If you’re one of the 600 hundred million people around the world who work shifts, trying to plan out your day can be a nightmare. You’re given a printout of your schedule several weeks in advance but you might be asked to change shifts at the very last minute. If you have a sudden emergency, you must scramble to find a co-worker who can replace you. The problem is that there’s often no formal way to do this: Often, you’re left to your own devices, which means reaching out to your colleagues through a Facebook group or texting them on WhatsApp. “They’re really relying on just SMS and basic pictures of their schedule,” Atif Siddiqi, a former retail employee says.
A year ago, Siddiqi created a startup called Branch Messenger, which is trying to change the status quo. In November 2015, he launched a free messaging app that allows co-workers to contact one another, check their schedules, and swap shifts. “We get this great viral adoption by employees,” he says. Companies can pay for a subscription to have access to certain administrative control, like approving or rejecting shift changes. Many employees are already using the app in places like J.Crew, Panera, 24Hour Fitness, and Arby’s, but Siddiqi wants his technology to become a mainstay of the retail industry.
He’s just gotten a step closer to his goal because Branch Messenger is one of 10 startups selected to be in Techstars’ first retail accelerator, which it is launching in partnership with Target. Starting on June 20, these startups will spend 12 weeks in Target’s headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they will receive mentorship from Target’s leadership as well as through the Techstars network. Siddiqi is hoping to use the program to take his business to the next level by finding ways to partner with large enterprise retailers. He’ll enter Target’s world, learn from the company’s top brass, and better understand what an organization of this size and scale really needs. The startups won’t necessarily end up selling their products or services to Target, but for many teams, like Siddiqi’s, that would be a dream come true.
Techstars intentionally defined the concept of “retail” loosely for this program. It considered startups that developed products that could be sold on shelves, ideas that could enhance supply chain and sourcing capabilities, data and analytics platforms, and marketing and customer communications. Over the course of several months, Target and Techstars publicized this initiative by sending representatives on a road trip throughout the country, organizing events for entrepreneurs who might be interested in the program. Word spread quickly and they ended up receiving 500 entries. To winnow this down to 10, the Techstars and Target teams considered both how good the applications were, but also whether they would stand to gain something from working closely with Target executives. “We wanted to make sure that we would be able to give them the boost that they needed to take their companies to the next level,” says Casey Carl, Target’s chief strategy and innovation officer. In addition to the 10 startups, Target is including one of it’s own internal startups–a new food brand called Good and Gather–in the mix.
Over the past year, Target has brought in three entrepreneurs-in-residence whose goal was to launch new businesses that would help the company grow in new ways. One of them, West Stringfellow, came up with the idea of the Techstars Target partnership and is now managing the program. He felt that Minnesota was a great place to connect startups with massive industry-leading corporations. “Minneapolis has a huge foundation of enormous companies,” Stringfellow says, listing off General Mills, Cargill, Mayo Clinic, United Health Group, Target, and Best Buy, among others. “Its not just about igniting the local community, it’s also about drawing talent into the Twin Cities.”
Stringfellow points out that with the skyrocketing rents in San Francisco and New York, many young entrepreneurs are looking for an alternative place to start their companies. Minneapolis happens to be nicely situated between the two cities, making it a good possibility, but to attract entrepreneurs, it would need to have a thriving business community. He believes that Techstars could play a role in transforming the city into a new tech hub.
Target, for its part, has been keen to bring a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation to its entire company. It already has several entrepreneurs-in-residence and has a partnership with MIT and Ideo to develop ideas around the future of food (which we wrote about recently).
But this new partnership is Target’s first long-term entrepreneurship program. “We know our own talent, leadership, strengths, and capabilities and where we have years of experience,” Carl says. “This is how we can serve these entrepreneurs. But also this program gives us the opportunity to learn from some of the best startups in the world who are innovating in the retail space.”
The final 10 companies are very diverse, offering a wide range of different products and services. Branch Messenger, for example, could improve a big retailer’s logistics and employee happiness. A Hong Kong-based startup called Inspectorio helps to make the inspection process more efficient in the supply chain. Yet another, called AddStructure, is a totally different approach to search that uses machine learning and sentiment analysis; it could radically transform the way that people search for products on a major retailer’s website.
But some of the other startups are creating consumer products that could one day be sold on the shelves of a major retailer. MakerBloks, for example, a Montreal-based startup, has created a toy that teaches 6- to 10-year-olds how to build tech hardware using Lego-like blocks. Founder Francois Poirier launched a successful Kickstarter and managed to get his product into production, but he has big dreams for his company. By applying to Techstars, he’s hoping to grow his business quickly. “We have a very large vision of what MakerBloks can do,” Poirier says. “The way we introduce children to technology, we can actually do it around the world without any barriers of age, gender, or language.”
Other companies are interested in transforming the in-store experience for guests. MakersKit, for instance, has mastered the art of bringing DIY crafts into retail environments and Spruce, a store in Denver, Colorado, combines a barbershop with a men’s styling service in an interesting way.
One of the founders, Jacqueline Ros already went through the Techstars program in Boulder, Colorado, to launch her startup Revolar, a product that allows users to send a distress signal to friends and family. But she went through the entire process of applying for this second retail-specific Techstars program because she felt it would offer her team a whole new perspective. “The first program we did dove deep into technical mentorship and allowed us to build the team we needed to build,” Ros explains. “But I’m really keen to learn from Target how we can best serve our community. Target has learned how to capture that at a really large scale.”
Stringfellow says that many Techstars startups end up staying in the city where they went through the program, whether that’s Seattle or San Antonio. So he’s hoping that the accelerator will introduce new tech talent to Minneapolis over the next few years, transforming the area into a hot new destination for entrepreneurs. “We’re hoping that people come for Techstars and stay for Minnesota,” Stringfellow says.