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Five Silicon Prairie startups at SXSW and how they fared

March 23, 2011 by

Hollrback co-founder Gabe Kangas (center) speaks with other South by Southwest Interactive attendees. Although he doesn’t have an iPhone in-hand, Kangas was showing off his product throughout SXSW. Photo by Janae Weinbrenner of Imijfoto.

Leading up to South by Southwest Interactive I wrote a post about five startups from the Silicon Prairie that I thought had a chance to break out at the five-day conference – “Five Silicon Prairie startups that could break out at SXSW.” With this post, I wasn’t predicting any of the startups to have “the breakout app” of SXSW 2011, but I was suggesting each of the startups had a chance to gain some traction, whether through an acquisition of users or general interest from press or investors.

Concerning users, Zaarly (Kansas City) was the clear winner of the bunch. Zaarly’s co-founder, Bo Fishback, said that 24 hours after their launch they were in the “low thousands” of users. Of course, having TechCrunch cover your SXSW launch tends to cause a quick boost in users.

In terms of general interest as a result of one-on-one networking, the one-man SXSW team of Dwolla, co-founder of Ben Milne, succeeded in speaking with not only many individuals but also the right individuals. “SXSW for Dwolla wasn’t about making a huge splash. It was really about meeting great people and getting to know one another,” Milne wrote on his blog. “In a few cases we got to know a few people really well, really quickly.”

Here are takeaways from each of the startups I selected before SXSW:

1. Uppward – Des Moines, Iowa

“I’ve been telling everybody I meet here, which is hundreds of people, about Uppward and showing them the app,” Uppward co-founder Nathan Wright told me on the last day of SXSW. In addition to showing and telling, Uppward gave away a set of digital wings to those who checked in using the mobile app when landing in Austin, and Uppward handed out free T-shirts. They have yet to share numbers in terms of check-ins, users acquired or miles traveled to and from SXSW, but if they do we’ll make sure to post. They did, however, pick up a nice mention on MobileMarketer.com: “Offline serendipity can still happen at airports, but Uppward or Planely will give it a spin for you.”

2. Dwolla – Des Moines, Iowa

“The companies we actually got to have conversations with never heard of Dwolla before, understood it right away, and we are working on next steps already,” Dwolla co-founder Ben Milne told me in an email interview. When asked what was the most beneficial part of SXSW he expanded on the above. “Intros,” Milne said. “I met people I simply never would have met otherwise, and they weren’t just anyone. Some of the cards I got, I’m still laughing about. Getting access to the deal flow happening in New York/Bay Area, if only for a couple days, was all I needed to learn what Dwolla’s next steps are on that front.” Like I mentioned in the preview post, SXSW for Dwolla was going to be about one-to-one networking, not user acqusition, because Dwolla’s app takes a few days to set up with a bank account. Dwolla succeeded at the one-to-ones.

3. Hollrback – Omaha, Neb.

“This was kind of our public beta,” co-founder Gabe Kangas told me on the last day of SXSW. “It was an appropriate time to partner with the Silicon Prairie News party and really see in a contained ecosystem what people do with it. As much as we never expected to be the breakout hit, we did want to see what people would say. You’re really going to get one of the two, you’re going to get ‘Wow, that’s really useful, I can’t wait to use this with people,’ or ‘I don’t get it, why did you make it?’ Luckily, we had the ‘Wow, that’s really useful, I can’t wait to use it with people.’ So that’s an awesome step.” Kangas has yet to share the number of connections made using Hollrback or the number of users acquired, but if he does we’ll make sure to post them.

4. Zaarly – Kansas City, Kan.

“People say ‘we launched,’ at South by Southwest,” co-founder Eric Koester told me on the last day of SXSW. “It’s never been our goal to launch at South by Southwest, but what it was was to come up with a product that we could get in peoples’ hands to see if what we thought was an interesting model. The number of people that signed up and the number of people that used it, the dollars of the transactions just that first 24-hour window kind of told all of us, like, ‘Yep, there’s something here.’” (See our other posts about Zaarly’s SXSW success: siliconprairienews.com/tags/zaarly.)

5. RockDex – Omaha, Neb.

Asked by email if RockDex made traction at both the interactive and music portions of SXSW, co-founder Jimmy Winter replied: “Yes we did, but not in the traditional way a consumer-facing app does at SXSW. We gave lots of one-to-one demos to the right people, and they were impressed with the new stuff we’re working on.” He also said that the most beneficial part of SXSW was strengthening and reconnecting with existing relationships as well as getting a pulse for changes in the music industry and hashing out new ideas based on those changes. When asked if he’ll return, he said: “Absolutely, but I think I’ll skip interactive. Too many nerds, and you know how I feel about nerds. (Much like Ogre in “Revenge of the Nerds”) Plus, nine days is just too many.”

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