stage). Most of their decks featured all-male or nearly all-male leadership teams. I think I counted the photos/names of three or four women in total featured in the growth stage slides. It’s important to note that EDCO, the organization that puts on the BVC, does a phenomenal job of prioritizing diverse emcees, panelists, and keynotes for the conference, and doesn’t select the finalists.
At the Elevate Inclusion Summit in Portland a few weeks ago, one woman in VC noted that even as she pays attention to every female founder who asks for her time, she still sees exponentially more male founders. So there’s a pipeline problem. The pool of female founders needs to be larger to start so that more filter up to the VC level. There’s an entire brotopia to dismantle and rebuild. It’s a complicated, long-standing, multi-layered issue that won’t be solved overnight. And even so, as Emily pointed out, we can send rockets to the moon. Rockets to the moon.
The big announcement from OSU and Seven Peaks Ventures
Finally, there was an exciting announcement to round out the BVC and put Central Oregon on a faster path to building our pipeline of tech talent. Dino Vendetti, founder of Seven Peaks, announced that the firm’s partners have established and funded the Oregon State Cascades Faculty Scholar in Computer Science. The first recipient is Yong Bakos, a CS instructor there, and awesome supporter of Bend’s tech community, CS students and student entrepreneurs, and startups all around.
The Bulletin notes that the gift supports “classroom activities, rather than the faculty member’s salary,” and that Yong will use “the money is to pay stipends to students working on software projects for community organizations.”
A heartfelt thanks to Seven Peaks for their support of the CS program, and a hearty congratulations to Yong, who has been working so hard since he arrived to build a CS program here in Bend. Your work is appreciated, noticed and now more funded 🙂
The 15th Annual Bend Venture Conference is a wrap. Congratulations to all who pitched and participated. There was likely a lot of celebrating last night. And then – it’s back to work.
Founder, Cascade Cadence
The annual Bend Outdoor Worx (BOW) Breakout event started with free beer and ended with a live punk band rattling the foundation of downtown’s Tower Theatre. Between the beer and the music, BOW awarded more than $15,000 to young outdoor product companies, helping them to continue their growth while at the same time giving them an opportunity to pitch their businesses to an audience of hundreds, many of whom were of potential investors.
“Tonight, the road to success runs right through Bend, OR,” cheered emcee Gary Bracelin to an energized crowd as he kicked off the event, 10 Barrel beer in hand.
The three early stage outdoor companies, finalists chosen by a panel of BOW judges, then vied for the $5,000 BreakOut Award, pitching the audience on their businesses and products. Local companies Sew Go, a lightweight, low-profile trail gaiter manufacturer founded by Lindsay Brisko; and Lacuda Swim, a local manufacturer of resistance training swimsuits founded by Claire Oester; went up against Denver’s Mystic Devices, an outdoor lighting equipment company co-founded by Chris Slaughter.
After an intermission—during which a trials rider jumped his bike over each of the early stage contestants as they lay prostrate on stage—Camber Outdoors’ Deanne Buck introduced Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a surprise speaker who nearly didn’t make the event after enduring a root canal procedure earlier in the day.
“(Events like this are) the proof that recreation is a key economic driver in the west,” Wyden told the audience.
Companies contending for the Ready to Roll Award then took the stage, with Seattle’s Ombraz Sunglasses, Alaska’s Heather’s Choice lightweight backing food, and Australia’s Bluey Merino wool clothing brand each pitching the audience and a panel of BOW judges. The winner? Heather’s Choice, with founder Heather Kelly taking home a check for $10,000.
Lindsay Brisko’s Sew Go took home the $5,000 BreakOut Award, as voted on by the audience.
“This is verification that the brand can work, and that there’s need for this product,” said Lindsay, who dreamed up her handcrafted, customizable, low-profile gaiters while hiking the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Continental Divide Trail. In fact, it was while hiking the PCT that Lindsay first came to Bend.
“I’ve had such a warm welcome here, including from the outdoor industry. There’s so much willingness to collaborate and share knowledge, and so much passion,” she said. “I think that culture and community is totally unique to Bend.”
Writer’s note: As a long-time member of the outdoor industry, I was heartened to experience the energy, and collaborative and supportive environment at the BOW Breakout event. It was also great to see that nearly every presenter made some kind of pledge to support environmental or social causes, either directly or via partnerships with charitable organizations. Passionate people doing great things in a selfless, friendly, sometimes boisterous environment? Sign me up.