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Launching a new company is never easy. But in the beginning, the founders of Web-based marketing firm Bluebox Now felt they were on track. The Seattle startup lined up a large paying customer, had a lot of other great leads and was reasonably confident it would get a sizable amount of outside funding. A lot has happened since then.
The past couple of months have been pretty gut-wrenching for the team at Bluebox Now. One of the original founders had to leave Seattle because of a family medical emergency and took a full-time job somewhere else. Then there was a legal challenge, explains Chad Reed, one of the remaining co-founders.
"That was a doozy," Reed says with a chuckle. "We received this letter in the mail and also over email [saying] there's another group in Seattle called the Blue Box Group."
That group wanted the startup to quit using the Bluebox name. Reed says while they thought they would prevail on the trademark challenge, they couldn't afford to fight.
"Instead of us paying $40,000 to fight this, we're going to end up changing our name," Reed says. "The blue box itself — the gift that we give — is still a key component to what we do. It's just changing up the name, and we're going to be OK with it."
A Pitch To New Investors
The startup's goal is to help its clients increase customer loyalty and spending through the use of online games and prizes, but so far just one company has signed up. That marketing campaign is months behind schedule, so there's no money coming in. Moreover, without proof that their marketing concept works, it's difficult for the team to attract investors.
Getting funding from angel investors or venture capitalists was the main goal of Demo Day, held earlier this month in Seattle. Bluebox — or whatever it's going to be called — was a participant in Techstars, a highly selective incubator and boot camp for technology startups. Its presentation, attended by hundreds of people, many of them investors, was the culminating event.
"Today we're going to show you how we're changing the way loyalty marketing is done," Reed told the crowd. "Think about receiving one of these games instead of a stale email. Wouldn't you be more engaged? The value of winning a reward is far more exciting, and our insights show the redemption will be 10 times more than it was before."
After the Demo Day presentation, Bluebox CEO Naresh Dhiman sounded pretty optimistic.
"Actually, one of the investors was saying, 'OK, do you have [a] term sheet?' So that is very motivating. But I think what benefits [us] most is the right investor, also," Dhiman says.
Right now, though, Bluebox would probably be happy with almost any investor.
Brad Gillespie of IA Ventures, an early-stage venture firm based in New York City, says as an investor he focuses on five things: people, people, people, market and product.
Gillespie had been talking to the Bluebox team and was impressed, but in the end he didn't invest. Another potential investor, Dave Carlson, is still on the sidelines. Carlson said he likes what Bluebox is doing, but he wants to see more numbers.
"I'm a very financially oriented investor," Carlson says. "I say my head and my heart [have] to be aligned, and the numbers have to make sense."
Working Without Pay
Faced with the reality that they don't have nearly as much money as they had expected to raise by now, the founders of Bluebox are rethinking their options.
Reed says a lot of well-known companies remain interested in talking to them, and he believes that if a sizable number sign up for their marketing campaigns, the startup will be able to raise a chunk of money.
But Reed has been working without a salary since the spring.
"If we don't get funding, I mean, I can't live, right?" he says. "I believe so much in this company that, yes, I'm going to continue building it and moving forward."
But he says he's going to have to do some sort of consulting or other work, and that means he wouldn't be spending the time he should be on the product.
That of course means it could take longer to get the customers.
As for Dhiman, his wife is talking about getting a job, allowing him to continue to focus on Bluebox. And like Reed, he remains optimistic. After all, no one ever said launching a startup would be easy.