For Thilo Konzok, Torsten Stüber, Eiko Gerten, and Nico Kutschenko, the space is a perfect spot to start their company. “We wanted to do this seriously. We needed some kind of structure,” Kutschenko says. “We needed money and we needed office space. A living room is just not professional.”
The four had first met in February 2013 at a workshop in Düsseldorf, where they had been thrown together to develop a concept for a digital start-up. After 60 hours, they had one: track the trending items that people are reading about online, and offer those items for sale on a website.
By the time they heard about the Axel Springer Plug and Play accelerator, they had a name, Asuum (sounds like awesome), and the website up and running. Asuum got €25,000 ($33,400), office space, and mentoring for three months in exchange for giving the accelerator a 5 percent stake in the company.
For the first time, the four partners could concentrate solely on their site. They squeezed into a tiny apartment to cut costs, and the Axel Springer workshop gave Kutschenko some credibility with his mother, who he says wasn’t thrilled with his decision to further delay a job search after five years of university. “I could say to her, ‘At least Axel Springer believes in our idea,’ ” he says.
Life was looking good until their first mentoring session at the end of the first month of accelerator camp. It took them nearly 45 minutes to explain their concept before the two mentors finally got it. “They more or less said, ‘Give it up,’ ” says Eiko Gerten.
They were devastated. “I didn’t want to believe what the mentor said,” says Torsten Stüber, a developer who had left his job at the Dresden University of Technology to pursue his dream. “I said, ‘We just have to keep going. Just have to develop the idea and it will be good.’ I was a little bit desperate.”
It was tense. For two days. Then Kutschenko had an idea: Rather than target consumers, why not bring their idea directly to media companies? The technology can scan articles and offer products to fit the content. So why not sell directly to news sites that can use it to offer native advertising?
Stüber set to work perfecting the technology. Konzok designed ads that would fit inside an article without annoying the reader. Kutschenko identified media customers and Gerten found advertisers. They worked from nine in the morning until well past midnight. At their next mentoring session, it took just 15 minutes to explain the concept. The mentors liked it.
Asuum works like this: People reading an article about Miley Cyrus twerking might find, discretely underneath a photo caption, a small button that recommends downloading her latest hit from iTunes or purchasing an MP3 player from Amazon. Asuum and the news site share a commission if the reader actually buys a product.
Asuum’s technology is distinct because it finds the right product for each story. This impressed Diekmann. “The last thing you want is to be offering ads for kitchen knives next to a story about a brutal stabbing,” he says.
Its affiliation with Axel Springer didn’t only soothe Kutschenko’s mother, it helped Asuum get an audience with potential clients. “As soon as publishers heard the Axel Springer name, they would say, ‘Oh, yeah, come on by,’ ” Kutschenko says.
Three months into their new iteration, Asuum’s tailor-made native ads are on the sites of most major publishers in Germany, and are expanding throughout the continent. They expect to break even in December. The partners didn’t even have to wait for demo day to secure their first round of financing; they received it from their mentors.
Nearly 6,000 miles away, Jesse Shapins, Kara Oehler, and James Burns, three longtime friends, had moved from Boston to California. In February 2013, they joined five other start-ups at Matter’s boot camp run by Corey Ford, a former producer at Frontline turned Stanford lecturer turned venture capitalist. Ford, 35, is a clean-cut guy with a baby face who uses phrases like “user-centered, prototype-driven models” three times in the space of a half hour.