BizSpark Startup of the Day – dotbox

The BizSpark startup of the day is dotbox, based in the US. Below you will find an interview with Ashley John Heather, Co-founder and CEO of dotbox. All the best to them and congratulations for being the startup of the day!


Tell us who you are and your role in the company:

I am the co-founder and CEO of dotbox. My partner, Zo and I refer to the “dot” as a representative of creative, and the “box” as the symbol for implementation. At this stage of our start-up my role is to create and execute the product strategy for dotbox. So ensure the product vision is correct, and then making sure our designers and engineers are executing at as rapid a pace as we can to stay one step ahead.

What did you do before creating your company?

This is my 3rd start-up. My first one was a precursor to Shazam called MusiKube. We enabled people to tag songs on their cell phones, and use wireless kiosks in music stores like Virgin Megastores (remember them) to listen and buy the music you tagged. This was pre-iPhone/iTunes who clearly now owns the space we targeted. I quickly learned there is really no money in music services unless you have a huge marketing budget or a VC with deep pockets. We had neither. But we did partner with Microsoft and managed to meet and share the vision with Bill Gates at an ITU conference in Geneva. That was a great experience. I also got to meet Richard Branson when launching the MusiKube system in Virgin Megastores in SF, and that was a blast too.

My next company was called Instead of tagging and purchasing songs with your cell phone, the technology allowed users to tag and plink products they saw in TV shows, music videos, and really ANY media. This time we had a VC behind us, but that was still not enough to overcome the politics of Hollywood, and the general distrust and often hatred that exists between talent, production and media. Just look at what recently happened with Charlie Sheen as an example, then multiple it by 500. We had a partnership with CAA, but even that could not right the wrongs and decades of bickering about who should get the revenue generated from the talent and creativity that goes into Hollywood media. It was so frustrating, as we created a model that proved we could generate a $180 CPM from our technology, and really, that should have sold itself. I did get to meet with amazing media icons like Michael Eisner, Barry Diller and more – giving me plenty of stories I can only share over cocktails.

dotbox is a fusion and evolution of previous ideas and learnings, with a fresh twist and focus on the social wave. My career catch phrase has been “making life buyable” – eg I hear a song in a bar, so I want to buy it immediately, or I see a cool pair of sneakers on a contestant on American Idol, and I want them, or to tell my friends. Our Social Commerce platform – called 4CsX (where the Four C’s Cross – Commerce, Content, Community and Context), can help brands, retailers, publishers and other start-ups create innovative services and experiences that support the concept of “making life buyable” by merging social tools with the shopping experience, be they online, on the go, or in retail stores.

How do you feel being the most promising ‘Startup of the Day’ per Microsoft BizSpark?

Well given there are 365 days of the year, I guess we are in good company, but if we become start-up of the YEAR I might really bust out the champagne J I have been using Microsoft technologies in all my start-ups to-date (thanks to my genius CTO, Einar Breen). It does feel great to be recognized, and hopefully we can provide some insight and support to other entrepreneurs who are on their own journeys.

What is your company’s mission?

To make online shopping more fun and social by building a platform to bring the joy, social interaction and entertainment of shopping in the real world, into the online and mobile worlds. We call it the Crossroads. Hundreds of years ago, it used to be the crossroads of roman towns. Now the Crossroads is digital, and it is happening all around us, but we still need a place and experience to bring it all together. We help our clients do that.

In 140 characters or less, tell us what your company does:

We provide an affordable platform and supporting services to design and develop the most engaging digitally-enabled shopping experiences. So really, Social Commerce in a box™.

How did you get the idea for your company?

This current iteration is based on my passion of fusing technology and retail. Specially, I met my business partner, Zo working on a NFP project called WiFi Salon – bringing free WiFi to New York City Parks and public locations. Zo is the creative ying to my implementation yang. But really, we have a great team here, and we could not be doing what we do, and the pace we do it, without the contribution of everyone.

Tell us about your funding history. Are you currently looking for funding? If so, how much?

