People to watch in Silicon Alley
By Judith Messina
crainsnewyork.com – May 8, 2013 9:11 a.m.
Crain’s profiles a dozen hot tech executives whose recent moves could pay off big—not only for their companies but for the city’s digital economy.
The dozen executives profiled here have a lot at stake this year. Some have launched new ventures, shifted business models or made big exits that set them up for the next round of entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, the scope and variety of all the companies profiled in this special report show how much the city’s economy has riding on the success of the tech industry, which is bigger, broader and more important than it has ever been.
Joshua Topolsky, 35, editor in chief, and Martin Moe, 47, publisher: The Verge
The Verge, founded by Martin Moe and Josh Topolsky and operated today by Vox Media, is one of the hottest news properties to hit the tech scene in recent years. The founders, a former AOL exec and an Engadget editor, started the site 18 months ago as a a destination for technology news and a vehicle to explore “the intersection of technology, art and culture” in long-form journalism. A year ago, it hired a bevy of tech journalists, challenging such sites such as The Wall Street Journal’s AllThingsD. With 12 million unique visitors a month and a stable of nearly 50 editors and reporters, it’s one of the most-read tech sites on the Web. Reportedly profitable, it now has to prove it can continue generating cash. Look for it to earn its reputation beyond tech, as in a recent take on the Boston bombings, “My lockdown: Here’s what it was like living in Boston this week.”
Stacy Spikes, 45, chief executive, and Hamet Watt, 40, co-founder: MoviePass
If the third time is the charm, these guys could have it made. Since they started MoviePass in 2011, Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt have twice overhauled the business, a service that lets subscribers see a movie a day for a $30 to $40 monthly charge. For aficionados of the big screen, it’s a bargain, especially in New York City, where even a showing of The Croods can set you back $15 or more.
Mr. Spikes is a former vice president of marketing for Miramax, and Mr. Watt founded entertainment ad platform NextMedium. Their new version of MoviePass uses a smartphone and a debit card for ticket purchases. Moreover, they’re planning to sell ads and data about viewing habits to theaters and moviemakers. Backed with $4.7 million from AOL Ventures and others, they are beta-testing the new version and will offer subscriptions to the general public before the end of the year. Some 26,000 movie lovers are on the waiting list.
Dan Roth, 40, executive editor, LinkedIn
The difference between LinkedIn and Tumblr and Facebook, Dan Roth told an audience a few weeks ago, is that LinkedIn’s content is the real thing, by and for professionals. Other sites, he said, are just promoting themselves.
“We have original content, and the community takes it from there,” said Mr. Roth, noting that Facebook, for instance, promotes users’ stories about … Facebook.
A former editor of Fortune, Mr. Roth is leading LinkedIn’s charge into content—a new and challenging frontier for social networks as they strive to keep users tuned in. More than 1 million online sites have InShare buttons linked to their content and, overseen by Roth’s team of editors, LinkedIn distributes stories to its 200 million users from three dozen publishers. The posts by its 250 “influencers” are the original content Mr. Roth is touting. Everyone from President Barack Obama to Richard Branson and Meg Whitman pens columns.
Content is a risky business, though. Media companies, including Tumblr, are pulling back. Two weeks ago Tumblr shut down Storyboard, a news blog about its members. If he can make it work for LinkedIn, Mr. Roth will be a (content) hero.
Jessica Lawrence, 33, executive director, NY Tech Meetup
Under Executive Director Jessica Lawrence, NY Tech Meetup became a player last year when it helped put the kibosh on federal anti-piracy legislation that techies said would limit freedom of expression. But a bigger test of Meetup’s political muscle is coming as the 32,000-member organization wades into the upcoming mayoral election, hoping to elect an incumbent sympathetic to the burgeoning tech community. Tech’s wish list, which it plans to present to mayoral candidates, includes affordable broadband service and a public education system that can deliver tech talent.
Ms. Lawrence, 33, emerged out of nowhere in 2011—her previous experience was as head of a regional California Girl Scouts council where she oversaw 75 staffers and 20,000 scouts. All the more reason to keep an eye on what she does as a new player on New York’s fractious political scene.
Dennis Crowley, 36, chief executive, Foursquare
Dennis Crowley has taken heat lately from critics who say Foursquare has weak revenue, a shaky business model and excessive valuation. Research company PrivCo even predicted earlier this year that the social-media company would be acquired for less than the money invested in it. Mr. Crowley has an answer for his critics: With $41 million in new money—a loan combined with convertible debt—he is beefing up his sales team and reinventing the mobile check-in pioneer as a search and recommendation for local businesses. He’s rolling out new tools for merchants and using the mountain of data Foursquare collects about which places are popular and where users are likely to spend money, and if they do, how much.
The debt financing brushes aside for the moment questions of how much the company is worth and gives Mr. Crowley some breathing room to hone his formula for making money.
Daniel Huttenlocher, 54, founding dean, Cornell NYC Tech
The city has a lot riding on Daniel Huttenlocher: $23 billion in economic activity, $1.4 billion in tax revenue and 600 startups expected to create 30,000 jobs.
The items on that extravagant to-do list are the economic benefits expected to accrue from Cornell NYC Tech, the Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology joint campus to be built on Roosevelt Island, the city’s biggest tech development ever.
Mr. Huttenlocher is a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur and was most recently dean of the faculty of computing and information science at Cornell. He’s already checked off one goal: getting the new school up and running. In January, eight students started taking classes, in office space donated by Google, for a one-year master’s degree in computer science.
