Top 30 Startups to Watch

Being an entrepreneur is tough. Having your startup make it past year one is even more so and generating revenue can at times seem next to impossible. So, for those startups that have successfully gotten over these humps -- and made it look easy -- we want to celebrate you.

With the help of Empact, a Princeton, N.J.-based company focused on supporting young founders, Entrepreneur cobbled together a list of 30 startups we think are not only unique and worth keeping an eye on, but also have a shot at leaving a big, bold mark on the world.

Using Empact's larger list of young entrepreneur-led companies called the Empact100, which is out today, we managed to identify the cream of the startup crop – a difficult task in a group so impressive. We looked at factors including scalability and originality, plus extra special nuggets of information like the founders' bios and startup stories, to make our selection. 

This was on top of Empact's already exhaustive sifting. Receiving more than 300 submissions, Empact reached out to its team of judges made up of high-level entrepreneurs including the founder and CEO of USA Network Kay Koplovitz, CEO of online retailer Zappos Tony Hsieh and founder of video rental company Redbox Mike Delazzer to select honorees. Empact looked at criteria including revenue, number of employees, social impact, growth over last year and innovation.

Want to see who made our cut? In no particular order, here is Entrepreneur's top 30 startups to watch:
 

Ampush

Co-founders Chris Amos (age 29), Jesse Pujji (age 29) and Nick Shah (age 29)

Image credit: Ampush on Facebook

San Francisco, Calif.
Founded: 2009

What it is: Ampush is a social ad-technology company that works to help brands and direct response advertisers achieve performance at scale with Facebook ads. Clients include MasterCard, Rdio, HotelTonight, Kellogg's, Warrior Dash and Sojo Studios. In 2013 the company got Facebook's seal of approval with it being distinguished as a Strategic Preferred Marketing Developer.

How it started: The three co-founders -- Chris Amos, Jesse Pujji and Nick Shahmet -- met at a summer program when they were 17-years-old and ended up rooming together their freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating, they went their separate ways, working in consulting and banking. Deciding their career path wasn't for them, the three rejoined and decided to work on Ampush in 2009.

Why it’s a winner: By being awarded the Strategic Preferred Marketing Developer designation, Ampush is highlighted as one of the companies that continually show commitment to excellence and innovation for Facebook's advertising products. Ampush was one of the first ad-tech companies to partner with Facebook's advertising platform and is constantly focused on advancing their product.
 

GSM Nation LLC

Co-founder Ahmed Khattak (age 27)

Image credit: Photography by Natalie Brasington

Seattle, Wash.
Founded: 2010

What it is: Through its e-commerce platform, GSM Nation offers a wide selection of smart-phones, tablets and other wireless accessories. The company not only sells the physical device but offers a no-contract wireless service plan for consumers who don't want to be locked into long-term agreements. Besides BtoC, GSM Nation offers solutions for organizations ranging from the government agencies to Fortune 500 companies. 

How it started: When Ahmed Khattak arrived to the U.S. from Pakistan, the first thought was to call his parents to let them know he was safe. Yet, when he went to buy a phone he was shocked he couldn’t afford to buy one without committing to a two-year contract. Plus, he didn’t he even qualify, because he lacked a Social Security number or credit history.

It was that moment he decided he'd find a way to help customers in the U.S. enjoy the benefits similar to the international community, where phones are unlocked and mobile plans are available contract-free. GSM Nation was soon born out of a Yale incubator.

Why it's a winner: With expectations it will hit $100 million in revenue in 2013 -- only three years after launch -- GSM Nation is a winner in our books. Plus, it is helping consumers save thousands of dollars and offers some individuals, who may not have otherwise qualified for a wireless device, the chance to own one.
 

Enplug

Co-founder Nanxi Liu (age 23)

Image credit: Enplug

Los Angeles, Calif.
Founded: 2012

What it is: Enplug is a BtoB startup focused on providing a digital, interactive real-time billboard network. Think restaurant menus or car details splayed on big tablet-like screens.

