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Chris Cardell

Interview with Soujanya Bhumkar (Cooliris)

Cooliris is an immersive photo app designed for selective sharing.

I interviewed Soujanya Bhumkar, Cooliris CEO & co-founder to find out more. This is the two hundred and fifth in a series of DW startup interviews. Big thank you to Soujanya!

How would you describe Cooliris in under 50 words?

Cooliris is the world’s most beautiful experience for endlessly discovering and selectively sharing photos from all your sources like mobile library, Facebook, Instagram, Dropbox and others, all within a single app. Share photos privately in 1-on-1 or group conversations within Cooliris, or post to Facebook — it’s your choice.

What would you say makes Cooliris unique?

First and foremost, we believe that the user experience is the most important. We’ve used our unique Cooliris 3D Wall, which we have become renowned for, and extended it to iOS devices to make for a not only beautiful, but also extremely fast way to browse through thousands of photos in a matter of seconds. Combining this with the ability to view and selectively share photos from many different personal media sources in private and intimate group conversations, we’ve created a unique and comprehensive photo experience for the mobile user.

How did you meet co-founder Austin Shoemaker and what inspired you to come up with Cooliris together?

Austin and I met through a mutual friend, Josh, when we were working on a conceptual project around creating a better web browsing experience. We ended up starting Cooliris because we believed that there was and continues to be a need for new, better immersive experiences for personal media. With the proliferation of media sources, platforms and devices, people want a better way to easily discover and consume relevant media.

Our first big success was the Cooliris browser plug-in that Austin and team built in 2008. As there has been a shift from desktop to mobile, and now another shift towards more intimate group interactions on mobile, we’ve come to focus on the new Cooliris mobile app.

Who do you mainly focus on targeting?

Anyone who has their photos siloed across different sources and enjoys engaging with them in close, intimate groups.

In the past few months, you’ve spoken at conferences such as BeLaunch and ChinaBang, do you see these conferences as the best way to get the word out about Cooliris?

Conferences have been great excuses for us to come and meet with some of our super users in different geographies. They’ve also been a great way for us to evangelize our vision and product, and compare notes with other passionate entrepreneurs who are working to change the status quo. Especially when it comes to new international markets, attending these conferences is a great way to understand the market better and launch ourselves into those markets.

Your core product, the mobile version of Cooliris was launched in July 2012, how does this version differ from the original?

The original Cooliris product, which was a desktop browser plugin, was aimed at solving the problem of discovering rich web media. The new mobile app leverages all the learnings from the original desktop product as well as our other product, the Gallery app for Android, which we developed in 2010 with Google. The Cooliris mobile app today is now focused on personal media, but the guiding principles of beauty and speed have remained the same.

Would you say that Cooliris has been more popular on the iPad or iPhone?

Our app users are split evenly between both. While both the iPad and iPhone versions of Cooliris have full functionality, we notice that more photo browsing happens on the iPad, whereas more group interactions like photo sharing and messaging happen on the iPhone. The iPad, with its larger form factor, makes it an ideal experience to sit back at home and enjoy browsing through photos in the 3D wall, or show them off to friends. When you’re on your iPhone on the go, Cooliris makes it easy for you to interact with any of your friends or groups via photos and messages.

Currently, you can seamlessly explore photos from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and many other social networking sites with Cooliris. As new social networks are introduced, will you continue to update Cooliris so that it works with all social networks?

We envision Cooliris as the complete media hub for users. Our prioritization is guided by user feedback and user demand for integration of various sources, some of which are globally popular and others that are region specific.

You have recently expanded into Asia. When did you start providing Cooliris on an international scale?

Since Cooliris is a highly customizable experience with a focus on media, we’ve been fortunate to get traction from users around the world. In December 2012, we officially launched our first localized international version in China in partnership with Renren, the “Facebook of China”. Following that success, we partnered with Yandex in Russia to bring Yandex.Fotki into the Cooliris app in January 2013.

Most recently in our latest release, we partnered with Tencent in China to bring Tencent Weibo content, which is China’s largest microblogging platform, into the app. We’ve also expanded our partnership with Yandex to integrate Yandex.Disk, Russia’s most popular online cloud storage solution, and Yandex.Search, the country’s leading image search service.

