3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Meet this week's Houston innovators to know. Courtesy photos

This week, some key Houston innovators to know include the CEO of a tech company that's demystifying Google's SEO, a local entrepreneur who just raised millions in funding, and the newest addition to the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Michael Umansky, CEO of Edgy Labs

Michael Umansky Ink and Edgy Labs

Courtesy of Edgy Labs

For years, Michael Umansky and the team at Edgy Labs have been figuring out the ins and outs of Google's algorithm for digital marketing purposes. If Edgy knows how Google ranks content, Edgy can provide the most optimized content out there for its clients.

But the Houston SEO experts also realized another group of people they can help: Content creators and writers. So, Edgy Labs created INK — a writing tool to help this group of individuals create the best and most optimized content without having to know anything about SEO.

"We envision a world where the content creators can control their own search destiny," Umansky says. "What we want to do is focus on empowering those writers to really take the power of search back into their own hands without having to be SEO experts." Read more.

Chris Buckner, CEO of Mainline

Courtesy of Mainline

Chris Buckner, CEO of Mainline, closed its series A at $6.8 million. Houston-based Work America Capital led the round, and the esports software startup will use the funds to grow its platform, event management customer base, and marketing efforts, as well as to hire developers, marketing, and sales talent.

"The world of esports and gaming is exploding; however, continuity in tournament organization is lacking, keeping the sport from really taking off in other viable and exciting markets," says Chris Buckner, Mainline CEO, in a news release. "Mainline gives brands the tools they need to run powerful esports programs that will evolve the quickly maturing industry to the benefit of players, students, and the greater esports ecosystem." Read more.

Jon Lambert, CEO of The Cannon Houston

Jon Lambert The Cannon

Courtesy of The Cannon

The Cannon Houston has had a big week — from celebrating its new flagship space to announcing its latest downtown outpost. And now, the coworking and startup hub has announced a new CEO: Jon Lambert.

"Lawson and his team have done an incredible job taking The Cannon vision and making it real. I'm happy to be part of the positive momentum and energy they have created. There has never been a better time for startups to enter the market, but achieving success has never been more challenging. The Cannon is playing a unique role in helping evolving companies navigate and accelerate their way through this journey." Read more.

INK, a digital writing tool, allows writers to see how their content would perform on search engines in real time. Photo courtesy of INK

Houston tech company launches digital product to take the guesswork out of SEO

Meet INK

A Houston company wants to arm content creators and writers with the tools to perfect search engine optimization, and they want to provide these tools for free.

INK, a downloadable writing tool and web app, was created by the brains behind Edgy Labs, a tech company that has been working on dissecting how Google and search engines operate. Edgy's founders — Alexander De Ridder, Michael Umansky, and Gary Haymann — created the content site as a lab to test out their SEO theories and best practices.

"INK is the byproduct of everything we've learned at Edgy Labs that we productized," says Umansky, who serves as CEO. "We think we are on the cusp of leading what we are calling the content performance optimization revolution."

Umansky says that of the 4 million pieces of content created online daily, 94 percent of content gets little to no traffic on Google. And a big reason for content failing is because the writer doesn't fully understand how SEO works — and search engines are always evolving their algorithms.

Despite this huge SEO problem, there weren't any one-stop-shop tools available already.

"What we came to understand was that there's a ton of SEO and CMS products and analytics products, but what there wasn't was a really good way to help writers — who are really the ground zero for where content is created — bridge the gap to understanding what SEO is all about," Umansky says.

INK edgy labs INK allows writers to see in real time how their content would fare on Google. Photo courtesy of INK

The writing tool allows the user to create content right in the app, and as the writer composes, he or she gets real-time feedback on the content. INK will compare the content to potential competitors' content and analyze and score how it expects the published material to perform. All the while, INK has a customizable interface for users. There are light and dark modes, and even features for writers with dyslexia or color blindness.

Umansky says his team has big plans for growing INK and even introducing more tools and products, and INK's evolution will continue as search engines continue updates and algorithm edits.

"As Google changes, we change with it," Umansky says. "I think last year Google changed something like 3,500 times. It's constant."

He also sees INK being able to provide a headline optimization component, as well as tools for tracking engagement. While perfecting SEO is the first step, Umansky says he also wants to provide products that help optimize writing content for a conversion perspective that would be good for landing pages and digital ads.

