How these Founders Pivoted from a Failing Startup at the Last Minute and Created a Million-Dollar Business

“Make better decisions with feedback from real people.”

This mission lies at the core of User Interviews, a startup in Cambridge, Massachusetts that gives consumers a platform to voice their opinions on new and innovative products–while getting paid for their time.

User Interviews isn’t the first company to recruit participants for market research studies, but believe their differentiation is in their technology-based approach and commitment to a world-class user experience. The website makes it easy for consumers to connect with companies running research studies that they’re interested in.

“We started this company because we saw that the most successful products are built by companies that deeply understand their customers,” said Dennis Meng, one of the co-founders of User Interviews. “We wanted to make that easier to do.”

Meng and his co-founders, Basel Fakhoury and Bob Saris, realized the importance of getting feedback from customers from their experiences working on on their first startup together. They were building a mobile app that would give travelers 24/7 access to upscale hotel concierge service. After spending a year developing the app, they launched it and were horrified to realize that nobody cared to use it. In a desperate effort to salvage the app, they started gathering as much user feedback as they could. At one point, the trio even resorted to buying refundable plane tickets just so they could go through airport security to sit and talk to travelers. After talking to hundreds of travelers, the three founders finally came to terms with the fact that their app would never take off. “If we had talked to them earlier, we would have known much sooner that our app wasn’t going to be successful.”  Luckily, based on the difficulties they encountered, the team realized there might be a huge untapped opportunity to help companies connect with consumers to gather feedback.

From the ashes of the mobile app business rose User Interviews, one of the first automated platforms for recruiting and scheduling participants for market research studies and product tests. Though User Interviews initially targeted other startups as potential clients, discussions with product managers and marketers at larger firms helped the team realize that conducting consumer studies was just as much of a struggle for well-established companies.

“I once heard someone describe running a startup as riding a bike while building it,” said Meng. “That description couldn’t have been more accurate for us. Before we even had a website, we had companies trying to pay us for our services. We had dozens of paying clients before the first version of our technology platform was complete.”

Fast forward to today – the company now counts hundreds of companies as clients, including the likes of Pinterest, DirecTV, Colgate, Yahoo, and Pandora. They’ve also paid out over $ 1 million in incentives to the consumers who have participated in their clients’ studies. However, when asked, Meng says that the most surprising thing he’s learned is that people care as much about improving the products they’re reviewing as they do about the money. “People like the money, but even more than that – they like having a voice.”

From this simple concept has grown a burgeoning industry giant, and the last few months have been exciting ones for User Interviews. They recently raised $ 1 million in a seed round led by Accomplice Ventures, which they’ve already used to hire several new employees. Over the next few years, Meng, Fakhoury, and Saris plan to introduce User Interviews to thousands of companies and millions of consumers across the country.

Tech

Leonardo DiCaprio Adds Virtual Reality Startup to List of Investments

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio is now an investor in virtual reality.

The celebrity, known for his leading roles in films like Titanic, The Aviator, and The Wolf of Wall Street, has invested an undisclosed amount in virtual reality startup MindMaze.

DiCaprio’s investment in MindMaze is the latest in the actor’s portfolio of companies he’s put money into. Some of DiCaprio’s other investments include the garbage startup Rubicon Global, data analytics company Qloo, mattress maker Casper, and sustainable food company LoveTheWild.

MindMaze is a five-year-old Swiss startup that specializes in virtual reality technology that’s primarily been used in the health care industry. In February 2016, the startup scored a $ 100 million funding round that put its valuation at roughly $ 1 billion, qualifying it a so-called startup unicorn.

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“I am excited about the possibilities of MindMaze’s technology, especially for its potential to be a driving force in media and entertainment in the years to come,” DiCaprio said in a statement.

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MindMaze’s VR technology uses a combination of motion-tracking sensors and software to capture a person’s movements based on their electrical impulses, explained CEO Tej Tadi. The technology can then use that information to create virtual reality avatars that mimic a person’s movements in real time.

The startup has been testing its VR technology in European hospitals with stoke victims, amputees, and other people suffering from debilitating conditions, as a way to help them regain their movement.

Now MindMaze wants to branch out to other industries like the media and entertainment world. Earlier this year it debuted a smaller, headset version of its healthcare VR system that is intended to capture movements of a person’s face as opposed to their entire bodies.

Tadi believes the company’s MASK VR system could be incorporated into other VR devices like Facebook’s (fb) Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, or Google (goog) Daydream VR headsets. People could potentially play virtual reality video games that react to their facial expressions, so in the case of a first-person shooter, the game’s difficulty could be reduced if it recognizes that the player appears frustrated or nervous.