You have recently released Chinese and Russian versions of Cooliris, did you encounter any barriers in doing so?

Launching in international countries is a challenge, due not only to language and cultural barriers, but also differences in app and media usage habits. There is also the challenge of distribution and how to get users in these countries to know your brand and use your product. By working with local partners in different countries like Renren and Tencent in China and Yandex in Russia, we are able to leverage their reach and their understanding of the users in these markets.

Cooliris has reached #1 iPad app in 75 countries. Did you expect such success when you set up in 2006?

We set up in 2006 in a very different, desktop-centric world, where reaching worldwide users was extremely challenging. The emergence of iOS and Android app stores helped to eliminate those distribution barriers, enabling startups like us to reach users around the world.

The journey for us is now getting even more exciting, and we have big plans for the future as we continue to develop our product and change the way users around the world interact with and communicate through their personal media.

In the last 6 years, you’ve received 3 substantial amounts of funding, did this aid product and market development?

We’ve always considered funding as an opportunity to elevate our company to the next level. The capital helped in product and market development, but more importantly, it helped to augment the team with strong teammates, as well as strike key distribution partnerships.

How do you differentiate Cooliris from other social networking sites?

We’re all about making your photo life easier and making it more enjoyable for you to organize, experience and communicate around all of the photos that are relevant to your life, regardless of where they are stored. The Cooliris app takes all of the photos from your existing social networks and photo sources, and brings them together in one app for viewing and sharing ease. By enabling both selective sharing in close-knit groups along with broadcasting to your social networks, we’re giving the control over personal content back to the users.

Do you see your workforce expanding following your recent international expansion?

Our plan is to expand internationally by leveraging key partnerships. We have teammates on the ground in Asia working directly with existing partners and forming new relationships. We are always looking for great talent from around the world to join the team.

Do you have any upcoming developments following your expansion in Asia?

We just released our newest version with partnerships with Tencent and Yandex, and we have great things lined up in the coming months that we are very excited about. Stay tuned!

Where do you hope Cooliris will be in 5 years?

We hope to bring the fast and beautiful Cooliris experience to all screens and devices, whether they are hung on the walls, worn on your head, or carried in your pocket.

You’ve evidently experienced a lot of success, what advice would you offer to any soon to be startup founders out there?

A lot of your product’s value proposition comes from how the user feels about your product. Relentless focus on matching the user experience with the user’s intent is extremely necessary. User experience is not something you slap on towards the end of the product development process, but needs to be in the core DNA of the product and the team. Last but not least, the time to market is just as crucial for success as the product itself.

Can you convince the reader to start using Cooliris in under 50 words?

It’s the easiest way to get all of your photos from the camera roll, Facebook, Instagram, Dropbox, and 15 others in one app, and save or selectively share them with people near and dear to you. You haven’t experienced beauty and speed until you’ve tried Cooliris.

Finished reading? Check out Cooliris!

Interview with George Schlossnagle (Message Systems)

Message Systems provide messaging infrastructure for marketers and enterprise.

I interviewed George Schlossnagle, Message Systems CEO to find out more. This is the two hundred and fourth in a series of DW startup interviews. Big thank you to George!

How would you describe Message Systems in under 50 words?

For businesses looking to improve customer engagement, Message Systems provides the world’s finest messaging infrastructure. For example, any message received on the Facebook platform is delivered through our software.

Tell us a bit about your background, how you met your co-founder and what made you decide to start working on Message Systems in 1997.

My co-founder is my brother, Theo Schlossnagle. In the late 1990’s, we were running a boutique consultancy focused on helping companies scale Internet properties and were challenged by the Internet boom. At the time, a couple of our customers were online gaming companies doing extremely large-scale B2C communications and we struggled with the absence of scalable messaging software.

Coming from a web infrastructure engineering background, we decided this was a niche market that we could innovate for, so we started a skunkworks effort to build the world’s first high performance, extensible messaging server.

As Message Systems has now been around for 16 years, have you had to keep developing it to keep competitive?

Yes, staying ahead of the market requires consistent effort and innovation. A core tenant of our beliefs is that we can only be successful if our customers are successful. This leads us to cultivate tight relationships that help to guide our roadmap and keep our innovation in touch with what the market demands.