INK launched online in early October and was ranked as the product of the week on Product Hunt. For now, the app is completely free to download. Umansky does think the first paid version will be live in the first quarter of 2020.

Ultimately, Umansky says, writers shouldn't also have to be SEO specialists — that's INK's team's job. The product they created will allow for easy content management system integration — it already has an extension in WordPress.

"We envision a world where the content creators can control their own search destiny," Umansky says. "What we want to do is focus on empowering those writers to really take the power of search back into their own hands without having to be SEO experts."

Houston-based Edgy Labs is working on AI technology to constantly stay ahead of search engine technology. Pexels

How this Houston company is staying one step ahead of Google

SEO pros

Where's the best place to hide a dead body? According to Alexander De Ridder and other search optimization experts, it's on the second page of Google where no one ever goes.

Jokes aside, search engine optimization has become a serious business as people have pivoted from making their own decisions based on knowledge acquired or resources available to trusting entities to decide for them, De Ridder explains.

"More and more of our lives are governed by decisions we are outsourcing," De Ridder says. "For example, maybe you jumped in the car this week and you entered a destination. The GPS told you where to turn — you don't question that."

While convenient, the challenge this new normal presents companies is how to make clear to the internet that that their information is worthy of being on the first page of search results. De Ridder co-founded Houston-based Edgy Labs with Michael Umansky and Gary Haymann to figure out for themselves how this "black box" decision making works — and where it's going.

"Our take was let's build a laboratory to understand how that rank or AI works and build our own platform around it and get better insights on how that black box thinks," Umansky, who is CEO of the company, says.

Edgy Labs has two sides to it. At its core, the company is a blog covering trends and research in science and technology that acts as an SEO-testing platform, or lab. Once the team has the developed technology, it's able to provide its best practices and tools to clients.

"We think about innovation in a practical way as something that you need to live out the truth yourself, before you go out and apply it to other people," explains De Ridder, who also serves as CTO of the company.

The SEO business is projected to be an $80 billion industry by 2020, Umansky says, and its evolving from text focused to including voice and video in the search process. When Edgy Labs launched, the focus was on creating content that was primed to be picked up by Google. Through this process, the company grabbed the attention of some large Fortune 100 accounts.

"What we saw was if we applied these same techniques to a large brand, there was a massive uptake in success for the content and the site itself," Umansky says. "What that's led us to want to do is take the power of the technology and put it back in the hands of content creators."

Edgy Labs has found that the key to SEO and marketing online is to be content focused and put the users — and the information they are seeking — first.

"What's been really great is I think we've tried to turn the process upside down and make sure the client is creating content that's data driven insights — not just taking marketing slogans and terms and dropping it in the content, which was the norm," says Haymann, who leads the client-facing business.

Just like any technology, search is constantly evolving. Search engines used to scan the internet to suggest articles to answer your questions. Now, Google is taking information from those articles and regurgitating it for you, rather than sending you to a third-party website. A casualty of that is web traffic for the site that has that information.

This shift is a result of voice searching growth. One in five searches is done via voice search — think: Alexa or Siri — and 40 percent of adults use voice search daily, De Ridder says. With this type of search process, there can only be one response — not pages of results, like web searching. De Ridder says that because of this growth in audio searching, videos will become a more favorable search result.

Another growing digital trend, De Ridder says, is progressive web app pages becoming more useful in search than native apps. These PWAs act and feel like mobile apps, but without requiring the user to download anything. Where this trend metabolized is when the ".app" domains were released. Edgy Labs relaunched its webpage to being a mobile friendly progressive app page and has seen more engagement from its users — longer time on site, lower bounce rates, higher conversion rates.

"As websites want to survive and remain relevant, it will be about providing good information so that they can optimize themselves for voice search, video, and also have amazing experiences of native app-like quality," De Ridder says.

While SEO technology and practices evolve, Edgy Labs hopes to stay at the forefront of the industry.

"It's kind of like we're at the top of the mountain, and the mountain is always getting taller and taller. To stay on the cutting edge, you always have to keep climbing and climbing," De Ridder says. "But, if you're up there, you've got a beautiful view, and that allows you to look into the world and see the opportunity that's associated with that change."


