Although Enplug officially launched today, the Los Angeles company has been making waves in the tech, startup and digital advertising spaces for quite some time. In fact, its interactive, digital social media displays have already been embraced by businesses around the world, including in Canada, Australia, Slovakia, London and Columbia.
This rapid adoption from businesses, including restaurants, bars, gyms, retail stores and malls, played a big part in helping Enplug’s team raise a $2.5 million seed round from top investors (also announced today). Says co-founder and CEO Nanxi Liu, “We had already demonstrated a market problem, developed a turnkey solution and created a working prototype. All that is very compelling to investors, so convincing them to invest was a lot easier than we initially thought it would be.”
With Enplug’s interactive displays, which allow customers to easily post messages to it in real time with a specific hashtag on their social media networks, businesses are able to increase social media interaction 500 percent, Liu says. “Instead of hiding social media talk online, businesses can have it right there in their stores. It’s free marketing, and their customers become brand ambassadors.”
It was Liu and now COO David Zhu who, after meeting through a mutual friend, came up with the initial idea and decided to pull the trigger back in 2012. The other three founders came along shortly after in an equally happenstance way. On Zhu’s flight back from the Bay Area where he had gone to meet Liu (for the first time), she was finishing up at Berkeley, he bumped into would-be head designer Zach Spitulski, literally. Spitulski tripped over his bag on the plane and ended up signing on to the business idea in the short flight from SFO to LAX. Then, back at UCLA, Spitulski told his roommate Alex Ross about the encounter, and within minutes Enplug had a CTO. The fifth would-be co-founder, Navdeep Reddy, was an old high school friend of Zhu’s; today he is CIO.
“We all just took a big leap of faith,” Liu says. “We were all big on building things and willing to take risks. We were young with no obligations and financially stable – very much in the same place in our lives with the same goal.”
Before starting Enplug, Liu would have never considered starting a company with more than three co-founders. But today, “I’m so happy that I have the other four co-founders,” she says, pointing to their different skill sets as the main reason they are able to make it work. “Because we have specific realms, it’s really easy. It gets difficult when you have co-founders with similar skill sets, but each of us works and specializes in one domain.”
Although the founders attribute some of Enplug’s inspiration to the intelligent displays in the movie Minority Report, it was an experience at a 2012 digital sign convention in Las Vegas that really confirmed it for them. Liu remembers the crowds of “old people” at the convention and thinking that some company needed to come in and change things up. She was also amazed by how many businesses still used paper signs and advertising. “It’s not a very sexy industry,” Liu admits, “but it’s a great industry to disrupt.” Fortunately, Enplug came along at a time where hardware prices are coming down, while media players and cell phones are getting smarter and more advanced. She says, “It’s an intersection of technology getting cheaper, engagement expanding and devices getting smarter.”
Even though Liu joined up with four males to launch the startup, she’s a huge proponent of boosting women’s presence in the startup and tech spaces. In fact, last week she hosted an LA Women in Tech Summit with local incubator Be Great Partners to connect women entrepreneurs in the Los Angeles community and give them a forum to share ideas, stories, strategies and more. As a rising star among their portfolio companies, BGP reached out to Liu to host the event at its mid-Wilshire facilities. “The industry is so male dominated,” she says, “so building a community for women is important.” BGP plans to host the summit every other month, with different guest speakers and panel topics.
After joining BGP as one of its portfolio companies in early 2013, the Enplug team spent that summer in the incubator’s co-working space. This was after spending a year operating in Korea Town out of a one-bedroom apartment without air conditioning where the five founders and two engineers worked and lived. Today, they live in a much roomier pad in Bel Air and work out of their own office in Culver City. “We’re really glad we went through that,” Liu says. “It helps us appreciate where we are now.”
Looking ahead Liu and the guys have a lofty goal of getting Enplug displays in at least 1,000 locations. Beyond 2014, they want to become the number-one digital signage solution, she says. And even longer term, “we want to be the go-to solution for all businesses that have a physical location.”