In the development stages of Message Systems, you developed partnerships with many services including anti-virus and reputation services. Was it hard to establish these partnerships being a startup business?

Forming successful partnerships requires a high level of effort and focus. As a startup, you must be selective in the partnerships you establish so that you can commit the resources necessary to make them successful. This is true regardless of the size of the partner.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing Message Systems?

Early on, we invested quite a bit of time developing an architecture that performed extremely well and was also highly extensible by the end-user. We continue to focus our efforts on making advanced functionality available, even in the most demanding environments.

You provide solutions for Email Marketers, Service Providers and Corporate Enterprises. Where have you seen the most traction?

Our greatest traction has been less vertically focused and more around customers that are trying to solve difficult messaging problems, whether that be challenging deliverability issues, scaling challenges or trying to drive workflow through messaging. Early on, we had a lot of success working with email services providers, ISPs and e-businesses. Also, social networks, online retailers and companies that fell under the Web 2.0 banner, to use a somewhat dated term. In many of cases, these kinds of companies have a really clear and compelling need for high performance messaging capabilities.

In recent years, we’re finding that financial services providers, travel/hospitality companies and big technology firms also face the kinds of challenges that we can help address. The place where we’ve always had a unique position is helping solve the seemingly unsolvable.

You’ve received over $6 million in recent years. Was securing this funding difficult?

One of the fortunate aspects of running a bootstrapped business for over a decade is that you learn to be pragmatic. We had the discipline to seek funding on our own terms and to be selective in the partners we brought on. The hardest part was in choosing VCs that we were confident would become positive partners. We were looking for partners that would consistently add value and whose operating style aligned with ours. We’ve been really lucky in that regard through two rounds of funding.

Has Message Systems grown as expected since 1997?

Beyond my wildest expectations, frankly.

You have customers including Facebook and PayPal. Did you expect such success when you launched?

From the beginning we’ve done a great job of meeting the needs of the world’s most challenging messaging infrastructures. Having Facebook as a customer is fantastic, but I’m just as proud of our ability to bring similar value to smaller startups and mainstream enterprises.

As it claims to increase revenue, do you have examples of value that Message Systems has created?

Absolutely. Take a look at our recent webinar with our client, Marketo, and you can hear it in their own words. While I don’t have the direct quote on hand, I believe the phrase used was “Message Systems give us a competitive advantage.” If you look at some of the case studies we’ve published, you’ll get a good sense of where we’re driving value for our clients. Message Systems provides tools to help improve deliverability, which directly results in higher customer engagement and increased revenue. For marketing automation companies like Marketo, Infusionsoft or Yesmail, boosting inbox deliverability to the high 90 percentile range drives improved performance and directly impacts the bottom line.

Additionally, this optimized performance comes with a much smaller footprint. Yesmail had approximately 200 servers running the Postfix MTA, and with Message Systems the company is getting much better performance with just 20 servers running our Momentum platform. Higher revenue, lower cost.

If you could go back and start up again, would you do anything differently?

There are several small things I would do differently, but I feel like we’ve been quite fortunate in all the big ones.

What advice would you offer to any soon to be startup founders out there?

Build a great team full of individuals smarter than yourself. Choose funding partners that will support you in good times and bad. Remember that the buck stops with you and that no one will ever love your business the way you do, so you need to set the standard for accountability and passion.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

The current spree of acquisitions and IPOs in the messaging space is really exciting and serves to show that both email and messaging are alive and well. The challenges that businesses face in connecting with their customers are real, and it’s an incredibly important problem for them to solve.

Can you convince the reader to start using Message Systems in under 50 words?

Twenty percent of all legitimate email on the Internet flows through Message Systems software, including many of the world’s largest and most innovative brands. See what they see in it.

Finished reading? Check out Message Systems!

Interview with Chuck Gordon (SpareFoot)

SpareFoot is an online marketplace for self-storage based in Austin, TX.

I interviewed Chuck Gordon, SpareFoot founder to find out more. This is the two hundred and third in a series of DW startup interiews. Big thank you to Chuck!

How would you describe SpareFoot in under 50 words?

SpareFoot makes booking a self storage unit as easy as booking a hotel room. We have the largest inventory of storage units in the U.S., with a network of more than 6,500 facilities.