How it started: Talk about a case of serendipity. David Zhu, along with his high school classmate Navdeep Reddy, were working on the development of Enplug. Zhu then took a vacation to Hong Kong and during a chance encounter met Nanxi Lui, who signed up to be the third co-founder. Heading back to the states, Zhu was on an airplane, when a man named Zach Spituslski bumped into him. After apologizing, the two got to talking and Zhu mentioned his venture. The next day Spituslski, along with his roommate Alex Ross became the fourth and fifth co-founders. There is so much family love at Enplug, twelve of the 37 employees live together in a house located in Bel Air, Calif.

Why it's a winner: Besides building a startup that takes signage to the next level, the co-founders have quite the extensive background. From Ross building a commodities trading system that is still being used today on Wall Street to Zhu making millions in online poker by the age of 18 to Liu being a youth member of Lady Gaga's Foundation and developing a biotech company named in NASA's Top 10 New Tech Company list, we sure wouldn't bet against this team.
 

Blue Track Media

Founder Shahzil Amin (age 24)

Image credit: Shahzil (Shaz) Amin on Twitter

Dallas, Texas
Founded: 2009

What it is: Blue Track Media is an advertising agency that looks to connect advertisers focused on incentive methods, like affiliation programs, and publishers who utilize the incentive-based model.

How it started: As a teenager, Shahzil Amin was intrigued by computers and continually drawn to the flashy pop-up ads like "Get a free iPod." While many people would not waste their time jumping through hoops and divulging personal information to get the gadget, Amin did. After further digging, Amin started learning about performance-based advertising and understanding how it works. He took the last $2,000 out of his savings to launch RocketBills, a company that awarded consumers with gifts or cash for participating in advertising promotions. It later on pivoted to Blue Track Media.

Why it is a winner: Amin has always been focused on living the American dream, and it was this inspiration that drove him to launch Blue Track Media. Moving to the U.S. from Pakistan around the age of four, Amin saw both his parents constantly struggle to make ends meet. When he was 16, his father was murdered. Seeing the struggle his mom had to go through motivated him to do something about his current conditions. It was this moment he decided to become an entrepreneur. First thing he told his mother was in six months she'd never work again, and everything would be okay. Since then, she's never worked.
 

Cater2.me

Co-founders Alex Lorton (age 29) and Zachary Yungst (age 30)

Image credit: Chicago Tribune

San Francisco, Calif.
Founded: 2010

What it is: Cater2.me connects chefs, food trucks, pop-ups and top local food with offices and startups in the Silicon Valley, New York and Chicago. Since its inception, the company has served 800,000 delectable meals in less than two years.

How it started: Both co-founders Alex Lorton and Zach Yungst attended the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School. After graduating, the duo spent time working in consulting and finance jobs in the San Francisco area. They had noticed how amazing the food was in the city, but at their jobs they were eating boring, bland food. It was at this point they saw an opportunity to disrupt the catered food business. 

Why it's a winner: With the mission to improve the lifestyles of staff at both large companies and startups, Cater2.me's curated meals and farm-fresh foods make it easy. Working with the likes of Square, Apple and Dropbox and scaling to areas outside their home base without venture backing, makes Cater2.me pretty impressive.
 

GiveForward

Co-founders Ethan Austin (age 32) and Desiree Vargas-Wrigley (age 31)

Image credit: midventures.com

Chicago, Ill.
Founded: 2008

What is it: GiveForward is a crowdfunding site for medical expenses. Since its launch, it has helped thousands of families raise almost $56 million for out-of-pocket medical expenses. In 2012 the company won the Edison Gold award as the best new social innovation in the U.S. and was listed on Inc's 30 under 30 list.

How it started: After graduating from Yale in 2004, co-founder Desiree Vargas-Wrigley worked at the Kauffman Foundation, helping to support other entrepreneurs. Then came Hurricane Katrina. As New Orleans residents struggled to find aid, Wrigley wondered why there wasn't a reliable platform for donating directly to people in need. The same question nagged her six months later, when she spotted a donation jar in a cafe for a couple seeking a heart transplant for their child.

For a while, it seemed that others had already taken up the cause: Change.org, Kickstarter and The Point (eventually became Groupon). But none of those sites offered what she had in mind. Two years later, she decided to take on the idea herself.

