MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF — The always-entertaining Dave McClure kicked off the 500 Startups Demo Day today with a video about Sharknado, otherwise known as “the best worst movie ever.”
“We hope our startups go as viral as Sharknado did,” McClure said. “Building a startup is as insane as chainsawing your way out of a great white shark’s stomach every now and then.”
Today is the culminating event for 500 Startups’ sixth class. The accelerator program selects around 30 startups from around the world to participate in three-month programs where they receive mentorship, work space, and an extensive network of resources to help get their businesses off the ground. 500 Startups has made a major push over the last year to attract more women and international founders, and McClure is a vocal advocate of seeking out untapped opportunities in emerging markets. This batch is made up of 28 companies, with two-thirds hailing from abroad. It also contains 500 Startups’ first investments in Africa and the Middle East, and eight women-founded companies. The event, as I have come to expect, was riddled with rap music, goofy outfits, foreign accents, and even a sword.
From the global “tribe” of startups that presented today, here are the ones that stuck out.
Mayvenn is a service for African American hairstylists to add a retail component to their business. Founder Diishan Imira said that African American women spend $6 billion every year on hair extensions, outspending all other demographics 3 to 1. 95 percent of African American hair salons don’t have a retail component because the costs of maintaining the inventory are too high — customers go to separate beauty supply stores to buy products and bring them to the salon. Using Mayvenn, hair stylists can create personalized e-commece websites and mobile apps to sell hair products. Mayveen will fulfill the orders and stylists earn 20 percent of the sale.
“This makes a material difference,” Imira said on stage. “The average hair stylists earns $24K a year and Mayvenn can help them double the revenue per client and increase their yearly income. For the consumers, we deliver hair products at a lower price.”
Like most in the audience, I don’t know much about this market, but I appreciate that Mayvenn has found a big opportunity in a sector largely overlooked by technology companies.
Boxc is attempting to improve the process of overseas shipping. It lets online retailers in China sell directly to U.S. consumers. The company has collection centers in Shanghai and distribution centers in Los Angeles. It aggregates and optimizes shipping demand to reduce international shipping costs and speed up delivery time. The company is targeting 2 million Chinese sellers who are trying to reach 100 million U.S. buyers without going through a middleman. With the amount of manufacturing in China, the growth of e-commerce, and a supply chain that is still slow and expensive for international orders, Boxc aims to become the best logistics provider for global e-commerce.
School Admissions is an Indian company simplifying school search for parents in India. Founder Rajan Arora described the admissions process for Indian schools on stage.
“You have to research multiple schools and there are no resources available online or offline,” he said. “Then you have to track admission dates, and every school has a different date. You have to go to the schools to procure the admissions forms and buy them from the schools. Lastly you have to wait for the results. Imagine doing this for 30 schools. Entire families get into action, and there will be long queues outside schools starting at 4am.”
When Arora did this for his child, he said it took five months. He took 20 days off from work and it cost him more than $2,000. There will be more than 40 million new admissions in India by 2015 and in 2012, $250 million dollars were earned by schools from the sale of forms in Delhi alone.
School Admissions is working to put the entire admissions process online. Parents input what they are looking for, and the school-matching engine will recommend which schools to apply to. They can sign up for admission alerts and complete applications online for multiple schools. The company will charge both parents and schools, as well as make money from lead generation and ads from brands that are targeting parents. It recently formed a partnership with Airtel, India’s biggest mobile operator, to power its school admission helpline.
India has a massive and rapidly growing Internet market. About one-third of India’s population of 1.2 billion is under the age of 14, and around 15 million of them will apply to private school. If School Admissions can build up a strong enough marketplace, this could be huge.
Despite the fact that I make a living writing about technology, I have absolutely no idea what to do when my computer has a problem. I racked up countless hours with Best Buy’s Geek Squad over the years, including one tearful night at 9 pm right before a college exam. Geekatoo brings the Geeksquad to you. The company cuts out the middlemen and can offer cheaper service, since there is no storefront or inventory to maintain. You order help online, and a verified, skill-tested technician arrives at your door. No leaving your computer for weeks at a repair shop. No embarrassing breakdowns in front of strangers trying to buy TVs. The company launched just a few months ago and is already processing $1,000 a day, with 3,000 providers in its system. This “Uber of tech support” approach also benefits computer specialists who can make extra money or a living on Geekatoo.
Unda is a video messaging app that, according to founder Oscar Noriega, “is how messaging should be.”
“Life is bigger than texting,” he said on stage. “This is very different from social video. This is more like a video walkie talkie.”
I tend to be skeptical of messaging and video apps. I only recently started using emojis (mostly as a joke) and get pitched constantly on more ways to communicate with friends. But there’s no doubt that video is dominating the Internet and popular social sites like Instagram and Twitter with Vine see the power in communicating using video. Unda’s app lets you take a quick video and send it as a message. When the recipient opens the message, they can watch it. They don’t need to be available at the same time (like Face Time), and the video history is stored in the cloud.
Noriega said saying “I love you” is better than texting it, and he thinks a huge chunk of the texting market will soon be video messaging. Unda has had 12,000 downloads in one month alone, and users send 1,000 video messages per day. Photo messaging app SnapChat is now valued at over $800 million, and Unda could be the next startup in this vein.
Finally, as someone who recently learned to cook and still struggles with cracking the perfect egg, I have to give a little shout out to Feast. Feast is an online marketplace for cooking classes, dedicated to “teaching this generation how to cook.” Founder David Spinks said 30 million people search for the phrase “how to cook” every month, but the results are chaotic and overwhelming. After trying multiple methods of teaching people to cook, he and cofounder Nadia Eghbal found that what people really want to learn are basics like how to hold a knife. Feast breaks cooking down into simple lessons and sends a “crash course” every day in an email with quick educational videos. Forty percent of users open the emails every day, which Spinks said shows high levels of engagement. The team is focused on building a community around the content, and like well-known food writer Michael Pollan’s latest book, encouraging people to live healthier lifestyles and improve the American food system, simply by cooking.
McClure wrapped up the day by emphasizing the importance of bringing Sand Hill Road to the rest of the world. Startup ecosystems are just beginning to emerge in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, and many entrepreneurs with great ideas still struggle to find the guidance and financial support they need. 500 Startups has multiple initiatives like Geeks on a Plane and dedicated regional funds that are designed to nurture founders around the world and create opportunities outside of Silicon Valley. I was impressed with the startups that presented today. Some didn’t have the most innovative ideas — Dakwak powers online translation to help websites “go global in the shortest time ever,” and Tastespace powers online ordering for restaurants in Latin America — but they offer compelling business ideas, and passion.