Dorm Room Fund-Backed Skillbridge Is A Freelance Marketplace For High-End Professional Services

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A startup called Skillbridge is trying to create a new kind of marketplace for freelance work – not for the programming and writing jobs that you’d find on a site like Elance, but for strategy, finance, marketing and other professional services.

The company is announcing today that it has been backed by First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund, the firm’s student-run investment arm that offers mentorship and $20,000 in funding to each company. (Skillbridge is also part of Highland Capital’s summer incubator and the MassChallenge accelerator..)

Co-founders Brett Lewis and Raj Jeyakumar have worked as consultants themselves – Lewis, for example, spent nearly three years at Bain & Company. They’re both recent graduates of Wharton Business School, and they said that when they were students, they wanted to use their experience for freelance work. However, they discovered that it was incredibly difficult to actually find interested companies, so they created Skillbridge to match qualified workers with businesses looking for professional services.

Lewis outlined the vision in a post for the Wharton Entrepreneurship Blog, where he said that the United States’ freelancers have grown from 6 percent of the total workforce in 1990 to 20 to 30 percent now: “Elance, an early talent marketplace, has focused on low-end providers of technology and creative talent. Yet the biggest growth trends are in areas of financial planning and analysis, accounting and legal strategy, where only behemoth white-shoe firms have dominated until now.”

Lewis and Jeyakumar said their core talent base consists of stay-at-home parents and graduate students who have either an MBA or at least three years of experience at a finance or consulting firm. These are people who either aren’t in a position to work full-time or aren’t interested, but they are willing to take on smaller projects or part-time work with flexible hours. And by hiring these workers, companies don’t have to pay for the overhead of a traditional consulting firm.

Not that Skillbridge is trying to replace the big firms. Jeyakumar compared them to Ferraris: “There will always be a need for Ferraris, but there are people for whom a BMW is just fine.” If the BMW doesn’t seem like much of a compromise, that’s Jeyakumar’s point. With Skillbridge, companies that probably couldn’t afford to hire a traditional consulting firm can still pay for high-quality work. He added that there’s already been interest in companies ranging from “pre-revenue startups that need help with market sizing for their pitch decks” to large e-commerce organizations.

The company supposedly delivers a “highly curated” experience, where it provides customers with templates for work requests, identifies two or three of the best matches that they can choose from, and helps to create milestones for the project to ensure that things stay on track. It’s currently in beta testing, with plans for a full launch later this year.

Pingboard Secures $1.25M In Seed Funding To Modernize Office Management


Office management isn’t exactly an area most startups tackle, but Pingboard, which is launching in beta today, aims to become “an office manager’s best friend.” The company argues that it’s the first really modern service that was built for office managers. Pingboard also announced today that it has raised a $1.25 million funding round.

While enterprises have often developed their own solutions, Pingboard says, it wants to become the go-to office management solution for small and medium businesses and startups. The company says these still tend to rely on seldom-updated spreadsheets (we’ve got a few of those at TechCrunch as well) and manual processes. Pingboard, on the other hand, stores all employee information in a single place.

The service also offers an API, so companies that need to connect their directory to more complex applications and have the resources to do so can expand the service to meet their own needs.

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Indeed, while the company is starting out with this directory service, it does see itself as a platform. It’s starting out small because it believes that having the core directory data allows it to then power more interesting use cases. The team says this could be anything from powering company lunch orders to getting into human capital management. Over the long run, that’s where the Pingboard team believes the real value of its service will be.

“We are launching focused on the employee directory first because virtually everything that needs to be automated in an office centers around employee information,” the company told me.

As part of the core service, Pingboard includes some basic messaging functionality (using email or text messages) so employees can easily notify each other or receive notifications from their office manager when they have a visitor or a package has arrived for them, for example. All of the data in the system can be imported from spreadsheets and auto-synced with Google Apps, social profiles and HR systems. The service also allows users to sign in with the Google Apps accounts.

The service was founded by Bill Boebel (CEO) and Rob Eanes (CTO). Boebel is an Austin-based angel investor and part of Capital Factory, together with OtherInbox founder Joshua Baer and WP Engine founder Jason Cohen. He previously built, which was acquired by Rackspace in 2007. He stayed with Rackspace until 2011. The project was incubated at Capital Thought, an incubator founded by Boebel, Baer and Cohen.

