My Boston Globe column this week tells the story of two startups built on what seemed to be promising tech trends: WiFi-connected photo frames, and location-aware mobile phones.
The former company was Wellesley-based Frame Media (which later became known as Thinking Screen Media.) They quietly went out of business last summer. The latter was Where Inc., acquired by eBay/PayPal last spring for $135 million. Both companies were started by Alan Phillips, and Jon Finegold played a key role in building both Frame and Where (though he was only a founder of Frame.)
Last summer supplied a learning experience for Jon Finegold, but it was not the sort he’d like to repeat. First, Finegold hunted for investors who might put more money into his five-year-old Wellesley start-up, Frame Media Inc. Then, he sought potential buyers. Finally, he filed papers to dissolve the company, laid off the last of his employees, sold the furniture and computers, and wrote thank-you notes to investors who had put about $6 million into Frame.
Walt Doyle was the MapQuest alum who joined Where in 2006 as its CEO, and was largely responsible for its eventual success. I asked him for his take on the company's sometimes circuitous path toward a successful acquisition. (Doyle is pictured above.)
Doyle wrote via e-mail:
As uLocate [Where's original name], we were the typical small start-up experimenting in mobile location services, fluctuating between 10-20 people for a couple of years.
During the early years of the company (2005-2008), we were ahead of the market opportunity. Device and network capability hampered the consumer adoption of mobile data services across the board. We had to find ways to stay in the game and make some money. We built all kinds of mobile applications on a white-label basis, including Helio Buddy Beacon, the Supermedia applications, various fleet tracking services, and even a dog collar tracker. None of these services scaled, but we were able to make some money and build out core platform capabilities, which accelerated our ability to deliver our own services when the market finally arrived.
In 2008, with the launch of the app store-enabled iPhone, we renamed the business Where behind our consumer application, and things began to take-off. The Apple and subsequent Android app stores were instrumental in our ability to acquire users for our consumer app, and also essential in the creation of location-enabled inventory that allowed us to
create the largest mobile location network in North America.
We went from 20 people to 100 people in about twelve months, and also crossed over to profitability. The market took notice of our growth and the opportunity ahead, and we were acquired by PayPal in May of 2011. Earlier this year, we integrated our team into PayPal/eBay family and rebranded our ad network the PayPal Media Network. We have continued to grow in Boston on the ad network side as well as other strategic areas for Paypal, such as big data and mobile application development. We have a footprint of around 150 people and continue to grow. As many companies have recognized, Boston is a great talent hub with excellent universities and technology schools. As a global company, PayPal is committed to binging jobs to where talent lives.
The Boston office of PayPal recently announced that it plans to move this fall from the North End to One International Place, in Boston's Financial District.
About Scott Kirsner
Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.
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December 9: Web Innovators Group
Demos of new mobile apps and web ventures at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge. Free admission; cash bar.
December 10: Fintech Demo Day
Short demos from startups in the financial technology realm.
December 11: Unpitch
Entrepreneurs and investors sit down for lunch, advice, and feedback. Entrepreneurs must apply to participate.