Why it's a winner: Besides the obvious fact GiveForward is saving lives and helping American families avoid bankruptcy, it was also on the forefront of crowdfunding. GiveForward, IndieGoGo and Kickstarter all launched between 2008 and 2009. At that time the number of crowdfunding sites could be counted on one hand.
 

HUMAN Healthy Vending

Founder Sean Kelly (age 30)

Image credit: Sean Kelly

Culver City, Calif.
Founded: 2008

What it is: HUMAN Healthy Vending is a franchised high-tech and eco-friendly vending machine offering healthy snacks. It currently has 1,500 machines and 200 franchisees.

How it started: A nutrition activist, Sean Kelly started this company after he had a bit of a head-shaking experience. Working as a personal trainer at a sports club in New York City, he saw a woman purchase a soda from the gym's vending machine. Not believing his eyes, he strolled over to the machine and noticed it was packed with junk food. He couldn't believe a vending machines at a gym wouldn't have healthful options. He set out to change the situation.

Why it's a winner: The $42 billion vending industry has been stagnant for decades, and when HUMAN Healthy Vending first launched in 2008, selling healthful foods in a vending machine was considered "counter-culture." Now, HUMAN Healthy Vending is seeing the world change with it. The USDA has revamped its school snack rules, forcing them to switch to healthy vending by July of 2014. And that is good news for this startup.
 

Conversation

Founder Frank O'Brien (age 31)

Image credit: Conversation

New York, NY
Founded: 2008

What it is: Conversation is a marketing agency focused on a holistic, strategically-driven approach to clients' needs. All design and develop is completed within the agency, allowing Conversation to push the envelope and produce unique, one-of-a-kind work.

How it started: Originally, founder Frank O'Brien had his eyes set on the music industry, but he grew frustrated with the fact two main facets were missing: research and strategy. Realizing, these two components were also the main cruxes of the advertising industry, he decided to pivot his career path and work at agencies. Eventually, he went out on his own and formed Conversation in 2008.

Why it's a winner: Due to its stellar approach, Conversation has appeared on the AMC show The Pitch, where they went head-to-head with other agencies for campaigns. Some of his key clients include L'Oreal, The Children's Place, Estee Lauder and VH1.
 

 

Mobile Roadie

Founder Michael Schneider (age 32)

Image credit: Midem

Beverly Hills, Calif.
Founded: 2009

What is it: Mobile Roadie is a mobile-app platform, powering over 3,000 apps and reaching more than 30 million users worldwide. The software allows anyone -- no coding knowledge required -- to create powerful mobile experiences in minutes. Customers include the Wynn Las Vegas hotel, Harvard University, Taylor Swift and the Dallas Mavericks.

How it started: In 2008, founder Michael Schneider was running his design agency Fluid Design when he started getting bombarded with iPhone app requests. While companies were eager to get on the mobile bandwagon, they were not willing to fork over $100,000 to build the app. Schneider decided to develop a platform that allowed brands to build their own apps for less than a $1,000 a year. 

Why it's a winner: Anyone that can disrupt an industry, lower costs and allow for more users to take advantage of technological advancement, gets brownie points in our book. While this app is great for the likes of Madonna and Adele, it also helps even the playing field for independent artists that are also looking to reach consumers but don't have $100,000 laying around to pay developers.
 

Crazy Egg

Co-founder Neil Patel (age 28)

Image credit: Neil Patel

La Palma, Calif.
Founded: 2008

What it is: Crazy Egg is an analytics startup that helps companies make their websites more usable and improve conversion rates. One of the key features is a heat map, which shows companies and advertisers where customers are spending time on the website page and what they are clicking on.

How it started: During a college class on public speaking, co-founder Patel spoke about search engines. One of his classmates was so persuaded by what Neil Patel said, he asked him to consult for an electronics company on its marketing strategy. That consulting gig rolled into more contracts. Eventually, Patel launched his first company, made a lot of money, invested in startups and ended up losing cash. He decided being a VC wasn't his style, so he, along with his business partners, 32-year-old Hiten Shah and 30-year-old John Butler, returned to his roots and launched Crazy Egg in 2008.

