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

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Overheard: Local innovation leaders share what they see has changed in Houston for venture investing

Eavesdropping online

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

Houston's Brené Brown rises strong with new podcast and exclusive Spotify deal

now streaming

For two decades, renowned Houston thought leader and researcher Brené Brown has delved into the human condition, studying and exploring themes such as courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. Her work has made her a national figure as a five-time New York Times bestselling author and as a host of one of the most popular TED Talks of all time.

Now, Brown is leaping forward with her self-help work with an exclusive new multi-year deal with Spotify. The Houstonian will host a new podcast, "Dare to Lead," which will premiere exclusively on Spotify on October 19, according to a press release. Fans can also look for her beloved "Unlocking Us" podcast to move to Spotify in January 2021.

Brown said in a statement that it was "very important to me to build a podcast home where people could continue to listen for free."

In an added treat for those who love Yacht Rock (and who doesn't, frankly?), Brown is taking over Spotify's Yacht Rock Playlist and has added her favorite tunes (look for smart picks such as Christoper Cross, Doobie Brothers, TOTO, and more).

As for the podcast, "Dare to Lead" will feature conversations with "change-catalysts, culture-shifters and more than a few troublemakers who are innovating, creating, and daring to lead," according to a statement. It mirrors Brown's bestselling book of the same name.

"I've partnered with Spotify because I wanted a home for both podcasts," Brown added, "and I wanted it to be a place that felt collaborative, creative, adventurous, and full of music — like my actual house, where you'd find guitar stands in every room and framed pictures of everyone from Willie Nelson and Aretha Franklin to Freddy Fender, Mick Jagger, and Angus Young hanging on my walls."

When she's not overseeing her multimedia brand, podcasting, writing, hosting, and programming Spotify playlists, Brown serves as a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work. She is also a visiting professor in management at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

She is also the author of four other No. 1 New York Times bestselling books, including The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness. Her 2010 "The Power of Vulnerability" TED Talk has consistently been rated one of the top five most-watched of all time, with more than 50 million views. She is also the first researcher to have a filmed talk on Netflix; her "The Call to Courage" debuted on the streaming service in 2019.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.