Startups Make the Pitch of a Lifetime: Your Peek Inside Target + Techstars’ Demo Day

September 21, 2016 - Article reads in
Christine Strzalka, Casey Carl and Jarrod Wolf on stage during Demo Day

A charge of energy, excitement and a touch of nerves hung in the air yesterday at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall. Eleven startups—dreamers, doers and makers—took the stage in front of nearly 1,000 people for Demo Day for the Target + Techstars Retail Accelerator. Their mission? Deliver the pitch of a lifetime.

We first met the startups in June as they packed up, moved into our Minneapolis headquarters and got ready to dive in to the first Target + Techstars accelerator. We knew they were special—we hand-picked them from a pool of more than 500 tech-based startups from around the world. We knew we wanted to invigorate the Minneapolis tech scene, share our expertise and advance some really great ideas. But, we also knew we had much to learn from our entrepreneurial friends.

Mentor madness
Over the intense 14-week program, the startups worked alongside Target Chairman and CEO Brian Cornell, Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Casey Carl and more than 30 mentors across the company (not to mention 100+ mentors from the Minneapolis and national tech scene). Mentors advised them on everything from retail trends, merchandising and finance to product development and design, branding and more. And they, in turn, challenged Target to think and work more like entrepreneurs, moving faster, being scrappy, and testing, failing, learning and iterating.

Brian Cornell chats with one of our startup teams in a conference room.“We’re smart enough to know that all the answers do not lie within our four walls,” says Brian. “We need entrepreneurs developing new and innovative products and solutions that have the potential to create new paths for growth, diversify our business model and transform every facet of industry—from supply chain to operations to marketing. At the same time, these companies need us, too. Target opens doors to capital, to consumers and scale.” (For more on Brian’s Techstars experience, check out Perspectives: What Brian Cornell Learned Spending the Summer with Startups.)

Demo Day and a look ahead
Yesterday, the teams’ round-the-clock work culminated in one big finale: Demo Day. In rapid-fire, five-minute sessions, each startup pitched their hearts out to sell venture capitalists and retail and tech influencers on their business—and their dream. Go inside Demo Day with the following video and photos:

Techstars Demo Day Play

And while Demo Day’s now a wrap, the teams aren’t moving out just yet. We’ve invited them to keep working inside our Minneapolis headquarters through the year’s end. We caught up with them to hear more about their experience and find out what’s next.

Inspectorio's teal logo is shown on a white backgroundBringing transparency to the global supply chain
The U.S. imports $830 billon in consumer goods each year. But the method for inspecting these products is a cumbersome, pen-and-paper process with disturbingly little transparency. The Inspectorio team (three brothers who grew up in Ecuador and now work out of Hong Kong) are on a mission to revolutionize the inspection process and bring transparency to the global supply chain. Inspectorio’s been operating less than a year, and they’ve already performed over 2,000 top-notch, high-tech inspections for 20+ brands. Throughout the 14-week program, Target mentors Brian Cornell and Casey Carl guided their work and the company will begin a six-month pilot with Target, starting this fall. “We’ve fallen in love with Minneapolis and our amazing mentors and advisors, so we’re opening our Inspectorio headquarters right here in Minneapolis,” says co-founder Carlos Moncayo.

MakerBloks colorful logo is shown on a white backgroundSharing the joy of learning
As a kid, Francois Poirier built his own toys from scratch. Now, he’s an uncle and new dad and working with his MakerBloks team out of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on a mission to make sure every child has a chance to learn by building and creating with their hands. Their interactive games—including a set of app-connected blocks—help children discover electronics, technology and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). And, when the blocks connect via tablet, kids transform into explorers, astronauts and more. “We’ve tested the blocks with the harshest critics—kids!” says Francois. “They don’t just like it. They love it.” So, what’s next? “We’re so excited to be partnering with Target and Best Buy to launch our blocks in over 700 locations nationwide this fall,” Francois says.

