Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Welcome to Colorado, Where the Start-Ups — And the Snow — Are Plentiful

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, but for some reason never had the occasion or opportunity to visit Colorado. I also never learned to ski. The second fact is ridiculous, because for many years I lived a short drive from one of the great skiing spots in Oregon. I simply never took up the sport. I guess I saw a few too many kids in school come back from ski outings wearing casts on legs and arms, and generally preferred my bones unbroken.

Consider, then, the irony that I find myself at the Venture Capital in the Rockies conference at the Beaver Creek ski lodge near Avon, Colo., something of a skiing mecca, where pretty much everyone lives to glide down the mountain, and many people seem to take jobs that happen to include lift tickets as a fringe benefit. The conference is really only a day long, but is scheduled for two. Today is the “ski day,” where everyone disappears to take to the slopes. Except me.

I’m here because I was invited to speak on a media panel with reporters from a few other organizations. We talked for an hour or more about the changing nature of journalism and all that that entails, where before a crowd of start-up entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, we wondered aloud about such things as whether venture capitalist and Zynga director Brad Feld counts as a journalist because he also writes a widely read blog. Answer: No. The start-ups, most seeking some kind of investment, gave short presentations on their companies.

Here are a few of the companies that caught my attention, either because I saw their presentations or because I met their executives:

Flixmaster: How many times have you stopped watching a Web video that was going on too long, or because you couldn’t easily navigate to a particular highlight you wanted to see? What if Web videos were as readily navigation-friendly as a Web page? Flixmaster has a software-as-service video technology that makes Web video a lot more interactive than it generally is today. If you hope to engage potential customers with video, it helps to increase viewing time. And adding interactivity to a video nudges viewers to stick with a video longer. Many stop watching after less than a minute, CEO Erika Trautman said in her presentation. The videos are in HTML5, which means they’re already iPad- and Android tablet- and smartphone-friendly. You can get an idea of the result from this holiday-themed video on the company’s blog.

Mocavo: In the Web genealogy business there is as yet really no serious competition to the dominant player, Mocavo aims to bring it by challenging Ancestry’s walled-garden approach. In six months, it claims to have added six billion genealogical names to its index. Compare that to the nine billion records that Ancestry amassed over 15 years. Mocavo books $60 per new subscriber versus $20 per month for Ancestry. It aims to make people’s genealogical information a lot more easy to share on social media sites, and to publish.

Dizzion: This enterprise-focused start-up aims to help CIOs tackle the big trend you constantly hear about these days, the consumerization of IT: That’s where employees bring their personal devices to work and expect to have them supported. Its product is a “virtual desktop,” or desktop as a service, that provides an operating system, software, files and other stuff you need to get through the workday, all from the data center running as a managed service. Users can access it all from a desktop machine or a tablet or smartphone.

CMDirect: This company got my attention mainly because it was so unlike all of the others in attendance. It’s basically an electronic trading platform that specializes in commodities like sugar, which at the moment is the only commodity that is currently traded on it, but plans are in the works to expand into coffee and soybeans. It’s not about trading futures, but in the actual commodities, and includes a lot of tools for managing risk. The CEO, Julie Lerner, is a veteran commodity trader with Cargill, and has a lot of specialized knowledge in how that world works. The company has a bunch of patents pending around its processes and tools.

Sestus: This is a security and authentication company that caught my attention in part because during its presentation, CEO Taun E. Willis said that the firm is taking business away from RSA, the security unit of IT giant EMC. In a world where passwords are just not good enough at keeping intruders out, you need to authenticate using two factors, a password and something else. RSA hardware tokens are popular and widely used, as are the “soft” tokens that simulate the hardware tokens in software running on smartphones. Instead, Sestus offers virtual tokens that are less costly to deploy and to support than hardware and software tokens. It’s a small outfit, but punches above its weight, sporting 260,000 U.S. consumers who use its virtual tokens to access online accounts. One big customer is the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where Willis said Sestus supplanted RSA.

NextGreatPlace and Inspirato: If there was a rivalry to be found among any of the presenting companies, it was between these two. NextGreatPlace is a play on the vacation club theme. Members join for an annual fee, said to be in the sub-$1,000 range, for access to a network of vacation homes. It combines an online and offline travel planning process that’s been described as “Zappos for travel.” Inspirato, on the other hand, aims to do something similar, but with an emphasis on luxury and higher-net-worth travelers. I sat next to its CEO, Brent Handler, at dinner Tuesday night, and he told me that its members pay a one-time fee of $15,000 and an annual membership fee of $2,500 for access to a network of high-end vacation homes in your typical luxury destinations like Colorado, Hawaii and the Caribbean.

So those are but a few of the companies that presented here. The snow has been falling all day, and everyone around me is going on about how it’s a perfect day for skiing. So I’m off to go take my first downhill skiing lesson ever. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

Update: I originally said that AOL founder Steve Case was an investor in NextGreatPlace. I got mixed up. It turns out that he had backed NextGreatPlace founder in founder Tom Filippini’s prior company, Exclusive Resorts. Sorry about that.

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