Alexander De Ridder (left), Michael Umansky (center) and Gary Haymann founded Edgy Labs in 2016. Courtesy of Edgy Labs

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston rodeo prepares for 2020 season with new technology on the grounds

rodeo ready

When the 2018 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo opened the gates to its first show of the season with headliner Garth Brooks, the nearly 90-year-old organization had just switched to digital ticketing. Around the time to enter the stadium, the BHP Billiton entrance, which welcomes in 51 percent of rodeo goers each night, was backed up with impatient rodeo fans.

For whatever reason, the roll out of the technology didn't go as planned, says Joel Cowley, CEO of the rodeo. But, after some damage control, the rodeo made some adjustments to the gate and ensured that those inefficient lines never happened again.

It was a lesson to learn for the rodeo, which isn't shying away from any other technology upgrades that will benefit rodeo goers and the organizations staff and volunteers.

"Anytime you do something new, you have to be on guard," Cowley tells InnovationMap. "You have to make sure you are stacked up on capacity — whether that be personnel, scanners, server capacity — because if you're not, it could create a situation from that."

A few months ago, the rodeo announced a slew of c-suite changes to its team following a reorganization led by McKinsey & Co. Among the changes was changing Andy Sloan's responsibilities from chief information officer to chief technology officer.

"As part of that reorganization, there was some focus on improving the technology that we utilize — and that's everything from our customer management system to what the consumer sees," Cowley says. "Andy is a great resource when we're trying to integrate those things."

The study prompted big ideas for new tech-driven initiatives for the rodeo, like a wristband that acts as your ticket but is also synced to your credit card for all purchases on rodeo grounds. But while that's an initiative for the future, 2020 rodeo attendees can expect to see new technologies this season.

Digital carnival packs

This year, the rodeo's carnival has began selling digital carnival ticket packs in an effort to transform the carnival experience to 100 percent digital. To prepare for this transition, the carnival volunteers have received extensive training — especially on how to communicate the process during the sales encounter.

Cowley says he expects to receive some negativity from longtime carnival ticket buyers, but also knows many people will appreciate the upgrade.

"The convenience for the users once they get used to it is going to be really great," Cowley says.

Gamification

Around two years ago, the rodeo conducted a study to understand its market. The study found that there are seven types of consumers for the rodeo. Cowley says they learned that there was a particular consumer type that they realized the rodeo could improve on attracting.

One of the ideas to attract this segment within the market was gamification. Cowley explains that according to the rodeo's survey data, rodeo goers' primary reason for attending is the show is the musical performer. The data also shows that when they get here, they enjoy their overall experience — not just the concert, Cowley says.

"Gamification is something that we are adding this year to engage the younger tech-savvy segment to give them something to do on the grounds," Cowley says.

The new tool, which is available on the rodeo's app, prompts users to check in around the grounds and complete tasks to earn buckles that can be redeemed for prizes.

"We think the more they see of the grounds, the better chance we have of making them lifelong fans," Cowley says.

There's also a new lounge called the Social Spur just north of the stadium where visitors can charge their devices and learn more about the app and the game.

Updated app

When it came to exploring gamification, Cowley says the rodeo looked into its app developer's capacity, as well as other app development companies. This process resulted in a new app provider and an overhaul of the rodeo's mobile app. The app, which syncs to the user's Facebook, is run by Canada-based Greencopper.

"It has been completely rebuilt from the ground up," Coweley says. "I think appearance-wise and functionality-wise — even though there was nothing wrong with the last one — this one is better."

Over the years, the rodeo's app has become more and more key in the rodeo experience. Users can find maps, buy tickets, view schedule information, and even receive up-to-date parking information.

Cowley says connectivity hasn't been a huge issue for the rodeo, but this year they've extended their WiFi service within NRG Stadium to cover just outside the gates so that users with digital tickets on the app can have that access.

In-seat food ordering

Also new for rodeo attendees is sEATz, a Houston-based startup that has developed an app that allows sporting event or concert attendees to order food to their seats. The app — through its partnership with the rodeo's food and beverage provider, Aramark —will be servicing the 100-level seats.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

3 things Houston entrepreneurs need to keep in mind to run a lean startup and reduce risk

Houston voices

There are few things riskier than launching a new business. You could run through a mine field and have a better chance at living than launching a successful, long-lasting business. In fact, the Harvard Business School even reported that three out of every four startups fail. Fortunately, a new process has come to light that was designed precisely to reduce the risk of starting a business. Lean startups champion trial and error over detailed planning. Customer feedback over "gut feeling." Cyclic processes of design over traditional development.

