In February 2015, Minneapolis startup Vidku
raised $17 million in a 17-day Series A funding round led by Arthur Ventures, a Fargo-based venture capital group. The speed and size of Vidku’s fundraising effort was unusual: According to data from CrunchBase
, the average Series A raised $6.9 million in 2014 and it often takes months to close a successful round.
So it’s no surprise that MSP’s investors and innovators sat up and took note of Vidku’s breakout success. CEO Jim Leslie attributes his company’s achievement both to the far-reaching capabilities of Flipgrid
, its core “asynchronous video sharing” product, and the boundless belief of Vidku’s 35-plus employees.
“Our investors weren’t interested because they knew who [Vidku’s leaders] were or trusted us to execute,” says Leslie, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who ran a handful of successful firms (and sold his most recent venture for a cool $100 million in 2011) before joining the Vidku team. “The passion of our entire team regarding Flipgrid’s future possibilities was infectious — our investors got as excited as we were” about Vidku and Flipgrid.
Users believe in Flipgrid, too. According to Leslie, the product has hosted more than 3 million video shares since its January 2014 launch, spreading chiefly through word of mouth. (Vidku has no formal marketing operation to speak of, though that may change in the future.)
Flipgrid admins, typically classroom educators, populate “grids” with video or text questions, prompting video responses from student users. Everyone with access to the grid can see and share the responses. There’s no limit to each grid’s capacity for questions and responses, though admins are limited to a specific number of grids per year — typically five to 10, or roughly one per class for full-time educators.
Though Flipgrid was originally designed for educators, Leslie is quick to point out that about 20 percent of the platform’s volume is devoted to non-educational use. Private businesses and government agencies use Flipgrid as a collaborative tool, while wedding planners and religious institutions leverage it to create more social events and environments.
“Flipgrid is a growing, powerful and highly effective technology tool that’s getting stronger all the time,” says Leslie. Following Vidku’s “design first” imperative, “we’re constantly developing new ways for users to participate.”
Vidku’s development activities have accelerated since the company spun out from an eight-person University of Minnesota team led by Dr. Charles Miller. Miller’s team is responsible for designing and building out Flipgrid’s base technology and critical elements. Leslie and co-founder Phil Soran, also a wildly successful tech entrepreneur, caught wind of Miller’s innovation and offered to form a private company capable of turning Flipgrid into a disruptive technological force.
“We were only interested in [spinning Flipgrid out of the U and forming Vidku] if [Miller’s] entire team was on board,” says Leslie. He didn’t need to worry: The response was an enthusiastic “yes.”
For Flipgrid’s core team and the U itself, the transition to private enterprise has thus far been smooth. All eight team members remain on staff at Vidku, generously compensated for their efforts and diligently working on the next big thing.
Perhaps more importantly, the U is a major shareholder in Vidku; Vidku’s success is quite literally the U’s success. Such public-private synergies, wherein universities drive innovation and investors provide the capital necessary to bring transformative ideas to market, are commonplace in established tech centers like Boston and Silicon Valley, says Leslie, but less so in MSP.
“A strong public-private linkage is the hallmark of a healthy entrepreneurial community,” he says. “We’re on the cusp of that here” in MSP.
In addition to Flipgrid, Vidku also offers a video-based assessment tool called Avenue. “Whereas Flipgrid is suited for discussions” and other forms of knowledge and experience delivery, Leslie explains, “Avenue is ideal for more formally assessing knowledge.”
Vidku’s team also handles development work for Passport
, a language-learning application initially developed by St. Paul-based EMC Publishing. Though Vidku doesn’t own Passport, Fligrid and Passport are kindred spirits with the same lofty goal: reducing friction and improving knowledge delivery in the classroom.
Later this year, Vidku plans to launch an application that offers a “significant enhancement” to Flipgrid’s capabilities, says Leslie. The new update “is the first tangible fruit of our intensive development efforts” since spinning off from the U, he adds, though he’s mum on the software’s specifics.