DAVID GREENE, host: OK, let's hear now from an aspiring start-up. It's called Bluebox Now. The young company claims to be revolutionizing how companies market to their customers. Like entrepreneurs everywhere, the founders of Bluebox Now really want to make it big. And over the next year or so, MORNING EDITION will follow them as they try to improve their product, win over customers, and bring in revenue. From Seattle, NPR's Wendy Kaufman has our first report.
WENDY KAUFMAN: Earlier this year, the founders of Bluebox Now - guys in their 30s and 40s - were faced with a choice. The company they were working for was bought out, and they had to decide what to do next.
CRAIG GUENTER-LEE: I had applied for a job at Microsoft, and I was offered the position.
KAUFMAN: That's Craig Guenther-Lee. Today, he's the creative director at Bluebox Now. But a few months ago, he was mulling an offer with a six-figure salary.
GUENTER-LEE: Like hey, you know, do I want to go ahead and take this kind of safe, secure job - which, you know, would have been great for my family and - but I was really ready to launch into something else. And we worked really well together as a team. And I thought that together, we could do something extremely exciting.
KAUFMAN: Chad Reed and Naresh Dhiman, the company's other co-founders, thought the same thing. They collectively ponied up about $50,000, and a company was born. Reed, the chief marketing officer, started his career as a cabana boy. The onetime college quarterback spent years as a brand manager for the beverage company Red Bull. Dhiman, the company's CEO, is a veteran software architect.
NARESH DHIMAN: Fifteen years back, I started a small company in India.
KAUFMAN: And moved to the U.S. during the dotcom era. Introducing himself to a group of entrepreneurs recently, he remarked he had made a big mistake by turning down a chance to join Google in the late 1990s.
DHIMAN: Besides that, I played every game possible in the world, and every game I got injured. I started - I played soccer; I got injured badly. I played pingpong; I got injured in that, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DHIMAN: Then I started playing poker with my wife. I got injured in that, too.
KAUFMAN: Fortunately for him, his wife fully supports his new venture. The start-up hopes to dramatically change how companies target their customers through marketing. Chad Reed explains that with Bluebox Now, restaurants, hotel chains, department stores and others could integrate the email data they already have about their customers with information about those individuals that's posted online.
CHAD REED: We know that this is something that they could absolutely use.
KAUFMAN: And the team got a big vote of confidence earlier this summer, when it was chosen for a highly selective tech incubator program.
ANDY SACK: My name is Andy Sack, and I'm managing director of Tech Stars Seattle. Today is Orientation Day; 10 companies are arriving. And the program runs for three months and culminates in Demo Day on November 3rd.
REED: Chad Reed, with Bluebox Now. I'm very excited to be here. I mean, you see all this brain power in this one - I guess we're down in a basement. There's a lot of testosterone in here.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KAUFMAN: Tech Stars Seattle is one of a number of tech incubators. Typically, they provide a small amount of funding; in this case, $18,000 in exchange for a small equity stake. As part of the program, the guys from Bluebox Now meet with technology experts, marketing gurus, venture capitalists and others.
CEO Naresh Dhiman says the constant feedback has been extremely valuable.
DHIMAN: Best thing is the mentors. They give feedback, and they are very clear. And they are very consistent, also.
KAUFMAN: The company had been struggling with how to describe its product and pitch it to potential clients. Dhiman says the team had been focusing on what the product was. But after talking to mentors and others, they shifted their pitch to why clients need it.
DHIMAN: And that's a very, very different perspective, and it is very impact-making.
KAUFMAN: Dhiman says prospective clients view what they're selling with more interest now. But he acknowledges that altering their approach has cost them time. So have communication problems with India-based software coders, and the decision to make their product more sophisticated than originally planned.
DHIMAN: The whole principle of start-up is learn. Deliver the small chunk of product ,and learn from feedback how you want to change it.
KAUFMAN: The company is now running two months behind schedule. And the revenue the founders had hoped to see hasn't materialized yet. They are beginning to feel the pinch. Dhiman is currently without health insurance. Gunther-Lee has taken on some freelance work. And Chad Reed is hoping he doesn't have to ask his family for a loan.
They all remain optimistic about the company's future, but as Reed and Gunther-Lee describe it, it's been a bumpy ride.
REED: One day you're up on cloud nine, and the next day you're like, oh God, this is just a shot to the gut.
GUENTER-LEE: Yeah, I think that's part of the start-up roller coaster. It's just that huge up and down and you know, you just ride the peaks and the valleys and just go with it, you know.
KAUFMAN: Bluebox Now has landed its first paying client, and the first marketing campaign is slated for next month. Only then will the start-up begin to discover if it can deliver on its promise to help companies target their customers more effectively. Wendy Kauffman, NPR News, Seattle.
GREENE: And as we said, we'll be checking in on Bluebox Now over the next year or so, to find out what happens.
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