The lead investor in Pingboard’s funding round is Silverton Partners. Baer and Cohen also invested in this round, as did founder Pat Matthews, Rackspace funder Pat Condon, founder Rony Kahan and RightScale founder Jonathan Siegel.

SETT Is A New Blogging Platform That Has Community At Its Heart

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Although blogging is nearly as old as the Internet, it still feels like something is amiss.

From Dustin Curtis’ Svbtle to Ev Williams’ Medium, there is a feeling afoot that existing platforms for blogs and long-form content still need a lot of improvement. Five years ago, early platforms like Blogger gave way to micro-blogging and networks like Tumblr.

Now we’re seeing the pendulum swing back with platforms for longer-form stories and media.

SETT is a blogging platform that’s looking to emphasize community, so that new users can find a right audience immediately and long-time bloggers can interact with higher-quality commenters and contributors.

Aside from features that are now standard these days like a news feed of content and WYSIWYG editing, SETT has a top bar where it’s easy for bloggers to track comments or even private messages from others in the SETT community.

From the start, when new users sign up for an account, SETT refers readers to your site. It has a word-matching system internally that compares posts to one another. If a reader happens to like a post about one topic, the platform will recommend other similar ones to them.

The site is the brainchild of a long-time blogger named Tynan (who declines to use his last name online ever) and Todd Iceton, a developer who worked for Nutshell Mail, the company that was acquired by e-mail marketing giant Constant Contact.

Tynan has been actively blogging for six years but found that it was a bit of a slog for any new user.

“For people who are just starting out, their biggest hurdle is just getting that community first,” he said.

There are other features meant to enhance a reader’s relationship with a blogger like a simple, one-click e-mail subscription system. Subscribers get notified of new posts and new comments on posts they’ve decided to individually follow.

Readers can also start their own independent discussions about posts in a community section, where they can see who is online and which posts are being actively read by a lot of users.

The site has had about 100 or so active blogs in beta form, but they’ve opened it up since. Some of the more popular voices on the platform are entrepreneurs like Dick Talens, who co-founded 500 Startups-backed Fitocracy and blogs about how to stay in shape.

The bootstrapped startup earns revenue through premium or subscription accounts that range from $12 to $99 per month in cost. At the higher-end of the range, users get more image-hosting space, subscribers and customer support.

As for the competition, Tynan and his co-founder Todd say that, while they have respect for the other platforms, Svbtle doesn’t encourage commenting. In any case, they agree that something needs to be done to update outdated blogging formats – even if starting a web-first blogging platform in 2013 seems a bit anachronistic.

“Both are expressing frustration with the standard format. The WordPress model hasn’t changed in 10 to 12 years,” Tynan said. “Their model is kind of broken.”

Steven Sinofsky Joins Enterprise Cloud Storage Firm Box As An Official Adviser


Today enterprise cloud file and document storage company Box announced that it has brought former Microsoft executive Steven Sinofsky on board as an adviser. The move matters, as Sinofsky has deep experience with both Microsoft Office and SkyDrive, two products that Box competes with.

Box, which today remains storage focused, is widely expected to introduce document editing tools on top of its cloud file system. This would put it in direct contention with Office, a key profit source for Microsoft, and Google’s Docs efforts.

Sinofsky departed Microsoft following the completion and shipment of Windows 8, and the Surface tablet hybrid. It remains slightly unclear to this day, but his quick trip out the door was not exactly voluntary. According to Todd Bishop of GeekWire, the pairing of Box and Sinofsky started with a Facebook message, and was consummated over bowls of pho.

Box, for now, is downplaying the Box-Microsoft war narrative. Box CEO Aaron Levie, in a statement provided to GeekWire, stated that his company would “love to get closer to Microsoft,” instead of growing its competitive surface area with the rival firm.

That’s bunk, but expected bunk. TechCrunch has reached out to Sinofsky for clarification of what his specific duties will be with Box and what areas of the company he intends to focus on.

