1871 publicly salutes 26 companies as new era firmly begins
For 27-year-old Jeremy Smith, cofounder of SpotHero and product of the 1871 coworking center, the turnaround moment for his young company came when fellow Niles North alumni realized he was behind the parking spot-finding app and emailed him to praise it.
But he said he didn't feel like his company had grown up until its members moved out of 1871, hired more employees and struck out on their own last spring.
"It forced us to define 'Who are we?'" Smith said. "It was like moving out of mom and dad's house."
At 1871, officials point to former tenants like Smith and increasingly assert that the startup for startups proves its worth only when graduates move on. They put SpotHero on stage early Tuesday with 25 other companies that had outgrown the tech incubator. At an event featuring entrepreneurs and elected officials, Chicago's most-recognized hub for the digital entrepreneur ethos pivoted from its signature startup energy to a message about showing results – honoring the companies that have moved on.
"Graduates, we’re really proud of you, creating employment, growth opportunities, jobs for everyday people," said Illinois Gov.
Pat Quinn. "But also, when you continue to grow your company, please remember there are other people starting their companies. It's important on this that we acknowledge that we have more work to do."
Listed alphabetically from AdYapper to Whittl, the alumni startups offer creative solutions and creative spellings and boast products and services that include real-time mobile ad analytics, a purse that recharges smartphones – and a combined $10 million in revenue, $32 million in outside investment, and 325 jobs.
"It's fantastic," said outgoing interim CEO of 1871 Jim O'Connor, a private equity investor and a founder of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center that established 1871. "No one on the founding team would have envisioned this level of success, 18 months into it. It's a product of the community and the Chicago-ness of this entity. It's the mentorship that people give for free."
The announcement took place during a handoff in executive leadership at the high-profile entrepreneurial hub, and also at a time when the organization has taken to stressing its accomplishments during "the first 18 months of 1871."
"To me, the real operative metric is how many jobs have been created and the revenue they're generating," said incoming CEO Howard Tullman. "We have real concrete results to brag about. I want to be known not as a community center, but as a place where people think of it as startup factory for building businesses."
Merchandise Mart incubator has gotten credit from politicians, business leaders, investors and the digital-savvy public as a place of innovation. But it is also a place where generally younger entrepreneurs are found learning the rules in some corners of business even as they seek to disrupt it elsewhere. Workers and young companies can be either focused or frenetic at 1871, though the atmosphere is always earnest.
Tullman, the retired insurance executive and serial entrepreneur behind Tribeca Flashpoint Academy, a turnaround at Kendall College and a Chicago venture capital fund, has said 2014 would be the year that entrepreneurs would face regular progress reviews in an "up-or-out" turnover strategy. Tuesday was about up.
- AdYapper, which offers analytics for display and mobile ads
- Branchbird, offering big data services and solutions for business intelligence
- Caremerge, a set of apps improving communication and care coordination for senior living communities
- Civis Analytics, a technology and analytics firm
- Cheeky Chicago, a digital hub for women in Chicago
- Dashfire, which partners with entrepreneurs to convert PowerPoint presentations into products through software development
- Digital H2O Inc., a big data startup offering online water-management analytics
- Everpurse, a purse with a wireless phone charger
- Food Genius, which delivers data and insight to the food industry
- MarkITx, an online marketplace for secondary IT equipment
- Moxie Jean upscale resale, making it easy to buy and sell like-new kids' clothes online
- KBooM! Games and Apps, which designs and builds custom games and apps for businesses
- Piece & Co., which connects brands and retailers with artisans in the developing world
- ProOnGo, expense management for small businesses accessible from any device
- PrettyQuick, a reservation system for the salon and spa industry
- Rapleaf, an engagement platform for digital marketers
- Rocketmiles, hotel-booking site for travelers who stockpile miles for dream vacations
- Risk I/O, which monitors, measures and prioritizes enterprise vulnerabilities
- SimpleRelevance, a provider of personalized marketing communication
- SpotHero, which works with the largest parking companies to help drivers find and reserve parking spots
- StageBloc, an audience engagement tool
- Tempesta Media, a managed services provider for digital content for businesses
- ThinkCERCA, an online literacy program with tools and content so teachers can help students learn to read, think and develop arguments
- Toodalu, which offers a mobile loyalty program for stores and restaurants, and which was acquired by Spring early in 2013
- WeDeliver, which offers on-demand delivery for any neighborhood business
- Whittl, which provides a price menu of neighborhood services
Finding mentorship and like-minded entrepreneurs at 1871 often made all the difference for early success, several founders said.
"It's much more than serendipity," said PrettyQuick founder Coco Meers, whose company relocated to Industrious in September. "To increase the probability of success, you need every single one of a variety of factors, and 1871 provided them all. It was not at all serendipity – 1871 was set up to create that."
The ready supply of startup-ready tech entrepreneurs was the most useful for Phil Davis, CEO of RapLeaf – even if the 47-year-old serial entrepreneur didn't look like anyone else in the room.
"I think I was the oldest guy in there. They heard my age and thought I was a banker or a lawyer," he said with a laugh before the company was recognized Tuesday.
His three employees moved out in September to offices in Evanston.
"For us it worked out great," he said.
But as much as alumni held positive reflections of their time at 1871, they said the sense of accomplishment that came from moving on might feel even better.
"I remember when it was just two guys who worked out of our homes and would sneak into DePaul for a fresh place to get ideas," said Smith, of SpotHero. "The feeling that we have is that it – it's fantastic."