Having been down the VC road before, and failed, I am suffering from the once bitten twice shy dilemma. We have a business model that has allowed us to generate revenue quickly, and so we are pretty much self financed at this point. However, we have a big vision for where this social commerce arena will go, and certainly will always entertain financial and strategic partnerships that will help accelerate our journey.

How many employees do you have? How many developers?

20+, over half the company is involved in design/engineering – the lines are more blurred these days.

Are you hiring? If yes, what are you hiring for and where?

We are always looking for talent, across the board. We are growing quickly and need all the help we can get. Finding great, multi disciplined .Net developers is always a challenge, as they tend to be hired away (and paid well) by larger financial institutions – so getting people at a “start-up” rate is always a challenge.

Which platform are you building on? Why?

Ok, so now I will get a little (ok a lot) technical - Server-side it's all C# .NET 4.0 and hosted in Azure. We have a multi-tenant platform with a controller that consist of an Azure Storage account and a Worker Role that can be used across tenants for asynchronous tasks such as image and video processing, batch transfers to warehouses and payment gateways etc. Each tenant have it's own Azure account with a MVC 2 (soon 3) web role, SQL Azure DB and Azure Storage account. We have developed a set of API's including an extension to Visual Studio with publishing features and a custom MVC Cloud Service template. This architecture, when combined with our API's, MVC helper methods etc. is really the magic that makes it very quick to develop and deploy new websites.

We develop everything in HTML 5 and have developed JavaScripts to ensure it is backward compatible. We use server-side caching for almost all pages and use JavaScript, JSON and jQuery for session specific customization and to make the UI responsive and dynamic. For mobile optimization we use primarily use jQuery Mobile, sometimes in combination with dynamically picking MVC master page dependent on the form factor of the device and then we can reuse most views independently of the device.

With Azure, we can offer a fully redundant solution at a much lower cost than traditional ecommerce solutions and we can also instantly scale when required. This flexibility allows us to scale the footprint at short notice when a client is running an intensive campaign or when they get attention in the media. Also the admin work is eliminated. We don't use sys admins at all anymore. Our developers deploy to staging and our QA team takes it live.

Where do you see opportunities today in the Software/Internet area?

“Connecting the dots” has also been a mantra of mine. But I guess this is really the role of software today. Making things easy, more seamless and organic. Our lives are now all being digitized and recorded. I call it your digital shadow. The opportunities are endless, but we now have so much digital noise. The real question is how can new tools and services help us cut through to get to only the most important and relevant stuff? But there in lies the challenge, what is important is contextually relevant and a users context changes a thousand times a day. It makes my brain fry just thinking about it all. If I had to pick 3 important technology trends for us, it would be (1) rise in rich mobile devices and related Augmented Reality experiences (2) Kinect as a gesture recognition tool for retail environments, and (3) Facebook as the new Microsoft “passport”.

What do you think about the BizSpark Program?

So far so good. It has helped us get to this point, and hopefully it can continue to support us, and hundreds of other start-ups that want to get to scale quickly. The Open Source technology has really got all the buzz (free is a big plus), but there is a lot here to get excited about. The Biz Spark programme really helps to make Microsoft’s great technology affordable and accessible to start-ups, which is awesome for the entrepreneurial community.

Do you have any advice for young Software entrepreneurs?

Yes, they should follow me on Twitter, DM me and I will be glad to help out. If I gave some generic advice it would come off bland and I would rather spend my time being specific and helpful. I guess my key learning has been success and scale rarely happen quickly. The cases are few and far between. Exceptional success should inspire and motivate us all, but the only way to get there is to build your business one customer at a time.

Who’s your role model?

To me it’s a blend, not one person. When I met Bill Gates and Richard Branson through MusiKube, they both had completely different interactions and points of view on what we were building, but both perspectives were valuable. They are both amazing entrepreneurs who have accomplished huge success with very different personalities and approaches – so there is hope for us all!

What’s the ONE THING you would like readers to take away from this interview?

It's not the destination, its the journey. We are on a journey to make shopping and commerce more fun, engaging, social and connected. We hope all your readers will join us on that journey as consumers, partners, investors or just advocates of our mission!

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