Sinofksy was a considered candidate by external parties for the CEO role at Microsoft following Ballmer’s departure. It’s safe to say that anyone who had been pulling for a Sinofsky return can lay that dream to rest. Box is increasingly maturing into the company that could mount the first credible enterprise challenge to Office’s decades’ old hegemony.

Top Image Credit: BUILDWindows

Timehop, The Place To Reminisce Online, Raises $3M Led By Spark Capital


While present-focused social networks like Facebook and Instagram make plenty of room for the narcissists in us, there’s not really a dedicated and focused place to reflect on the past.

Timehop, which started out as 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo, has evolved into a mobile-first startup that surfaces old memories from your social networks. The app will pull up status updates from a year or more ago, reminding you of friends you’ve lost contact with or thoughts you had a year ago on this day.

The New York-based startup says it just rounded up another $3 million in funding led by existing investor Spark Capital. O’Reilly Alphatech Ventures, which had also previously backed the company, participated as well. Andrew Parker, a principal at Spark, joins Timehop’s board.

Timehop’s CEO Jonathan Wegener says that the company will use the round to build out the team beyond seven people and focus on mobile apps. Timehop just shut down its e-mail service last week.

“The big, long-term vision is to be a place to reminisce online,” Wegener said. “Basically in this world, all social networks are real-time. They’re about what’s happening right now, but there’s no place online to discuss the past.”

While the Series A crunch has made fundraising tough for all kinds of consumer-facing mobile and web products, Wegener said it was Timehop’s stickiness that made a compelling case. He said one-third of Timehop’s user base opens the product on any given day, which is a very respectable retention figure.

“Users who try to the product fall in love with it. This helped us make the argument that people are working Timehop into their everday lives,” Wegener said. “At first, people don’t understand why they would want this. But they get really addicted to it. They see it as a mirror of their own life, and a reflection of their past self.”

He said he’s used the app to remember which friends he’s lost touch with over the years. The app will pull up old group photos, reminding Wegener to reach out and reconnect.

Timehop’s earlier investors also included angels like Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley, Naveen Selvadurai and Alex Rainert, Groupme’s Steve Martocci and Jared Hecht, Rick Webb and Kevin Slavin.

How YC’s Curebit Has A “Sixth Sense” Into E-Commerce Startups That Are About To Blow Up

Bonobos. Dodocase. Warby Parker. A generation of e-commerce companies is growing up using a vertically-integrated strategy where take more ownership of the design, production, marketing and branding of their products. But how do you know very early on if you have a hit?

With a purely web-based or mobile product, startups can watch how well they retain users after a week or a month. With e-commerce companies, repeat purchases is an obvious metric, but there are also ways to track the virality of an e-commerce product.

A YC-backed startup called Curebit has built a business around tracking word-of-mouth referrals for companies like Bonobos. Based on that, the company says it’s able to not only drive sales but predict hits. What they do is create referral campaigns for e-commerce companies — like those landing pages that says you’ll get 25 percent off or $25 off your next purchase if you send a friend by e-mail, Facebook or Twitter.

Curebit will optimize the landing pages, copy, art direction and then track how many people convert to making a purchase after they’ve seen the page. On that strategy, the 12-person startup has grown to about 3,000 clients and a breakeven runrate. Their customers include Bonobos, and Jawbone.

“We still have a lot of cash in the bank,” said the company’s CEO Allan Grant.

Since creating landing pages for referrals isn’t technically that difficult, the base version of Curebit is free. The startup makes money off custom services like testing hundreds of variants for the highest-performing campaigns. For that, they’ll charge $10,000 for the first $100,000 in extra sales generated by the campaigns, then they’ll take a 10 percent after that.

“Just having a basic feature set is not enough,” Grant said. “We engineer virality the way that social gaming companies measure and optimize their K-factor, viral loops and every step of the funnel.”

Here what’s the funnel might look like for a client –

Curebit drove 25 percent of the Bonobos’ new customers last year, which helped double the New York-based company’s customer base in 2012. Over time, Bonobos had to change its referral strategy. It was centered on Facebook sharing at first, but Curebit found that e-mail converted better for the company. That’s unusual since Facebook is a stronger channel in 93 percent of Curebit’s cases, Grant says.

