The latest Techstars Seattle cohort kicked off an entirely virtual 3-month startup accelerator journey in January. Unlike the 2020 class, which had to pivot to a remote format in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 participants and Techstars organizers are applying lessons learned from the past year of remote work.
The virtual format offers some benefits such as eliminating commutes and broader investor outreach, despite lacking the in-person connections that typically drive the accelerator experience.
This is Isaac Kato’s second year leading the accelerator as Techstars Seattle managing director. The accelerator has graduated more than 100 companies over the past decade. Techstars Seattle is part of a larger Techstars network that includes 50 programs across the globe and also features a Techstars venture capital fund and a startup studio model.
Alumni of Techstars Seattle — companies such as Remitly, Outreach, Skilljar, Bizible, Leanplum and Zipline — have collectively raised more than $1 billion in investment capital. Most have built their startups in the Pacific Northwest, helping expand the entrepreneurial clout in the region.
GeekWire caught up with the 10 companies participating in the 12th Techstars Seattle accelerator class as it wraps up next week to learn more about their business models and how they’ve been impacted by the pandemic. Half of the companies are led by female CEOs; it’s the first time Techstars Seattle achieved gender parity within a cohort.
Read on to learn more about each company.
Founders: Tongayi Choto (CEO) and Roger Roman (CMO)
Headquarters: Harare, Zimbabwe and Los Angeles, Calif.
What does your company do? AfriBlocks is a global Pan-African freelance collaboration platform & marketplace where vetted freelance professionals can provide remote services to buyers across the world.
What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? AfriBlocks is building the technology infrastructure for the future of work in Africa, a market with an untapped growth opportunity that has been largely ignored. We are positioning ourselves. AfriBlocks equips freelancers and buyers with intuitive collaboration tools and secure payment integrations that make it easy for anyone in the world to conveniently access skilled African freelancers remote services affordably.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic and how are you adapting? The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a big shift in how people do business and accelerated the growth of the global gig-economy. Individuals and businesses have seen the need to invest in remote teams and to embrace working online. Freelance work has become a viable source of employment for many people across the world, particularly in Africa. It has shifted from being a vocation where people engage in to supplement their income to being a full-time source of jobs.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Build a community of people who believe in what you are doing and who want to help you. Technology and product will be easier as you get more feedback from those early adopters around you.
Founder: Inna Bogdanova (CEO)
Headquarters: Vancouver, B.C.
What does your company do? Aplic.io connects students seeking study abroad opportunities with thousands of schools and service providers across the globe.
What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? We are building an ecosystem for an extremely fragmented international student recruitment market and connecting all the stakeholders in one place: students, schools, recruiters and service providers.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic and how are you adapting? We were severely impacted. Having launched in January 2020 we started to grow quite fast, but due to the pandemic most of our early enrollments didn’t happen due to border closures. So, we adapted and focused on the countries which have more flexibility for international students. We also have spent a lot of time testing lots of hypotheses and building the product so that when the market starts to recover we will be ready to capitalize on it.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Follow your vision, don’t get distracted by what competitors do or others say. Eventually you’ll get there. Keep on going.
Founders: Pradyut Paul (CEO) and Avinash Kunaparaju (CTO)
Headquarters: San Francisco, Calif.
What does your company do? Bild is a platform that empowers collaboration and more productive engagements for hardware teams, reducing risk in the design process and getting products to market faster.
What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? We’re a team that’s lived the painful experiences that hardware teams go through day-in and day-out. Our unique perspectives from early-stage startups and at Apple allow us to immediately consider our customers’ workflows in our product development process. We also deeply understand exactly where in the workflow current tools fall short for hardware product teams, and we are specifically focused on that part of the value chain.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic and how are you adapting? The pandemic has been the driving factor of many of the features that we are building and allows us to connect with our customers’ pain points. Distributed teams are here to stay, and we’re positioning our feature set to make sure the new generation of product teams can smoothly design the most innovative products.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Really take time to understand your customer. We’ve been fortunate to have a head start, given our background. But even in our earliest calls with customers, the product we were selling was often different than the product they were buying. It’s important to take a step back and understand the problem statement before you sell a solution.