DiCaprio learned about MindMaze from mutual connections in the health care industry, which the actor does charity work for, Tadi said. He said DiCaprio was fascinated with MindMaze’s VR technology and believed that the Hollywood industry could use it to create more interactive movies, films, or animated shorts.

For instance, Tadi imagines people could watch VR animated shorts based on popular movies in which storylines may change based on the viewers’ expressions.

Tadi shot down the notion that MindMaze’s new connection with DiCaprio is purely promotional, saying he expects DiCaprio to introduce the startup to his Hollywood connections. DiCaprio will serve as an advisor to MindMaze.

“This is not just marketing spin for him or me,” Tadi said. DiCaprio will be an active participant in helping guide the virtual reality startup, he continued, and will not just show up to meetings “just once in a blue moon.”

Tech

Silicon Valley’s Hottest Startup Incubator Takes On This Indian Venture

Just one year ago, Indian e-coupon aggregator LafaLafa.com was barely a blip in the mind of, well, anyone. It’s been quite the year though – testament to the booming tech environment in India, they’re one of the privileged few to be on their way to be accelerated by one of Silicon Valley’s hottest startup incubators.


Cloud Computing

Ashton Kutcher invests in esports startup Unikrn as it launches global platform

First, billionaire investor and Shark Tank television celebrity Mark Cuban invested in Unikrn. Now Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary are investing in the esports gaming startup through their Sound Ventures investment firm. Unikrn is also launching its global platform today.

Following on a $ 7 million investment that included Cuban, the deal is another sign that esports is maturing, and that entrepreneurs are figuring out ways to make money from the tens of millions of people who regularly watch esports matches for fun. Seattle-based Unikrn has created a web site where you can bet on matches with your favorite esports athletes in games such as League of Legends, Counter-Strike Global Offensive, Dota 2, and others.

The company was founded in November by Rahul Sood, a former Microsoft executive and founder of gaming PC maker Voodoo PC, and Karl Flores, another gaming entrepreneur.

The previous investment round was led by Jonathan Teo and Justin Caldbeck of Binary Capital, who are known for early investing in companies such as Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Whisper, and Taskrabbit. Besides Cuban, other investors include Advancit Capital, Freelands Group, 500 Startups, Indicator Ventures, and Tabcorp.

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To date, Unikrn has raised $ 10 million in its short life. But the company is moving fast to take advantage of the growth of esports. According to ESPN, 27 million people tuned in to watch the 2014 finals of the League of Legends World Championship. That is more than watched the final game of the World Series (23.5 million) or the NBA Finals (18 million). The global audience on Twitch is more than 100 million monthly active users.

The company launched its Unikrn Arena Global around the world. It’s a virtual arena where users can earn “Unikoins” by participating in various activities and then use the virtual currency to increase their chances of winning prizes. Unikrn is also launching its Unikrn Vault companion app, which will be available soon on Android and iOS.

Unikrn currently works on either mobile or desktop, and it operates only in jurisdictions where betting on esports is legal.

Sood was recently general manager of Microsoft Ventures, but he quit that job to start Unikrn with Flores, the former CEO of online gaming advertising firm Pinion.

“I’ve had the pleasure of investing and being involved in a number of outstanding startups, and Unikrn stood out because they are completely changing how people engage with eSports,” said Kutcher, in a statement.  “esports are mainstreaming, and Unikrn Arena provides fans with an additional level of excitement not found elsewhere.”

Kutcher and Oseary are active tech investors, and they have taken stakes in Airbnb, Foursquare, Skype, SoundCloud, Square, Zenefits, and Uber.

“I’m thrilled to be launching Unikrn Arena to the world, and releasing the Unikrn Vault App to allow our users to generate Unikoins is something we’re all really excited about,” said Rahul Sood, CEO Unikrn, in a statement. “At the same time, bringing Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary on was a big deal for me. They are well known for picking winning consumer technology companies and are incredibly connected.  We’re looking forward to working with their team to help make Unikrn Arena a big success.”

Unikrn is now offering daily “quests” that provide the chance to earn Unikoins, which can be used to win prizes from companies such as: Alienware, Caseking, Funko, Gunnar, HP, HyperX, and Logitech. Types of quests include “Betting Quests,” which reward users for placing bets on Unikrn; “Social Quests,” which reward users for engaging with their friends and/or social networks; and “Trivia Questions,” where users can answer questions about the games being played on Unikrn.

Above: Ashton Kutcher

Image Credit: s_bukley/Shutterstock

 

 

 

 

 

 

VB’s research team is studying web-personalization… Chime in here, and we’ll share the results.



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