He says the average lift in sales from referrals on e-mail, Facebook or Twitter is about 7 percent. But after watching lots of companies on the platform, the rate you really want to have is around 15 percent.

“If somebody’s lift is over 15 percent, then that company is going to explode really fast,” he said.

One example is Diamond Candles, which sells giant votive candles that have a ring hidden inside of them. Those rings are worth anywhere from $10 to $5,000 and the candles, for whatever reason, seem to be a great gift for women of all age groups.

“From their early days, we could tell they had some magic element,” he said. “We can’t always tell why somebody is going to explode though.”

He gave some common sense advice though: companies that break out either have a) a “fantastic product” or b) a “fantastic experience.” For example, Zappos (which is not a Curebit client) sells shoes that other retailers have as well, but they focus on giving customers a great experience. Bonobos, on the other hand, has a great product in pants that fit well.

Curebit isn’t looking at raising a Series A round at the moment. “We want to continue to grow a profitable business and if we were to do one, we wouldn’t start looking for another three to six months.”

The company last announced funding in January of last year with a $1.2 million round involving 25 investors including 500 Startups, Karl Jacob, Auren Hoffman, Dharmesh Shah, Gordon Tucker, Alex Lloyd of Accelerator Ventures and others. They’ll be focusing on growing the customer base and on new areas like mobile referrals in the next few months.

No Fitbit Or Fuelband Necessary. The Moves App Tracks Your Steps From The iPhone.

For those of you who don’t have the disposable income or the obsessiveness of a Quantified Self devotee to try every single smart pedometer out there like the Fuelband, Fitbit or Jawbone Up, there’s an app for you.

Called Moves, the free app just landed in the iOS store today. Using just your iPhone, it can track the number of steps you’ve taken per day, and where and when you’ve driven or cycled. I’ve used it for the past few weeks, and for me, it’s probably going to be a keeper. (I say this rarely, too.)

I can scroll back day-by-day or week-by-week to see where I’ve been or how far I’ve walked. It runs in the background and hasn’t eroded my battery life.

One time, even though I was off cell phone reception for nearly a whole day down in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, it managed to pick up about 6 hours worth of strenuous hiking. There have been one or two times in the past two weeks where it missed several hours of activity. (I’m not sure why.) But other than that, I’d say it’s been spot on. It doesn’t pick up other activities. So even though I dance and do martial arts many times a week, it won’t pick that up.

Moves is from a Finnish startup called ProtoGeo Oy, which is co-founded by gaming veteran Sampo Karjalainen, who co-founded Habbo Hotel-maker Sulake. He’s a designer by trade that partnered with mathematician and scientist Juho Pennanen to create the company. Another co-founder is Nokia veteran Jukka Partanen.

Karjalainen says he’s aiming for a much wider demographic than the one that goes out and spends about $150 on the Nike FuelBand.

“The fact that you have to charge and carry one more device is quite a big behavior change for people in the first place,” he said. “We think this very casual, mainstream approach to physical activity tracking could work better.”

He added, “There are a lot of people who don’t get enough exercise. It’s not that they don’t want to live in a more healthy way,” he said. “Many of them have grown up in a way where they don’t feel like exercise is part of their identity.”

He said the technical challenge of using the accelerometer to recognize the activity automatically without draining the batteries was quite hard. (I personally didn’t see any noticeable change in my battery life while using it for a couple weeks.)

With the design, Karjalainen said he wanted the app to resemble a daily journal. It’s elegant looking, with spheres at the top representing how much you’ve walked, cycled or driven. Then there’s a vertical timeline below that shows all the stops you’ve made.

“If you just make something visible, people react to it and become mindful of it,” he said. Later on, he expects to add other motivational loops on top of the timeline and tools for setting daily or weekly goals.

The company has raised $1.6 million from ProFounders and early-stage Finnish venture firm Lifeline Ventures. He didn’t add specifics on how they’ll eventually monetize the app. It’s a proof of concept first, and if people are interested in it, they’ll figure out how to bring an app with similar capabilities to the myriad kinds of Android phones.