Some lean startup ideas have already gone mainstream because they've proven to be so effective. The principles of "minimum viable product" and "startup pivot" have become so engrained in modern business that even university business colleges have begun to teach them.

There are three key aspects of the lean methodology.

Educated guesses

Number one: Instead of spending a year conducting research and planning long-term, lean startup entrepreneurs go with the idea that all they have on the first day is a bunch of unproven ideas. Guesses, really. These entrepreneurs forego the traditional business plan and opt instead to give a Cliff Notes version of their big idea using a template dubbed "business model canvas." It's pretty much a diagram that shows how a business generates value not just for its consumers, but for itself.

Field work

Number two: Lean startups use an "out and about" method for testing their ideas. It's a kind of customer development. They go "out and about" and basically interview potential customers, interested people, and people on the fence about all aspects of their business. How's our pricing compared to others you've seen? Do you like our product features? What do you think of our strategy? Lean startup entrepreneurs amend their ideas based on the feedback they get from customers. That's the beauty of the lean method: it's based on your willingness to change directions based on new information. Sound familiar? Well, it should. I just described pivoting. A lean startup concept now adopted by major corporations.

Agility means stability not fragility

Number three: The software industry bore a method called agile development. Agile development cuts down on wasted time because it emphasizes the ability and willingness to change directions and adapt fast. That's what agile means. To move quickly. There's a company named RoofProtect Pro that created a chemical they thought would appeal to homeowners looking to reduce shingle rot. Turns out there wasn't really a demand for reducing shingle rot. It wasn't as big a deal as the RoofProtect Pro founders had hypothesized. However, after speaking with business owners they discovered there was a demand for something to help reduce rust and deterioration of signage. RoofProtect Pro went back to the drawing board to build and test a prototype for a chemical that reduces rust and staining on different material like concrete and metal. A year later RoofProtect Pro became SurfaceSustain and obtained over $2 million in venture capital funding.

Now that's agility!

It's no surprise, then, that in the high-stakes world of business, a methodology designed specifically to reduce risk would prove successful. Lean methods don't guarantee success, of course, but the principles it holds dear do help strip away a lot of wasted time and energy and have proven to be highly efficient. Now, if there's an antidote to riskiness, it's got to be efficiency. Efficiency tightens a business to bare bones so there is little room for big risks to hurt your venture.

------

This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Nissan selects Houston to debut its on-demand subscription service

driving innovation

Volvo and Porsche are already doing it. Now, Nissan is getting in on the vehicle subscription service model with a new program called Nissan Switch. The service will debut in Houston.

"Nissan Switch is another way that Nissan is testing alternatives to the notion of traditional mobility, without long-term financial commitments for our customers," said Andrew Tavi, vice president, Legal, External Affairs and Business Development, Nissan North America, Inc. "This program provides more choice, convenience, and flexibility. For those who want a sedan during the week and an SUV or sports car, like the GTR, on the weekends, Nissan Switch provides the solution."

By signing up for the Nissan Switch program, subcribers can test models including the Nissan Leaf Plus, Titan, and GT-R. Nissan has recently redesigned many of the vehicles in their lineup including the Versa, Sentra, and Altima. The Frontier got a new engine for the 2020 model year and Murano, Maxima, and Titan have gotten significant updates in the past 18 months.

The program works similar to how on-demand media programming works. The price tier of the service subscribed to dictates the vehicles that can be switched out. There is no long-term contract or commitment.

For $699 per month, subscribers have access to the Altima sedan, Rogue and Pathfinder SUVs, and Frontier truck. Spending $899 per month allows for testing of the Leaf Plus electric vehicle, Maxima sedan, Murano and Armada SUVs, Titan truck, and 370Z sports car. Those wishing to test out the GT-R must elect for the $899 per month Premium service level and pay an additional $100 per day with seven-day consecutive maximum use.

Subscribers won't be driving just rental car spec base models. Each vehicle will be featured in a well-equipped trim level, some with Nissan's ProPilot Assist driver-assist technology that has features including lane centering, lane keeping, and blind spot warning.

After a $495 membership activation fee, the monthly subscription includes the vehicle (unlimited switches, as often as a new vehicle each day), delivery, cleaning, insurance, roadside assistance, and regular maintenance.

------

This article originally ran on AutomotiveMap.