It started over chips and salsa, just a few months ago.
Kari Peterson and Amy McKinnon, old friends and long time co-workers at Microsoft, were sitting at Mexican Village and discussing their idea for a cloud-based solution for marketing software using the freshly released cloud computing platform, Microsoft Azure. Both have over a decade of experience working with Microsoft Dynamics, and have seen the difficulties of marketing software solutions. They knew their idea could change all that.
“Are we really going to do this?” they asked each other.
Yes, they decided. Despite other duties – McKinnon is a mother of two, Peterson a mother of four and both were working full-time – this was their chance to create a startup, something they’d wanted to do for years. They began with a name, one they took from the meaning of the software that inspired their product, Azure – meaning “bright blue,” or “cloudless sky.”
Thus Sky Blue Technology was formed, but it is anything but cloudless. What Peterson and McKinnon have developed is an intelligent touch point system that allows companies to package their entire “sales pitch” into a virtual experience that includes video or a virtual machine, all of which is able to be stored and shared via the cloud.
Let’s briefly unpack that, as some of those terms may be a bit foreign for some people (cough- they were for me- cough). A touchpoint is the point of contact between a company and the customer. Both Peterson and McKinnon are well aware of the difficulties of marketing software solutions; Peterson worked for 14 years with Microsoft Dynamics doing product releases among other things, and McKinnon spent 10 years as a product/project manager and virtual machine developer.
“For years we saw the need to provide the tools to help them [sales teams] be more successful in selling solutions,” Peterson said.
“I’ve been a part of building these virtual machines,” McKinnon added. “It can take a week. You don’t know what to do with it. You can’t give it to someone else, and you have to put it on an external hard drive.”
A virtual machine is a software implementation that lets you run a program – in other words, a demo. Currently, the only way to show a company how your software solution works is to hand over a hard drive with the demo on it, in a clunky and often inefficient process.
“Usually there are issues with the performance and they [the demos] are slower,” McKinnon said. “Which is not good when you’re trying to sell a product.”
Sky Blue’s cloud-based solution for marketing software
With Sky Blue’s cloud-based marketing software, this long process becomes automated, giving customers an interactive demo of the software solution. What’s more – the Sky Blue dashboard allows the sales team to get real-time data on how the customer interacts with the demo; what videos they watch, the amount of time they spend on a certain application, etc. At the follow-up, they know exactly what this customer is interested in.
“We’re bringing the entire experience into one,” Peterson said. “It really levels the playing field when it comes to following up with that person.”
As for competition, Peterson said that there are other providers who will host your solution in the cloud, but none that focus on the marketing aspect as well.
“We have created a unique niche – a hybrid between a hosting provider and the marketing platform,” she said.
Upon its official launch in March, Sky Blue will be able to host one virtual machine per user, with ten access codes that you can use to invite prospects. Videos within the virtual machine are limitless. Their pricing begins at $299 per month for the Sky Blue Essentials package, which includes customization, content, a custom URL and activity reports – and $499 for the Sky Blue Premier package, which includes all of that plus a virtual machine. Yearly bills are also accepted.
Their hope, the two said, is that soon enough this entire process will be automated.
How to create a startup in 4 months
Now back pedal with me a second – back to the chips and salsa. Back to when these two working mothers decided to pursue an idea. That was last November, barely three months ago. And now Sky Blue Technology is going to be officially launched next month. Wha…?!
“Its been a complete whirlwind,” Peterson said with a laugh.
If you’re wondering how on earth this could have all come together so fast, here’s the lowdown. Both Peterson and McKinnon are avid 1 Million Cups attendees, and shortly after that fateful Mexican food dinner they saw Dean Bresciani of NDSU tell the audience to simply “send him an e-mail” if they needed help.
“He basically dared us to contact him,” McKinnon said.
So they did. And, true to his word, he responded. From there, the dominoes began to fall: through NDSU connections they were accepted into the Microsoft BizSpark program, and attended an entrepreneurial boot camp. In December their business plan was received by the North Dakota Small Business Development Center, and by the end of January they were accepted into the Innovate ND program.
They saw enough promise that Peterson left her job of 14 years at Microsoft to work full-time as the President of Sky Blue. McKinnon, who has the CEO title, continues to work at Microsoft as a vendor for the training team, but plans to switch full time to Sky Blue once they build their customer base.
They applied for a few grants as well, although they said the process is delayed waiting for 2015 budgets to be finalized – and they said they are not looking for angel investors or venture capital at this time. As of now, Sky Blue is completely self-funded.
In the midst of this rapid growth, Peterson and McKinnon found Fargo’s energy and support for entrepreneurs to be a major advantage.
“The support in the community is absolutely huge,” Peterson said.
However, they did run up against one problem; hard-to-find talent. Their search for developers who could work with Azure proved unsuccessful, and they ended up recruiting a team of developers located in Mumbai, India, called Oriana IT Solutions. Ideally, Peterson said, they would like to keep expanding locally.
“We didn’t have a space where we could announce that we need developers with the skillset we are looking for,” Peterson said. “If we could get more connected with local talent, that would be a win-win for everybody.”
Work with Oriana, however, has been productive. Since the team formed in early January, they have worked closely every day to prepare for the final launch of Sky Blue on March 15. That is the day of the Microsoft Convergence in Atlanta, GA, where the two will present their software to the Microsoft Azure team.
“The fact we have built an automated engine where our customers can register, customize and share their Sky Blue experience without any intervention from us interests the Azure team,” Peterson said. “A company has never automated using the Azure API in this way before.”
Looking back on this whirlwind, Peterson and McKinnon both had similar advice to give to others out there who might also have an idea- but may still be at the chips and salsa stage, lingering at the edge of the precipice.
“We were sitting in a restaurant and we said ‘we’re doing this,'” Peterson said.
“Create the name. Set up a bank account. Continue moving forward and believe in yourself. We could have easily said, are we crazy? We’re building a tech company and neither us are developers. Really, we could have come up with a thousand reasons not to do this – but believing in yourself and being creative is important.”
“It’s just about taking that initial first step,” McKinnon said.
McKinnon and Peterson will be presenting more about their cloud-based solution for marketing software at 1 Million Cups on April 1, 2015 shortly after their official launch. Be sure not to miss it- in the mean time, learn more about Sky Blue Technology here!
Photos courtesy of Sky Blue Technology.