by Christina York
When my co-founder Marjie and I headed to Detroit Startup Weekend in November 2014, SpellBound wasn’t a thing yet. We had it in our minds that we’d start a consulting company and Startup Weekend would be an awesome networking opportunity and give us some time to practice pitching -- a good skill to have for consulting, right?
Rewind to 2 days before Startup Weekend. I was reading in bed, frustrated with an all-too-common circumstance: not understanding what I was reading. I had a collection of seafaring stories by Jack London and couldn’t figure out the difference between the ships being described. I was moving back and forth between my paper book and iPad, typing in words like “corvette” and “frigate” and “barque.” Turns out that finding different angles of the ships are hard to come by. I ended up becoming so invested in my image searches that the whole activity took away from my book. It got tiring. And annoying.
I wanted to touch the word “barque” and have a 3D image pop up so I could see it, touch it, rotate it. Surely there’s a way to do this? I knew very little about augmented reality, but knew it had potential.
When I pitched the idea at Startup Weekend I shifted from describing my own selfish scenario to describing one in a classroom where a child might be reading Huckleberry Finn and not quite understand what an old-timey marbles game might be like.
Turned out that we made it to the second round where we formed teams. While Marjie and I are certainly a team, I’m a User Experience Designer and Marjie is a business analyst/product/project manager by trade. In other words, we needed someone with more technical chops. After we approached a ton of different developers to join our team, the response was always met with: “You want to do augmented reality in a weekend? You’re crazy!”
We had to fight the urge to just go home and put on yoga pants, but the stele we’re known for surfaced and we decided to carry on without technical people. We decided to fake an interface and hope for the best. Just then we were approached by Seth Archambault and Sean Yalda. Seth is one of those people with versatile talents and is so genuine in his desire to make a difference in the world. Sean’s a passionate guy, creative, and has a sense of adventure. Sounded good to us. Now we had a team of 4 and not a single one of us had experience with augmented reality.
Fear not, we thought. We worked together and spent the next 48 hours building a tech demo, business model, and scoping out families outside the Detroit Science Center and DIA for interviews. We needed to learn how this technology would fit into the lives of children.
We pitched our business idea to a panel of Detroit investors and the startup community and convinced them we had the best opportunity: We won! Our win qualified us for entry into the global startup battle. We whipped up an entry video and sent it off.
I found out that part of qualifying for the battle was to generate votes from the community, which I hadn’t tried to gather. Thankfully, hanging out in the Kroger parking lot on Thanksgiving weekend asking strangers to vote for a contest they had never heard of worked out well for us. We were competing against 23,000 people across 83 countries and we won! We won 1 of 5 prizes: the Women Technology Track.
We were honored by this flurry of wins, overwhelmed, and reeling from so much change in such a short period of time. The run has to be at its end now, right? Where do we go from here?
One of our prizes was a booth at the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas. If you've never been to CES, it is completely overwhelming; totally crazy. Imagine hundreds of thousands of people and the coolest technology you've ever seen.
We earned a small exhibition booth in Startup Alley, near the back of one of the massive halls. The first day we had people from Amazon, Disney and CNBC stop by and show genuine interest. Very quickly our booth was constantly 10 deep with people waiting to try our humble tech demo of 2 pages from Where the Wild Things Are. The feedback we got was amazing. I still get goosebumps remembering how affected adults were at seeing their favourite childhood characters appear from the pages in 3D. One man was even moved to tears. We had teachers and librarians flocking to see us, saying "so and so told me you were the coolest thing here and I've been looking for you for 2 days!" By day 3 we landed coverage on CNET.
We were stunned.
Riding the shuttle back to our hotel, swollen feet, sweaty and exhausted-- that’s when it hit us: This was the real idea with real potential. We called the lawyer then and there and filed the LLC and a provisional patent.
Marjie left her job and was the very first full-time employee. I continued to work for 4 months, to help fund the company. Seth and Sean decided not to jump headlong in, but are still our biggest supporters. In the spring, we had a generous investment from a family member and I left my job to help Marjie drive the company forward. We very quickly had to rebrand. We started as MagicBook and could not establish a trademark. Deciding a name was painful, but SpellBound embodied the wonder and magic we see in people's eyes when they experience this technology.
We've accomplished a lot in the last year and have a lot of good stories to tell as a result. We'll put some of the gems up here so you can follow the trials and tribulations of two women with a tech startup in Michigan.