Kris Naidu looks back fondly on an age before the rise of digital technology at a time when in-person experiences fostered more personal communication and stronger communities. Now he wants the technology he has built to restore some of that.
Zeacon is a 2-year-old Seattle-area startup whose aim is to help businesses be more discoverable within their community and to stand out among the noise of a digital world. Naidu founded the company when he was motivated to help solve the problem of diminishing foot-traffic to local businesses.
The free Zeacon app (iOS, Android), released last month, provides users a quick way to discover what’s happening around them in real time, including events, experiences and deals at restaurants and more. It’s a role that Naidu believes big tech set out to facilitate, but lost sight of.
“If you look at Facebook, Google and all these big companies that are out there, they’re not fostering community growth anymore,” Naidu said. “They’re fostering the bottom line. If you go and truly look at search, everything that’s coming up is what they want you to see — somebody that paid for an ad that comes up first. … What we like to say is, ‘Don’t search, discover.’”
Zeacon, which has nine full-time employees and close to 20 with contractors factored in, relies on tech to let a user know what’s around them and then applies artificial intelligence to understand what the user likes and offer recommendations based on those preferences. The incentive for businesses to work with Zeacon is increased discoverability.
“We create events with businesses locally and we curate experiences based on the businesses,” Naidu said. “We really find the most interesting and coolest things around, places that are hidden gems and we make them discoverable.”
The company counts former Russell Investments CEO Mike John Phillips and former NFL star Lawyer Milloy among its advisors.
We caught up with Naidu for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire:
What does your company do? Zeacon’s aim is to help people discover things to do in real-time IRL (in real-life). The platform allows users and businesses to connect in new and efficient ways within their communities like never before.
Inspiration hit us when: I recognized a need in the market when I took my son to Toys”R”Us only to find out the location me and my son had been going to for years had been shut down. It was at that moment that my son asked if this meant we wouldn’t get to spend as much time together anymore. I realized that something as simple as toy shopping with your dad has such an emotional impact and that if brick-and-mortar retailers didn’t adapt to the changing habits of consumers, a lot more children would have the same types of heartbreaking experiences.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Angel. Kris has had strong success in his past business ventures including: Venture Investments and Enterprise Sales and believed that if the team was going to create this product and truly make an impact, he would need to bet on himself and his team by initially funding it himself so the team could stay true to the vision.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: The powerful back-end technology and architecture mixed with a data and results-driven team that provides businesses with the tools and intelligence to effectively drive foot traffic and sales. For example, we partnered with a local museum and helped them to drive 135 users to their events over the course of two weeks which resulted in increased ROI and brand awareness.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: Aligned ourselves with talented advisors and board members who are as dedicated as we are to helping make brick and mortar thrive again. This includes names such as 16-year NFL veteran and former Seattle Seahawk Lawyer Milloy; Tachyus COO Brandon Simmons; and former Russell Investments Chairman and CEO Mike John Phillips.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: As a startup, we are learning from our mistakes and strengthening our process every day, but the mistake that we have seen with the biggest impact comes down to personnel. Early on we made a hire that was not truly bought in and aligned with the vision. We discovered very soon that the negative attitude and unwillingness to execute on the specific role was having a huge impact not only on the company’s growth but the overall attitude and happiness of the rest of the team. When a company is still starting out and building a name for themselves, the quality and attitude of the core team is paramount to success which is something we had to learn the hard way.
Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? Patrick Gelsinger, CEO of VMware, because he exemplifies what it means to provide leadership to his employees and motivates them through his actions more than words.
Our favorite team-building activity is: Our team loves to eat good food! One of the things we love doing as a team is trying out new local restaurants together after a long day/week and remembering that the reason we are working as hard as we are is so that our users can continue to have these types of communal interactions and discover great new experiences together.
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Attitude and mindset. Obviously based on the position we have certain technical or experience-based qualifications, but what makes candidates stand out to us is when they are hungry to make a big impact and are continually looking for ways to learn and have a growth mindset. Being a small startup means that our team will quickly have to scale as we continue to be successful and we look for people who come in with the type of attitude and approach to work where we can see them scaling their professional growth at the same rate. We may just be in Seattle now, but will this person be able to have continued success and bring additional value when we are in 10, 20, 100 cities?
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Innovation is not just having an idea, it also requires clearly thinking through a process to execute from start to finish before asking for feedback. Going to people with clear and defined plans will drive progress and helps to highlight your thought process. I was once told very early in my career, “If you come with an idea, I will buy you a cup of coffee, but if you come with a proven record of execution, I will open my checkbook.” And that is something that has stuck with me throughout my career.