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Startups Bake Innovation into Their Businesses

Using technology wisely isn’t an afterthought for many of today’s fastest-growing companies — it’s essential to their success.

Some entrepreneurs struggle to realize the full potential of the latest technologies. For others, innovation is so ingrained in their culture that they couldn’t succeed without social media, a sophisticated web presence, cloud computing and open-source applications. Like air and water, the latest IT tools are necessary for their very survival.

Take BucketFeet as a case in point. This fast-growing, 3-year-old company collaborates with scores of artists from around the globe to create distinctive footwear that is rocking the style of everyone from students in Bogota, Colombia, to Hollywood stars relaxing at the Sundance Film Festival. Recently, the company also started selling original artwork to adorn the homes and offices of its customers.

“We connect people from throughout the world through art — we think that’s a powerful mission,” says CEO Raaja Nemani, who co-founded BucketFeet with Aaron Firestein, its chief artist.

While the privately owned company doesn’t report earnings, Nemani says revenues have grown exponentially since 2011, thanks to a potent combination of unique vision, artist creativity, a committed staff and technology that ties all of these elements together.

Technology is the great equalizer — it’s never been cheaper or faster to build a brand and a company than it is today,” says Nemani. “We don’t need the resources of a Coca-Cola or a Gap to connect with people and ­promote our company.”

Instead, BucketFeet’s leaders ­capitalize on an email list that now totals 50,000 contacts, along with a Facebook fan base approaching 160,000 people. Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Vimeo, and a regularly updated website and blog round out the company’s outreach to customers, prospects and artists.

Tech Innovation: The Great Leveler

BucketFeet’s technology-savvy ­strategies aren’t unique. Experts say the latest tech advances are fueling many of today’s dynamic businesses.

“Small companies have access to ­sophisticated technology tools that are better and more powerful than ever,” says Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT. “They enable business capabilities that four or five years ago would have been considered enterprise-class solutions.”

GiveForward, a crowdfunding ­organization, wouldn’t exist without social media, says President and Co-Founder Ethan Austin. “That’s how we get a significant amount of our traffic,” he explains.

Unlike Kickstarter and other funding platforms that back business and creative ventures, GiveForward helps people weather personal emergencies, including medical expenses, funeral costs and even veterinary bills.

“We are passionate about creating unexpected joy for our users,” Austin says. “We answer the question that everyone asks when a loved one gets sick: ‘What can I do to help?’ ”

Bucketfeet CEO Raaja Nemani
Photo: Callie Lipkin

“We interact with customers in any way they want, whether that’s physically in a store, on our website, through social media or via email,” says Bucketfeet CEO Raaja Nemani.

Launched in 2008, GiveForward has supported tens of thousands of fund­raisers that together have generated more than $80 million. Its business model is based on taking a 5 percent fee from each transaction for overhead, plus 3 percent for credit card processing expenses. However, Austin says GiveForward is unique because its gives contributors the option to pay the fees so recipients receive the full amount of the donation.

To power the platform economically, the organization’s leaders use Infra­structure as a Service (IaaS) technology, which provides the computers and storage systems to run GiveForward’s proprietary software. The IT staff, meanwhile, creates applications using open-source development tools.

In the past, raising funds for a loved one in need meant finding sponsors for a marathon run or setting up a web page to solicit donations.

“But it just wasn’t as efficient or as viral as it is today,” Austin says. “Now, people are comfortable using social media to tell others that a brother was just diagnosed with cancer, for example. The money that people donate becomes a way of saying, ‘You are not fighting this by yourself.’ ”

Mining the Internet of Things Gold Rush

In addition to using technology ­effectively, some young companies are building their businesses based on today’s hottest trends.

“We’re in the middle of this tidal wave of interest in the Internet of Things and machine-to-machine communications,” says Andrew Cronk, CEO of TempoDB.

Co-founded by Cronk and partners Michael Yagley and Justin DeLay, ­TempoDB is a database service for storage and analysis of time-series measurement data — for example, information collected by ­sensors that monitor temperatures in smart buildings or the current levels of oil in storage tanks. The company offers the technology via a subscription-based Database as a ­Service solution to ­companies that create time-series applications for customers.

“We are the database that works behind the scenes for the big brands that need our technology,” Cronk says. “In the Internet of Things gold rush, we’re the ones who sell the picks and shovels.”

TempoDB’s customers, who span five continents, have fueled double-digit sales growth for the past six months, Cronk adds.

He and his coworkers built the database using a variety of open-source development tools, including Scala (which stands for scalable language) for programming and Puppet IT ­auto­mation software from Puppet Labs. Cloud IaaS solutions support ­TempoDB’s database service.

Even though the company’s ­customer base is highly technical, are web and standard social media platforms important for marketing and business development?

“Hugely,” Cronk says. “‘Time-series database’ is a slightly esoteric phrase, but if you search on it, we’re usually the first result.”

Cashing In With New Tech and Old Methods

Becoming savvy users of the latest ­technology is essential for these and other growing companies. But successful entrepreneurs also combine the ­latest innovations with traditional ­business tools.

For example, BucketFeet sells its shoes online, as well as through distributors and other market outlets, including a new collaboration with the upscale retailer Nordstrom.

“Most people hear about us online, but our overall strategy is omni-channel,” Nemani says. “We interact with customers in any way they want, whether that’s physically in a store, on our website, through social media or via email.”

Callie Lipkin
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Mar 12 2014 Spice IT

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