Founders: Dmitry Litvinov (CEO) and Renato Vieira da Costa (CTO)
Headquarters: Seattle, Wash.
What does your company do? Brite is a SaaS platform that empowers educators to discover and effectively deliver engaging STEM curricula to their students as a turn-key solution.
What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Being former Amazon engineers, educators and previously owning a kids coding academy, we productized our knowledge and expertise into Brite. This gives us a unique advantage to effectively help other educators to reach and inspire more students.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic and how are you adapting? Going into Techstars, we had good market signal about the need for our product. Educators were forced to switch to online tutoring, but the vast majority of them are not tech-savvy, creating a unique opportunity for us to help them solve a major pain point and quickly adapt to the new reality.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Trust your instincts and validate your assumptions with experimentation and data. Be genuine, surround yourself with smart and insightful people, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Founder: Kristen (Gallagher) Buchanan (CEO)
Headquarters: Remote (Kristen is in Portland, Ore.)
What does your company do? Edify is an AI platform that allows engineering managers to instantly build and deploy technical onboarding programs to grow their teams.
What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? No one is solving developer onboarding right now, and it’s the key to true developer productivity. Edify takes hundreds of learning points and uses our AI platform to build the right technical onboarding program for each engineering team and new hire.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic and how are you adapting? Edify had just barely started when lockdown hit last March, and we were a remote-first company before that, so we haven’t had to adjust our ways of working very much. However, we’ve hired people and now work with a team in which not all of us have physically met everyone! The pandemic created a lot of opportunity for remote work and future of work, and we’re seeing a lot of companies realize they need technical onboarding to be better.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Talk to your customers first! Design a solution with them, then sell it — all before you actually build or code anything.
Founders: Nick Chua (CEO) and Kevin Arifin (CTO)
Headquarters: San Carlos, Calif.
What does your company do? We help students without a strong network break into the most competitive jobs in tech, finance, and consulting by partnering them to industry mentors through income share agreements (ISAs). We’re focused on helping first generation and immigrant students initially, as they’re often the ones that weren’t born into networks that could push them through the recruiting process.
What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? We’re solving the access problem for students in a way that’s never been done before. The traditional coaching industry expects students to pay upfront, which is something a lot of first gen students can’t afford. And while people usually think of mentorship as something that’s free, it’s actually just as inaccessible for the students who need it the most because their family doesn’t have the connections necessary to give them the right mentors at the right time.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic and how are you adapting? One of the defining characteristics of COVID was a massive push to building relationships and community online. This has benefited us a lot as some of the best partnerships we’ve created wouldn’t have been possible if we were geographically limited. We believe this experience will serve us well even when we’re in a hybrid world.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Start talking to your prospective customers way before you build any solution or product. We had a lot of assumptions that simply turned out to be not true, but it took hundreds of meetings to really hone in on where our holes in reasoning were. If we were more focused on talking to our customers earlier we could have saved a lot of time.
Founders: Erin Quick (CEO) and Justin Friberg (CTO)
Headquarters: Seattle, Wash.
What does your company do? PairTree is a connection platform that connects adopting families with expectant moms — with the goal on modernizing the antiquated adoption process in the US.
What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Personality-Based Matching — PairTree uses a proprietary system that evaluates 100-plus unique attributes to inform an adoptive parent’s personality type — giving expectant moms meaningful information about the adoptive family (in addition to their pretty pictures).
PairTree’s Verify system is the most robust scam detection system of any self-matching platform, allowing our members to make connections with confidence. We use comprehensive identity verification software to prevent adoption scammers — notifying our members within 24 hours of any suspicious behavior.
The 5% Fund – PairTree donates 5% of net profit from every subscription, every month to organizations that provide lifetime support for birth moms.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic and how are you adapting? Other than as co-founders, we’ve never been in the same room together — we’ve been really lucky in terms of not being adversely affected by the pandemic.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Buy a lot of erasers.