Why it's a winner: Co-founder Patel not only made his first million before he could legally drink alcohol, but he has also been named one of the top influencers on the web, according to The Wall Street Journal, and named one of the top entrepreneurs in the nation by Entrepreneur magazine. Looking to help others succeed, Patel now devotes more than 1,000 hours a year to aspiring entrepreneurs free of charge.


 

Gold Bullion International

Co-founder Savneet Singh (age 30)

Image credit: Gold Bullion International

New York, N.Y.
Founded: 2009

What is it: Gold Bullion International is a technology platform for physical precious metals, allowing for individual investors to buy, sell and store gold, platinum and silver.

How it started: After spending years at various financial institutions including Chilton Investment Company and Morgan Stanley, Savneet Singh decided to go out on his own.

Why it's a winner: Gold Bullion International is on the forefront of investing in the precious metal market, one that had never witnessed innovation to this extent. While other trading platforms get paid out in cash, Gold Bullion International has individual investors actually receiving precious metals, ones that are bought from dealers and stored in protected vaults in New York City, Salt Lake City, London, Zurich, Singapore and Australia.
 

CoachUp

Co-founder Jordan Fliegel (age 27)

Image credit: Jordan Fliegel | CoachUp

Boston, Mass.
Founded: 2012

What it is: CoachUp is a coaching company with a mission to help kids change the trajectory of their lives through sports. The startup connects athletes with private coaches across all sports and ages. 

How it started: When co-founder Jordan Fliegel was in high school, he received private basketball coaching lessons. While he didn't make it to the NBA, Fliegel went on to play two years as a professional in Europe and Israel. After returning to the U.S., Fliegel realized he wanted every athlete to have the opportunity to receive coaching in order to take their game to the next level. CoachUp was born in 2012.

Why it's a winner: By having a vision to allow for any child athlete to achieve their dreams -- both in sports and in life -- through private coaching is an amazing mission and one, many believe in. Having been a graduate of both TechStars Boston and MassChallenge accelerator program, CoachUp has received $2.7 million in investments.
 

Highland Concerts

Co-founders Scott Osburn (age 27) and Hank Keller (age 26)

Image credit: David Woo/Dallas News

Dallas, Texas
Founded: 2010

What it is: Highland Concerts in an international music-festival promotions company.

How it started: Highland Concerts got its unofficial start in 2008, when co-founders Scoot Osburn and Hank Keller decided to throw a New Year's Eve party at a hotel that drew a crowd of 600. The second time around in 2009, the party's attendance doubled to 1,200. It became apparent the duo was onto something, and they officially launched their company in 2010.

Why it's a winner: For two twenty-somethings to grow their trademark event, a New Year's Eve party called Lights All Night, from a 600 person cocktail event to the second biggest New Year's Eve party in the country in 2012, is pretty outstanding. Because of their growth, the duo is expanding its roots in Dallas, Texas to New York City, San Francisco, Mexico City, Australia and Asia.
 

Peeled

Founder Riana Lynn (age 27)

Image credit: Riana Lynn on Twitter

Chicago, Ill.
Founded: 2011

What it is: Peeled is a juice bar with an artisanal spin. Customers can enjoy a range of juices, smoothies, nut milks and raw foods created from fresh and natural ingredients. Peeled practices small-production methods in order to scrutinize and perfect its processes. 

How it got started: Founder Riana Lynn has always been a health enthusiast and lover of technology. Traveling around the world and trying unique fruits, Lynn started to wonder why Chicago didn't have fruit stands like the ones she saw in New York City. Once that realization occurred, she knew she wanted to start something that would bring more fruits and vegetables to Chicago, while also promoting an overall healthier lifestyle.

Why it's a winner: With healthy living a huge industry, Peeled allows visitors' bodies to feel nourished with a delicious blend of nutrients and detoxifiers. Plus, it also has a social angle, allowing people to donate juice for fundraisers and schools.
 

 

Back to the Roots

Co-founders Nikhil Arora (age 26) and Alejandro Velez (age 25)

Image credit: Image Credit: Back to the Roots

Oakland, Calif.
Founded: 2009

What it is: Back to the Roots is a startup focused on developing products that connect families with their food. They have distributed two products: the Mushroom kit and AquaFarm. The Mushroom kit is a small brown box that grows up to 1.5 pounds of oyster mushrooms in 10 days and the AquaFarm is a self-cleaning fish tank that also grows food. To date, the kits are available in over 2,500 retailers nationwide.