How did you meet co-founder Mario Feghali? How has your relationship benefited the success of SpareFoot?

Mario and I were assigned freshman year roommates at UCLA. The fact that we’ve lived in the same apartment since then has definitely helped SpareFoot because we get to talk about work 24/7, not just in the office.

Moving to Singapore was an influence to starting up a self-storage company, what experience did you gain in Singapore that helped you create SpareFoot?

I took two entrepreneurship classes when I was in Singapore where I learned about the startup world, VC funding, etc. I had the idea for SpareFoot before I went to Singapore, and in Singapore I learned some of the first steps of how to turn that idea into reality.

What gap in the market did you discover that persuaded you to launch SpareFoot in August 2008?

Storage was really expensive in west LA at the time and I needed a cheaper way to store my belongings while studying abroad in Singapore. This led me to the original idea for SpareFoot which was really more of an Airbnb for storage. Eventually we switched over to what we are today, but back in the day we were a person to person marketplace where you could rent space on someone’s personal property for storage instead of a storage facility.

How long did it take to put together the initial version of SpareFoot?

From the first time we raised money from our family and friends to the launch of our first site, it took us about 5 months.

Quoting yourself here, you have previously said, “Fail fast, fail quickly, you have to understand that not everyting is gonna work therefore you need to keep trying stuff to see what works best.” What failures or problems have you faced and how have you overcome them?

Well the most notable failure was our original person to person business model. We launched the site, got some traction, but ultimately realized that if we wanted this to be a big business we were going to need to throw out our current business model and start over. That sounds like a decision that would be hard to make, but you have to quickly identify what’s working and what’s not so you can adapt to the market as fast as possible.

After we shifted to the hotels.com for storage model, everything has been up and to the right.

You have a network of more than 6,500 facilities; how important are your networks towards the success of SpareFoot?

SpareFoot is nothing without our storage facilities. Since we’re a marketplace, the inventory is just as important as consumers.

How has exclusive partnerships with the likes of SelfStorage.com, Apartments.com and Penske Truck Rental helped and benefited SpareFoot?

These partnerships have been really great for both our storage facilities and our consumers. For facilities, we open the door to potential new renters that would have never found that facility without SpareFoot and our partnerships. For consumers, we help provide storage where they need it – whether that’s when they are booking a truck or renting an apartment.

Who do you see as your primary target audience? What methods do you use to reach out to them?

1 in every 10 households in the US rents a storage unit so our target market is very broad. Our strategy is to be wherever that person who needs storage is – buying a house, renting an apartment, searching on google, renting a truck, etc. Wherever they are, we want to be there.

With employing over 70 people, have you had any difficulties in finding talented developers and managers?

Hiring great people is always hard, but it’s also really critical to our success. We’ve built a really awesome place to work which definitely helps with recruiting. Just last week we were awarded the #1 Best Place to Work in Central Texas by the Austin Business Journal.

You’ve received over $4M in venture capital, how long did it take to secure the funding?

Well we’ve raised money on several occasions over the years, and each instance took a different amount of time. But the process has never taken more than a few months. I believe that is somewhat unusual though, it can take much longer.

Has SpareFoot got the feedback and growth you expected since launching in August 2008?

We are definitely achieving our dreams of building SpareFoot into a huge successful company.

With SpareFoot based in Austin and operating all around the US, is working and appealing worldwide a future idea and opportunity?

Potentially. Storage is a very American thing. There are 52,000 self storage facilities in the US and 10,000 in the entire rest of the world. So our opportunity at home is really the biggest.

Where do you see SpareFoot in 5 years time?

Hard question, but our ultimate mission is to make booking storage just as easy as booking a hotel room and we’re really just at the tip of the iceberg right now. There’s still a lot of innovating we need to do to get there.

What advice would you offer to any soon to be startup founders out there?

Work hard play hard, fail quickly and strap in for the roller coaster ride you are about to get on!

Can you convince the reader to start using SpareFoot in under 50 words?

Next time you need a storage unit, visit SpareFoot to easily comparison shop, find the best deal and book online instead of calling 10 different storage facilities to get the same information.

Finished reading? Check out SpareFoot!

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