Founders: Nicole Kobilansky (CEO) and Tak Fung (CTO)
Headquarters: Though both founders are from London, Storey’s HQ is in San Francisco, and Tak is now based in Shanghai.
What does your company do? Storey is a one-click digital wardrobe and marketplace, that lets you manage your clothing with ease. We are on a mission to automatically build the world’s largest and most transparent second-hand designer fashion inventory, so everyone can shop each other’s closets and be more thoughtful and deliberate about what they purchase and wear. Fashion circularity is the ultimate goal!
What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Instead of only being focused on the moment someone decides to sell clothing, like other marketplaces, Storey automatically captures data about your wardrobe as you shop. As a result, we help you get the most value out of your clothing throughout its lifecycle — to help you shop smarter, utilise your wardrobe more, and track monetary value of items you may want to sell. The Storey community means that you can see what’s in other people’s wardrobes to get inspired and make offers on hard-to-find items before they are put on sale.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic and how are you adapting? Many people stuck at home have taken time to clear out, make more streamlined capsule wardrobes, and get more informed about fashion’s impact on sustainability. At the same time shopping has moved almost entirely online, making it easier to track your purchases with Storey. These changes will have a longer lasting impact and this inflection point underscores that it’s the right time for technology that makes it easier to manage wardrobes.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Focus on your vision, keep talking to users, and don’t give up!
Founder: Amira Rasool (CEO)
Headquarters: New York City
What does your company do? Online sales platform delivering Africa and the diaspora’s top luxury and emerging designer brands to global customers.
What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? Unlike our luxury e-commerce competitors that primarily sell the same European designers and styles each season, we are unlocking a grossly neglected market to the world for the first time. These designers are producing the most innovative styles hitting the runway today, and we’re giving you exclusive access to discover and shop these brands, and we’re doing it in style and with the same level of customer service and delivery speed as our competitors.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic and how are you adapting? Fortunately, the pandemic has not impacted Africa the way it has impacted the West. Of course the designers there have suffered losses and have had to shut down for weeks at a time, but their resilience and ability to still produce and deliver even in the midst of a pandemic empowered me to do the same. During this time I really focused on cutting costs and enhancing our online experience and customer service and it has paid off, we just had our best month yet.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Ask questions and be prepared to listen. The information my mentors and advisors have provided me on this journey has gotten me through so much.
Founders: Jae Lee (CEO), Soyoung Lee, Aiden Lee, Dave Chung and SJ Kim.
Headquarters: Twelve Labs was founded in 2021 and is headquartered in Seattle, Wash. with an Asia-Pacific office in Seoul, Korea.
What does your company do? Twelve Labs offers self-serve SaaS platform where content creators upload their video files to make them searchable without having to waste time on manually tagging and organizing complex video directory structures. Creators can also auto-generate rough cuts from their archive by uploading storyboards and having Twelve Lab’s proprietary AI retrieve the relevant scenes. We help content creators focus on the actual creation process.
What makes you different from the competition? What’s your secret sauce? We eliminate all the effort spent in manual tagging and searching for videos. Our proprietary video search AI is able to recognize features such as faces, movement, spoken words, and shot types to make each scene searchable using text-based queries. For example, a video editor could simply type in “Closeup of Brad Pitt eating a burger” and instantly find all the relevant scenes. This is possible because our AI makes connections between the features within each frame and between frames to understand context.
How has your business been affected by the pandemic and how are you adapting? Twelve Labs spoke with more than 200 customers from multiple industries during the Techstars program, and all of our customer interviews and meetings were done virtually on Zoom. Although we were worried at first, remote meetings were great! If it weren’t for virtual meetings and Techstars network, we probably wouldn’t have been able to meet so many amazing people around the globe.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give other entrepreneurs who are just starting out? Do not be afraid of being vulnerable to your team, mentors, and advisors. Reach out to as many relevant and good-hearted people as you can, share your problems, and LISTEN.