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.
At the boot camp, Ford extolled his philosophy, honed during his time at Stanford’s d.school (that’s California-speak for design school), of what it takes to make a winning business. The technology must focus on the user. And designers must continually iterate, quickly, and learn from failures. Cross-pollination is creative: The product dreamed up by a hacker, a business dude, and a storyteller will be more rewarding than one designed by technology nerds alone.
The six companies Matter accepted got $50,000 and five months of coaching. They sat cheek-by-jowl in what is essentially a large garage in the trendy South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco. Mostly they worked on their own, but twice a week they sat together. Tuesdays, they heard from a variety of speakers, usually successful entrepreneurs, designers, hackers, marketing folks, businesspeople, and investors. Fridays the campers shared their successes and problems with one another.
Once a month they rehearsed their pitches for demo day, when they hoped to secure the funding they need to survive. Throughout, they were encouraged to test their prototypes on real end users, like KQED.
Shapins, Oehler, and Burns’ company, called Zeega, mashes sound with visuals to create a new interactive storytelling format. Initially it was designed for professional clients like PRX. During their time at camp, though, they made two significant decisions: First, they wanted to simplify the technology so that anyone with a smartphone can make a Zeega. Second, they dropped the videos, at least for now.
The three founders want Zeega to be the creative person’s Twitter. “Creating a Zeega is not the same as making a video. It’s not the same as making a radio story. There are ways in which the medium itself is very appropriate for how we use media today,” says Shapins, the CEO.