CNNMoney Tech set up shop in the CNN Grill beer garden at SXSW and held an open pitch session. Dozens of very cool startups stopped by. Here’s Part 1 of the rundown on our favorites.
Startup: Tabbed Out
The details: Based in Austin, 25 people, launched 2010
Their story: Running a tab at a bar is easy; closing it out at the end of the night is the tricky part — especially if you’re at a mobbed event where everyone wants the check at once, or if you’re in the “forgetful” stage of your evening recreations. Tabbed Out’s iPhone and Android apps link directly to merchants’ point-of-sale systems. You can open your tab on your phone and — here’s the best part — close it out when you’re ready. Including remotely. At the end of the gig, hop in a cab and pay your bar bill on the way home.
There’s lots of competing mobile payments systems; Tabbed Out’s secret sauce is that they’ve struck integration deals with POS system makers and now cover 80% of the market. For merchants, it’s a turnkey deployment.
The next goal: “We have to get to thousands of merchants. The key thing we get from consumers is ‘I like it, but it’s not in many places,’” says CEO and co-founder Rick Orr. Tabbed Out is now in 450 venues across 34 states. Its goal for 2012 is to scale and become ubiquitous.
Startup: StarMaker Interactive
The details: Based in San Francisco, 15 people
Their story: StarMaker’s iPhone karaoke app has more than 2 million active users. The app is free; songs go for 25 cents to 95 cents each. The platform really took off when the company added a game layer with scoring and prizes, product manager Reed Kavner says.
Their biggest surprise: “Users are much more comfortable sharing recordings with strangers than they are with friends,” Kavner says. StarMaker’s “share your recording on Facebook” feature gets middling use. When the company launched its own community boards, sharing took off.
The details: Based in San Francisco, 3 people
Their story: Founder Courtney Powell is a serial entrepreneur who had a rotten experience with Time Warner Cable. “They charged me for a modem that I never had and auto-drafted $900 out of my account,” she says. “It took me three months to get it back.” From that came PublikDemand, a complaints platform that aims to unite irked customers to collectively demand resolution to shared problems.
The fledgling site has one proof-of-concept demand featured at the moment, a request that AT&T stop throttling its “unlimited” data plans. Powell plans to expand significantly over the coming months, focusing exclusively on large, “Fortune 1000”-sized companies.
"Long term, we’ll be looking at things like integrations with Salesforce.com," she says. "We view it as a retention tool. If a company chooses not to change a policy, we’ll help users move that set of business to their competitors."
What’s next: Seed fund/incubator 500 Startups just took on PublikDemand.com, which is in the process of moving from Austin to San Francisco.
Startup: Nicely Noted
The details: A just-launched solo venture based in Austin
Their story: It’s Netflix for stationary. For $18 a month, Nicely Noted will send subscribers 3 letterpress cards, stamped and ready to mail. Founder Perry Nelson, who scouts designers at stationary shows, says she likes the concept of a Web venture that helps reconnect people to the art of handwritten letters.
Sneak peek: Nicely Noted is currently in a limited trial stage, but CNNMoney readers can sign up with the invitation code “envelope.”
The details: Based inKansas City, 10 people, went beta in October, full launch later this month
Their story: LiveOn.com aims to be a virtual locker for photos, stories, videos and other digital memorabilia.
"My grandmother passed away and I went to the estate auction. I realized at the end that the things I most treasured were all these old photos and letters her husband had written during the war. I thought, if I passed away, what is there for my son to access?" says founder and CEO Jonathan Whistman.
Fun fact: Google’s ultra-high-broadband project, which launches in Kansas City later this year, is sparking an entrepreneurial renaissance in the area, Whistman says. “It’s started the community thinking about what can you do when there’s no limits on bandwidth.”
The details: Based in Mountain View, Calif.; 4 people
Their story: Baydin’s Boomerang e-mail management app helps you cut through your inbox deluge by scheduling messages. If you want to save an important note to deal with later, you can “boomerang” it: pick a time and it will vanish from your inbox until you’ve scheduled it to reappear. You can also set follow-up reminders to alert you at the times you choose. The software works with Gmail and Microsoft Outlook.
Their pivot: Baydin has been around since 2009, on a journey CEO Alex Moore describes this way: “Lost the founder, got new founders, changed the product …”
The latest iteration seems to be sticking. Boomerang just crossed the 1 million downloads mark and helped Baydin draw a round of seed funding. “I drove Dave McClure to his auto mechanic and pitched him on the way,” Moore says. “He was our first investor.” -Stacy