How it started: In a business ethics class at University of California, Berkely, co-founders Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez learned that gourmet mushrooms could be grown from recycled coffee grounds. Inspired by this revelation, they turned down their finance and consulting job offers to become full-time urban mushroom farmers.

Why it's a winner: Education has always been an essential part of the mission at Back to the Roots. Through intuitive design and fun packaging, the company wants their products to resonate with kids and families. The co-founders have spoken at a variety of schools with the hope of inspiring younger generations to not only think more deeply about food but also consider entrepreneurship as a way to make their own ideas realities. For their social endeavor, Back to the Roots has been featured on Businessweek's Top 25 Social Entrepreneurs, along with Inc's 30 Under 30 and Forbes' 30 Under 30 list.
 

Two Bit Circus

Co-founders Eric Gradman (age 33) and Brent Bushnell (age 35)

Image credit: Photo by Nancy Bennett

Los Angeles, Calif.
Founded: 2012

What it is: Two Bit Circus is a "make tank," or incubator, building products at the crossroads of amusement and education.

How it got started: Seven years ago, co-founders Brent Bushnell and Eric Gradman met at a tech conference. Both having a passion for games, they decided to ditch their day jobs and focus on building interactive entertainment. The pair would bring their contraptions to big events, like the Burning Man music festival, and began making money off these games. They soon decided to make this into a full-blown business and Two Bit Circus was born.

Why it's a winner: Not only does Two Bit Circus create really cool products, they want to get children involved too. A major initiative is their STEAM Carnival, a high-tech amusement event for kids to learn about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, along with art. So, instead of ring tosses, the carnival will be full of lasers, robots and electricity. Look for it next summer in Los Angeles.
 

Tieks

Business partner Elram Gavrieli (age 25) and co-founder Kfir Gavrieli (age 30)

Image credit: Tieks

Los Angeles, Calif.
Founded: 2008

What it is: Tieks is a line of foldable ballet flats.

How it started: Tieks wasn't an overnight success. Kfir Gavrieli, along with his brother and partner Elram, spent years engineering the shoe, looking for their "aha" moment. After applying for and receiving many patents, the brothers, along with their sister and co-founder 33-year-old Dikla Gavrieli and partner and brother-in-law 34-year-old Dean Unatin, finally found success in the Tieks' design.

Why it's a winner: Tieks isn't just any retailer. It's embracing technology to help develop a cult status. Last year, the company had the fastest growing Facebook page in the world in the clothing category and totes Oprah as a fan. Besides gaining momentum with consumers, Tieks also gives back, donating over $600,000 to support women entrepreneurs in developing countries.
 

Pencils of Promise

Founder Adam Braun (age 29)

Image credit: dolcemag.com

New York, N.Y.
Founded: 2008

What is it: Pencils of Promise is a nonprofit looking to increase access to quality education for children in the developing world. The organization works with communities across the globe to build schools and create programs that provide education opportunities.

How it got started: Beginning his career in finance, founder Adam Braun thought this was his path. It wasn't until he met a young boy begging on the streets that Braun's life changed. Asking the boy what he wanted most in the world, the child responded, "a pencil." Deciding to leave his perfect job at consulting firm Bain & Company, Braun launched Pencils of Promise with just $25.

Why it's a winner: Any endeavor that is centered around social entrepreneurship tugs at our hearts. And with Pencils of Promise, Braun has done some amazing things. The organization has built more than 150 schools across Africa, Asia and Latin America and delivered over 5 million educational hours to children in poverty. Pencils of Promise is on track to break ground on its 200th school by year end and is projected to deliver its 10 millionth educational hour within the next year.
 

iCracked

Co-founders Anthony Martin (age 26) and AJ Forsythe (age 25)

Image credit: iCracked

Redwood City, Calif.
Founded: 2010

What it is: iCracked is the world's largest on-demand repair and buyback network for iOS devices.