Blueprint Registry's blue logo is shown on a white backgroundCelebrating life’s biggest moments
“Scouring six or more websites to find just the right product for your home is a terrible experience—and the modern retail website has not changed in years,” says Blueprint Registry founder Nevin Shetty. He and his team in Seattle are upending the e-commerce market for home furnishings by creating a unique, beautiful experience that lets you shop based on a blueprint of your home. When they first joined the accelerator, the team focused solely on reaching their customers directly. But with guidance from mentors, they had a game-changing ah-ha moment: “We realized that we’ve created a platform that users love AND retailers want to be on. Now, we are partnering with retailers to leverage their user base and drive sales for them,” says Nevin. Does it work? Early results show that customers spend 15% more when they shop via Blueprint, and the company is seeing 35 percent growth month-over-month. It’s perfect for life’s biggest milestones, from weddings and new babies to housewarmings, birthdays, graduations and more. Next, keep your eyes out for a Blueprint and Target registry pilot.

Branch Messenger's leaf-themed logo is shown on a white backgroundShifting how companies and employees manage shift work
Peek into the back rooms or employee lounges of restaurants, hotels and retail stores across the nation and you’re almost guaranteed to find paper shift schedules or company updates tacked to a bulletin board. The Branch Messenger team from L.A. has created software that is already helping hourly employees from stores such as McDonald’s, Domino’s Pizza, CVS and many more easily swap shifts, view schedules and message co-workers—all right from their phones (not to mention helping employers reduce turn-over, save time and increase employee satisfaction). During their time with Target + Techstars, the Branch Messenger team had a chance to test and fine-tune their technology in 10 Target stores. In just five weeks, Branch Messenger helped team members swap 5,000 hours and let managers post open shifts in real time. Now, they're planning a pilot with another Minnesota business—Lifetime Fitness. Turns out that Minnesota’s starting to feel like home. “We’re so blown away by the support we’ve received here that we’re relocating to Minneapolis full-time,” says founder Atif Siddiqi. 
MakersKit's grey logo is shown on a white backgroundHelping the world be creative again
Remember when a cardboard box could transform into a castle with a few markers and tape? Or tin cans into a phone with just a little yarn? Josh Porter and the team at L.A.-based MakersKit are afraid that we’re losing our ability to be creative. So they’re on a mission to bring creativity back—and to remind the world that anything is still possible. They scour social sites like Pinterest for the hottest trends, then create DIY kits (complete with online instructional videos) to help kids and adults alike get creative at home. Tiny terrarium? You can do it. Classic cocktails? The kit has all the tools you’ll need. MakersKit has already sold over 300,000 DIY kits across the U.S., Canada and Europe, and they’re now creating a subscription service as well. But their biggest learning moment came during the accelerator. “Our mentors from Target really helped us to think of our customers first, because they're who we're making a unique experience for in the first place. With their guidance, we’re now on track to becoming the number one DIY brand in America within a year,” said Josh.
ItsByU's orange logo with a bird is shown on a white backgroundDelivering happiness
This sister duo from Philadelphia is delivering happiness, one DIY flower kit at a time. Customers use the kits, complete with fresh flowers, tools, containers and video tutorials, to create their own arrangements for weddings, holidays, home décor and more—saving up to 80% over florists. The inspiration behind ItsByU? Co-founder Christine Strzalka owned a floral studio, but noticed that customers preferred buying their flowers online, at grocery stores or at wholesalers. She discovered that Americans are spending $18 billion each year on cut flowers, but they were arranging flowers at home. So armed with the great idea for DIY kits, she and sister Caroline got to work. They launched ItsByU just two weeks before coming to the Target + Techstars accelerator and have already been featured on The Knot and named as an outstanding bridal activity by celebrity wedding planner David Tutera. Now they’re gearing up to sell this kits on QVC and they just signed an agreement to be an affiliate on Target’s wedding registry starting this fall. Everything’s coming up roses!

