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Incubator Babies: Accelerating LGBTQ Startup Development through SF-based Growth Lab
The incubator concept made famous by HBO’s Silicon Valley now has a better organized LGBTQ cohort, thanks to law firm Nixon Peabody and StartOut, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization for LGBTQ entrepreneurs.
The two are collaborating on a diversity-oriented accelerator.
Based in Nixon Peabody’s San Francisco office space, the StartOut Growth Lab gives promising entrepreneurs the advantage of StartOut’s network of 15,000 members nationwide, one-on-one business and legal advice and the opportunity to learn from the other cohort members in a supportive, success-driven environment. The Lab also places the startups front and center for networking opportunities with and introductions to StartOut Community influencers who can help move these businesses forward.
The ongoing accelerator – with each cohort running for six months – is part of StartOut’s initiative to foster promising startups in the LGBTQ community. It offers invaluable community support, complimentary office space and national exposure with no strings attached. The first cohort will graduate at the end of this year and applications for the January-to-June 2018 cohort are now open.
Here are thumbnail portraits of five exciting incubator startups.
Vyrill.com helps consumer brands and retailers make sense of all the user-generated video content on social media and the web, and then leverage video intelligence for product marketing.
“Vyrill’s product is an artificial intelligence powered video analytics, video licensing and content marketing platform. Our higher mission is to help brands drive more product adoption and product activation with video marketing,” Bam says.
“Most of our team is gender equal, with lots of women.” Ajay Bam
“We’re training computers to watch up to 10,000 videos simultaneously. We repurpose that video on a product page and connect to that product on Amazon,” he adds. “We’re building production to scale. We want to be able to process a million videos an hour.”
Vyrill is seeking gender equality in the testosterone-heavy tech industry. “Most of our team is gender equal, with lots of women,” says Bam, who describes himself as “a scientist and serial entrepreneur.”
For an entrepreneur who understands the power of networking and outside input, Bam believes StartOut has offered a tremendous opportunity, providing almost unlimited opportunities to connect with mentors, investors and potential partners.
“Ten years ago, I was quiet and shy. Then I realized business is all about networking,” Bam says. “Since then I’ve given talks to about 50 groups. Now, I’ll carry my business card to my grave.”
Mixalot is patent-pending software that makes it easy to run real-time social events like speed dating and other singles events, as well as business networking events, job fairs and more. It matches people based on their answers to revealing questions.
Though originally designed for speed dating, it soon became clear that there are many other types of events where pairing people based on their personal preferences is incredibly useful, says Podolksy.
“Primarily, I’m focusing on the dating scene right now,” she says. “We have great partnerships in the lesbian market and the next thing we want to accomplish is moving into the gay men’s market.”
She believes the men’s market has grown weary of dating app culture and is ready for a more organic approach. “Nobody is running much gay men’s speed dating. We threw an event in LA and it was a massive success. People are looking to get off the apps and the feedback we got was that ‘We’re making more quality interactions than we would at the bar scene.”
“We’re definitely filling a niche in the community.”
Perrin Quarshie/Dwell City
Quarshie describes Dwell City as “Like a CarMax for property.”
It’s a real estate platform that makes real estate investment seamless by connecting investors directly with developers.
“DwellCity is a platform that connects real estate developers with investors,” he says. “It makes investing in real estate a simple, hands-off process by (1) partnering with developers to source qualified properties (2) handling all brokerage and property management, and (3) by guaranteeing multi-year income for every investment property we offer!”
Becoming part of the StartOut Incubator has provided much more than coworking space. “We have access to networking events, workshops on fundraising and assistance with branding, design and marketing,” says Quarshie. “The leaders of the program provide introductions to angel investors.”
Magdalena “Maggie” Rodriguez/GPSGAY
The biggest gay social network in Latin America, GPSGAY is a portal for LGBTQ information, events, travel and social meet-ups.
Relocating from South America, Rodriguez and GPSGAY bring an international flavor to the StartOut’s Incubator. “It was hard for us as Latin American lesbians to find funding. We’re actively looking for investors and funding to expand into the US from South America,” she says.
“The community is right here (in San Francisco) and StartOut is helping us with workshops on raising money,” she says. “It’s also very helpful that we have a resident entrepreneur (Peter Sisson/interviewed below). When we need an opinion, we can always go to him.”
The (youthful) elder statesman of the group, Sisson plays dual roles. He’s a StartOut Lab participant as Founder & CEO of AreaLive, and he’s also the lab’s Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR), serving as advisor to the Growth Lab companies and several other startups.
“Startout’s treasurer Robert Clauser reached out to me when they had an EIR spot open,” he says. “It was a happy coincidence for me that I was starting a company that needed an office.”
“AreaLive provides a digital layer on top of our world.” Peter Sisson
With a staff of five, AreaLive is a balance of experience, young energy, veteran entrepreneurs, engineers and Trevor Laehy, the startup’s young President, “a hyper-connector socially,” in Sisson’s words.
“AreaLive provides a digital layer on top of our world,” he says. “For example, I had a wonderful time on a recent trip to Beirut. Now I can go back to Beirut and pull up memories from a specific time at a specific place.”
Sisson adds, “We really want to make it a platform for artists and educators-for example, to place educational content that can be targeted for class trips or for artists to create digital installations like a virtual ‘Cirque de Soleil’ above Central Park.”
What The EIR is Teaching Entrepreneurs
As entrepreneur in residence, and veteran of several successful startups, Sisson helps the startups learn to cultivate skeptical investors, incorporate their companies, handle trademark searches and develop a more sophisticated understanding of marketing and standard business practices.
“When they start, their company isn’t necessarily ready for primetime,” he says. “The Growth Lab is an accelerator and provides what you need to reach a significant milestone during the 6-month term.”
Drawing on lessons learned over three decades of entrepreneurial experience, Sisson urges young business people to “evaluate potential investors the way they would a potential spouse. Don’t go to dinner with the investor; schedule a date to make dinner with them, just the two of you. You’ll come out of the experience with a much better understanding of how you’ll work together.”
Sisson also counsels “lone wolf” types to think twice before trying to do everything themselves. “I founded all my prior companies with just myself. This is the first time I’m cofounding with two other people. Already I’m like ‘What the hell was I thinking these other times?'” Cofounders provide emotional uplift when things are going poorly and provide “a reality check” as needed.
Another good reason: “Some venture capitalists won’t invest in sole founders because they don’t believe the sole founder will have the necessary reality checks.”
“So find a cofounder.”