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What it all comes down to, though, is a two-minute elevator pitch to the Accelerator judging panel: industry experts, venture capitalists, Angel investors, heads of other tech companies. Oh, and a live audience. There are 48 finalists in SXSW Accelerator, now in its fifth year, separated into six different technological fields: news, social, mobile, innovative web, entertainment/gaming, and health. It's 120 seconds without a net and with everything on the line. At the end of the first day the 48 are trimmed to 18. Those lucky enough to advance are rewarded with a five-minute pitch the following day and the pageant rolls on. Of the 48, 12 are from the Bay Area.
Competition is fierce. Ben Horowitz, founding partner of the Silicon Valley investment firm Andreessen Horowitz, has invested in the likes of Twitter, Foursquare, Skype, and Airbnb. At the Digital-Life-Design Conference in Munich in late January, Horowitz broke down how his firm chooses its investments. In a year, Andreessen Horowitz looks at 2,400 qualified, screened investment opportunities. When it's all said and done, Andreessen Horowitz will invest in about one percent of these — a whopping 24 companies. Getting that seed money for start-ups can further concepts, drive dreams and ultimately, keep the concept afloat. Those two minutes on stage at Accelerator get pretty weighty.
When asked how long Sechrist and Sullivan have been crafting some of Koozoo's most important minutes as a company, the CEO is quick to offer a joke. "We're not going to be partying much," Sechrist says. The past month has been prep work for them. "We're going to be practicing this presentation for the next couple of days." Taking time off for the company party on Saturday, of course.
Before embarking on the start-up game, Sechrist was a vice president for 10 years at Salesforce.com, whose use of cloud computing disrupted an industry. But now, many businesses couldn't survive without it. Sechrist thinks Koozoo could be just as disruptive. "It's fair to say we have a really big idea," he says. "[Koozoo] make it possible for all of us to see what's going on in our neighborhoods, across the cities or across the planet in a way mankind has never experienced before."
The team of eight at Koozoo has the diversity of backgrounds not uncommon in the mercenary world of tech. Ian Thomson, head of business development, is a veteran of two wars and a former lead associate at Booz Allen Hamilton. Oggy Shami, chief technology officer, started his career doing low-level telecom engineering. The varying backgrounds are all guided by the shared vision. "What we're doing is interesting and controversial, frankly, [by] opening these windows into new worlds and different places," Shami says.
Koozoo is doing something right. It has already raised a little over $2.5 million in funding, anchored by NEA, a big time VC, and Tugboat Ventures, a boutique investment firm which only takes on a few projects a year. The execs are humbled their company is a finalist at SXSW Accelerator, but they aren't looking to finish second. To jump-start the company's presence at the conference, they're deploying street teams — friends in Koozoo gear running around the city, setting up tripods and cameras, live-feeding the conference to itself.
It's buzzing inside the Austin Convention Center on Interactive's first day. People are heading in every direction. The registration line is long but moves swiftly. It becomes quickly apparent that electric outlets and tables are the most valuable real estate. Those not fighting for table-space sit Indian style on the floor. Littered around them are laptops, tablets, charging phones, messenger bags, empty water bottles, food wrappers, conference schedules, and anything else needed to keep the crowd satiated and plugged in.
At 11 a.m. the beverage selection begins to vary. Coffees are slowly replaced by Shiner Bocks and Jack-and-Cokes. People hug in passing, the common greeting being an assurance of mutual following on Twitter. Impromptu meetings happen over a grilled cheese sandwich. Everybody who should be here is. Even with the number of festival volunteers the conference has on hand, it still looks short-staffed. Whispers between Interactive veterans note just how much bigger it is this year.
"I can't even find a place to plug in, man," says one.
It's the first day of the conference and the programming is light, considering. The line for Bre Pettis' opening remarks in Exhibit Hall 5 is long, and tweets with the hashtag "#3dprinting" begin to pop up.
Groggy and in a hoodie, Anthemos Georgiades, CEO of Zumper, saunters down Congress Avenue as the day's drizzle begins to dissipate. He's tired. His flight out of SFO was delayed two hours. He managed to sneak in a bit of shut-eye, but not enough. A not-atypical start to someone's first time at Interactive. "Just checked into my AirBnb," he says. "It was super sketch." In a charming apartment right next to the freeway with a matching "sketchy" diner, Georgiades and three other principals in his company will be sharing the one-bedroom place throughout the conference. They booked six months in advance.
He puts a bit of cream in his coffee in an effort to gather himself. His hair is uncombed and if it wasn't for this interview he would no doubt be lying down somewhere. When asked how much work he's put into his SXSW Accelerator pitch the past few weeks he grins, saying, "The honest answer, nothing so far." It's not that he's negligent. There just aren't enough hours in the day.