How it started: While a student at California Polytechnic State University, AJ Forsythe founded iCracked out of necessity. After breaking his iPhone too many times, he researched and repaired his own device. Word spread and iCracked quickly became a full-time venture. AJ teamed up with Anthony Martin in late 2010 and began scaling the business. The startup is now focused on providing the best on-demand service throughout the lifecycle of a device.

Why it's a winner: For anyone who has owned an iPhone, dropped it and cracked the screen, iCracked is a lifesaver. Not only does it offer consumers a few ways to get their phone fixed -- mail, do-it-yourself and in-store -- it is also less expensive than bringing it to an Apple store.
 

Mile High Organics

Founder Michael Joseph (age 32)

Image credit: Mile High Organics

Boulder, Colo.
Founded: 2010

What is it: Mile High Organics is the U.S.’s first USDA-certified organic online grocer. Currently, the company delivers to homes and businesses in an area more than 1,000 square miles of Colorado.

How it started: Growing up with his father writing about food transparency legislation, Michael Joseph was told over and over again the importance of consumers receiving as much information about food as possible. He later took what he learned and opened up a concept similar to Mile High Organics. Joseph ended up selling back his share of the company to his business partner. Once the non-compete clause expired, Joseph jumped back into the organic grocer market with Mile High Organics.

Why it's a winner: With more people becoming concerned about genetically-engineered ingredients, Mile High Organics puts an end to worries with its screening process, making sure all ingredients are organic.
 

Contently

Co-founders Joe Coleman (age 30), Shane Snow (age 29) and Dave Goldberg (age 31)

Image credit: Contently

New York, NY
Founded: 2010

What it is: Contently is like a matchmaking site for publishers, brands and journalists. It powers the next generation of media companies by empowering publishers and brands to create content that makes a difference and journalists to build careers doing what they love.

How it started: Joe Coleman was working at survey startup CashCrate when he found himself needing writers to create content. After four months of struggling to find adequate talent, Coleman connected with co-founders Shane Snow and Dave Goldberg for help.

Snow, a freelance writer and 2010 graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, was on the other side of the equation. He and his friends were having a difficult time finding work. Snow ended up working alongside Dave Goldberg, a programmer, on an entrepreneur venture when the three connected and decided to create Ceontently.

Why it's a winner: With some feeling media has taken a major dive and many writers not being able to find work, Contently is helping close the gap. Paying journalists on average $1 a word, and with some writers making $60,000, Contently is helping to improve the marketplace. The company has raised $2 million and is working with the likes of The Atlantic, American Express and Rackspace.
 

Spartz

Founder Emerson Spartz (age 27)

Image credit: Spartz

Chicago, Ill.
Founded 2009

What it is: Spartz is a network of crowdsourced-content websites including information site OMG Facts, uplifting story site Gives Me Hope and Harry Potter fan site MuggleNet.

How it started: At the age of 12, Emerson Spartz convinced his parents to let him drop out of school to be homeschooled. A month later, Spartz launched MuggleNet, which attracted 50 million monthly page views. He went on to build out the network to be what it is today: a giant monster of websites receiving over 160 million monthly page views. To be labeled an expert in going viral is an understatement.

Why it's a winner: Spartz is a force to be reckoned with. Looking to become an empire of sorts, Spartz launches a new website every six weeks, spending less than $30,000 to build each one.

In terms of revenue streams, the sites must deliver at least three times return on investment in order to be deemed successful. The current success rate is at 90 percent and there are approximately 17 million readers across Spartz’s properties. Not bad for a dropout.
 

Hipmunk

Co-founders Steve Huffman (age 29) and Adam Goldstein (age 25)

Image credit: cbsnews.com

San Francisco, Calif.
Founded: 2010

What is it: Hipmunk is an online travel search company for consumers, allowing people to compare travel sites through their website or mobile app. Bucking the trend of just being a flight and hotel search, Hipmunk also allows people to view transportation options like trains and charter flights, along with homes and apartment rentals from Airbnb and HomeAway.

How it started: Adam Goldstein, previously the co-founder of BookTour, along with co-founder of social news site Reddit Steve Huffman teamed up at incubator Y Combinator in the summer of 2010 to launch Hipmunk. A few days before the launch, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian joined the team. Currently, Ohanian acts as an advisor.