Nexosis' black and pink brain logo is shown on a white backgroundPredicting the future
The Nexosis team out of Westerville, Ohio thinks humans are pretty awesome. “They’re just not great at predicting the future and that’s where Nexosis can help,” says co-founder Ryan Sevey. Some problems—like accurately forecasting product demand within a retail supply chain—are just too complicated for humans. It involves dealing with millions of variables, from weather and holidays to promotions. Humans just can’t compute. But Nexosis’ fully-automated machine-learning platform takes the guesswork out of forecasting, predicting how much product companies will need in the coming months and years. And the more data that enters the platform, the smarter it becomes. In the past nine months, the Nexosis team has started to partner with retailers around the globe, is integrating with Shopify to reach millions more, and they’re not done listening and iterating. “Our Target mentors played a crucial role in helping us decide where to spend our time and energy. We were able to understand our target market better and tailor and tweak our platform to their real needs,” says Ryan.The Revolar blue hummingbird logo is shown against a white background.Living fearlessly
What if you could press a button anytime, anywhere, to let loved ones know that you needed help? When Jacqueline Ros’ sister was assaulted, she knew she had to do something to make the world safer. Less than eight months ago, Jacqueline and her Denver-based Revolar team had zero experience, no money and no engineers. But, they did have incredible purpose, passion and persistence. They created a prototype of a discrete wearable that sends live location updates with the simple push of a button—a potentially life-saving virtual call for help that transmits via cell phone, with no monthly fees. The product is now available from six retailers and will be coming to a handful of Target stores this fall. “Mentors are truly the magic behind Target + Techstars. Often, we are being pulled in so many directions that getting that level of clarity and support from a mentor is game-changing and reminds you why you started what you did in the first place,” says Jacqueline. So what’s next? Revolar’s making their product sleeker, smaller and more powerful. And they’re not stopping there—they’re working on a pilot with UC Berkeley to help make college campuses safer, and finding ways to help parents keep track of their kids or aging relatives who struggle with mobility. It’s all part of their mission of helping people stay safe and live fearlessly.

Spruce's black and white logo is shown against a white background.Blending bots and brick-and-mortar
This husband and wife team from Denver joined the Target + Techstars accelerator as one business—Spruce, a connected, brick-and-mortar store of the future (part barbershop, part men’s style house with a splash of cold beer). Their unique store experience is powered by a bot with fun interactive features (like a scratch-off game you play in-store), Uber-like checkout where you put on your new clothes and go, arrival alerts so the team can welcome guests by name and more. But as they joined the accelerator and dug even deeper into customer feedback, they had a big revelation. “We met with brick-and-mortar owners for advice, but they kept asking if they could use our tech,” says co-founder Taylor Romero. “So we split into two companies: Spruce Retail and Spruce Tech.” Spruce Tech harnesses the power of the original bot for retailers looking to up their own game in the connected, store-of-the-future space. The whole point? “Sprucebot’s the most connected bot in retail.” Says Taylor. “He does the behind-the-scenes work for retailers so they can focus on the most important person in the world: the one walking through the door.”
The Addstructure black logo is shown against a white background.Making online search as simple as asking a question
With tech like Siri, Alexa and Google Now becoming more popular, retailers are trying to figure out how to harness the power of human voice. The AddStructure team from Chicago is out to make online search as simple as asking out loud for what you need. Say “find the best headphones for running,” and their engine will curate a list of top-rated headphones perfect for jogging. Working closely with Thom Lewis, Target’s vice president of site merchandising and our search team this summer, they researched how consumers use voice search to purchase products. “We learned that the value of voice search is in its ability to capture impulse purchases—purchases that exclusively happen in stores today,” says co-founder Jarrod Wolf. They’re using this nugget, and insights gained over the 14-week program, to evolve their language processing engine to help retailers to have much more conversational, natural interactions with customers online. Up next? Pilots with six of the nation’s biggest retailers, including Target.
Obvious' leaf-themed logo is shown against a white background.Embracing the startup journey
Target isn’t just learning from these startups. We’re taking it one giant step further, creating a startup ourselves. We hand-picked three Target team members, plucked them out of their day jobs, and moved them into the Target + Techstars accelerator to get the full entrepreneurial experience. It’s too soon to share details, but the Obvious team’s re-imaging lunches for kids. So, what’s it like to immerse yourself in the startup culture? “It's totally different,” says Anne Steeves. “I'm used to a big team with very clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Now every day is different and there are many new challenges. I might define brand values one day and test with consumers the next. It's been a journey of lot of listening and getting outside of Target. And I’d credit so much to my Techstars peers, who live and breathe an entrepreneurial mindset. They're always thinking and acting forward, and it's rubbed off.”

Get involved
It’s been an unforgettable summer of innovation, mentoring and entrepreneurship, and we're just getting started. The Target + Techstars Retail Accelerator will be back next summer (and again in 2018) with a whole new crop of startups. Applications will be available in January. To learn more, check out

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