The rest will be a bit harder: building the $2 billion campus, developing the programs, hiring 280 faculty members and recruiting 2,500 students.
Wiley Cerilli, 33, vice president and general manager, SinglePlatform
Wiley Cerilli spent 10 years at Seamless helping to perfect the business of ordering in. Later, on his own, he founded SinglePlatform, a site that helps small businesses manage their online presence. A short two years after founding SinglePlatform, he sold it last June for a cool $100 million.
A consummate salesman who never finished college, the entrepreneur regularly makes the lists of top CEOs and influential people on the New York tech scene. He still runs SinglePlatform for buyer and email marketer Constant Contact. But the tattoo emblazoned on his back, “Imagine,” is a testament to his entrepreneurial instincts. We’re betting there’s another start-up in his future, sooner rather than later.
Michelle Peluso, 41, chief executive, Gilt Groupe
As the new head of luxury-goods seller Gilt—everyone’s favorite IPO candidate—Michelle Peluso, 41, has lot riding on her shoulders. The company’s fourth CEO in five years, Ms. Peluso took over from founder Kevin Ryan in February following a round of layoffs and restructurings aimed at getting the high-profile firm profitable enough to go public. Even with layoffs, it still has more than 1,000 employees and a reported $500 million in revenue.
Happily for Ms. Peluso—and a multitude of IPO watchers—Gilt Groupe finally turned a profit in the fourth quarter of last year, albeit by excluding some expenses from the calculation. Now Ms. Peluso, the former global head of marketing and Internet for Citigroup’s consumer business, not only has to figure out the how and when of a public offering, but, more important, also how to keep Gilt Groupe profitable in a market that has grown weary of flash sales and daily deals.
Adam Pritzker, 28, executive chairman, and Jake Schwartz, 34, chief executive, General Assembly
When Yale University goes to General Assembly for education, you know the young company must have something going for it. What started a little more than two years ago as a co-working space-cum-classes is turning into a mini-empire and, just maybe, a scalable, profitable model for online education.
General Assembly offers community and classes—online and offline—taught by practitioners in hot areas such as design, coding and running a business. With 105 employees, $14 million in venture money and a footprint in 12 cities, including London and Berlin, General Assembly has already taught some 55,000 students.
But what differentiates it from other online learning platforms is its presence in the profitable corporate world. Clients include Yale and companies like American Express and PepsiCo, which, though big and rich enough to run their own training programs, are instead sending employees to General Assembly to learn about entrepreneurship and other key skills for the digital economy.
Keep a close eye, too, on Mr. Pritzker, who remains executive chairman but whose day job now is running a new, still stealth venture, Assembled Brands.
Boldface names in tech: other buzzworthy executives and companies
Ben Kaufman, CEO and founder Quirky and a Crain’s 40 under 40, recently inked a deal with GE to crowd source new products. Will Quirky kick off the revolution in manufacturing that’s waiting to happen?
Shafqat Islam, CEO, NewsCred. This company is starting to rise above the rest of the pack when it comes to syndication. With a new influx of venture capital, look for it to make acquisitions in the coming year.
Neil Capel, CEO and founder of Sailthru. Using big data to help companies create optimize email marketing and online recommendations, Sailthru has grown 270% in the past year and just landed $19 million ($29 million total) in venture money. Big data is just waiting for a breakout success or two.
Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman and Ilan Zechory, the three eccentric founders of Rap Genius, have a whopping $15 million from A-list VCs to annotate documents from rap songs to speeches and news stories, but can they figure out a way to make money?
A year ago, Aslaug Magnusdottir and Lauren Santo Domingo’s trunk show company, Moda Operandi, was the hottest venture deal around, but it really arrived when it signed up as lead sponsor of this year’s Metropolitan Museum of Art iconic Costume Institute gala. Now, as they expand into traditional retail, can they keep their edge?
In August there was talk of Apple acquiring Joe Einhorn’s photo sharing and social shopping site, thefancy.com, reportedly valued at $100 million. That hasn’t happened, but with 325,000 daily users, thefancy is doing quite well on its own, thank you very much. It doesn’t hurt to have Square’s Jack Dorsey and Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO of luxury brands conglomerate PPR, on the board. Still, can it be the new Amazon.com that Mr. Einhorn envisions.
Jordy Leiser, CEO of Stella Service, picked up a cool $15 million series B round in February for attacking a unique pain point on the Web, the customer service performance of hundreds of online retailers. Now comes the revenue test: in February he started charging retailers for the data.
Persado may be the first company ever to call itself a persuader. The brainchild of CEO and founder Alex Vratskides, Persado optimizes thousands of permutations of marketing messages across the Web. With a hefty $15 million in Series A funding from Bain Capital, it’s establishing a new headquarters on West 17th Street – it already has feet on the ground in San Francisco, London, Rome, Athens and Rio de Janeiro – to strengthen its presence in the U.S.
Adam Singola, CEO and founder of Taboola, has raised $40 million for his content video recommendation site, the last $15 million in a D round. Taboola’s revenue grew 750% last year. Can it maintain that growth as it expands into all types of content, an increasingly crowded space?
Correction: Sailthru has grown 270% in the past year. That figure was misstated in an earlier version of this article, published May 8, 2013. Additionally, LinkedIn has 250 “influencers” and does not disclose its number of editors. Those facts were also misstated in an earlier version of the article.
A version of this article appears in the May 13, 2013, print issue of Crain’s New York Business.