Why it's a winner: In an extremely competitive industry, Hipmunk is looking to make booking travel a little less painless. So, users don’t see those crazy connecting flights with 10-hour layovers or pages upon pages of flights that make booking overwhelming. Instead, they present the data in an easy to read format, showing people exactly how much they'll spend and how long they'll travel. To date, they have raised more than $20 million.
 

'ZinePak

Co-founders Brittany Hodak (age 29) and Kim Kaupe (age 27)

Image credit: 'ZinePak

New York, NY
Founded: 2011

What it is: What do Taylor Swift, George Strait, the Beach Boys, KISS and American Idol have in common? They, along with dozens of other superstars and brands, turned to startup entertainment company 'ZinePak to release new music in 2012. 'ZinePak's proprietary platform, which combines music with a custom fan magazine and merchandise, sold more than one million copies last year and propelled the two-year-old company to 400 percent growth, with sales of more than $12 million at Walmart alone.

How it started: 'ZinePak was founded in 2011 by Brittany Hodak, and Kim Kaupe who met while working at a New York City ad agency. At the time, they noted a need in the marketplace for pop-culture content that connected top brands and entertainers with their fans in a more engaging way.

Why it's a winner: At a time when most publishers and record companies have declared physical distribution to be a lost cause, 'ZinePak is reviving the market by creating a tangible compilation for the 21st century music fans. 'ZinePak's product catalogue includes small-format magazines with physical media (like CDs or DVDs) and collectible merchandise.

So far, the young founders haven't skipped a beat. Fans in the U.S. have purchased almost 2 million 'ZinePaks (which retail for $7 to $17) for artists like Taylor Swift, KISS and Justin Bieber. The startup has partnered with every major record label, and movie studios and sports teams are starting to take notice. The duo is also going increasingly digital, with the creation of iBooks and 'Zines using augmented reality.
 

Next Big Sound

Co-founders David Hoffman (age 26) Alex White (age 27) and Samir Rayani (age 26)

Image credit: Next Big Sound

New York, NY
Founded: 2008

What is it: The analytics and insight service measures daily music consumption and purchase decisions. From Facebook fans to sales, Next Big Sound combines artist activity with context to help the modern music industry make decisions.

How it started: Initially, Next Big Sound was like a fantasy league for the music industry: Users created their own virtual music label and competed against others. After receiving $25,000 in investment, the three co-founders set out to scale the startup. But after being accepted into TechStars Boulder, the business model fizzled. The co-founders pivoted the idea into one that measures analytics. They gained customers by providing the data for free in an email newsletter and within a year had tens of thousands of subscribers. The updated New Big Sound launched. 

Why it's a winner: In a world that’s becoming more obsessed with data, this TechStar alum is leading the way for the music industry. Now artists and brands can measure the impact of a song release by analyzing Facebook likes and Twitter tweets, among others. This not only helps demystify music data but can also be a predictor of what will be the next artist. Next Big Sound claims it can forecast record sales for 85 percent of artists, within a 20 percent accuracy range.
 

The Starter League

Co-founders Neal Sales-Griffin (age 26) Mike McGee (age 25)

Image credit: The Starter League on Facebook

Chicago, Ill.
Founded 2011

What it is: The Starter League is an in-person school in Chicago that teaches beginners how to code and design web applications in three months. 

How it started: When offered his first real job to work for Obama for America, Mike McGee did what any newly minted graduate would do: He turned it down. Instead, he joined his Northwestern University college pal Neal Sales-Griffin in launching a startup. The only problem? Neither knew how to code. Instead of tracking down a technical co-founder, the duo spent a year learning it. From there, they ended up launching The Starter League to teach others how to code. 

Why it's a winner: With talent wars raging on in hot startup ecosystems, we love companies that are looking to close the talent gap. Since its inception in 2011, The Starter League has seen over 700 students -- coming from over 35 states and 20 countries -- graduate from its program. 

Besides helping individuals, The Starter League has worked with Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, University of Chicago, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and public schools to teach web development to students.
 

WePay

Co-founders Rich Aberman (age 28) and Bill Clerico (age 27)

Image credit: money,cnn.com

Palo Alto, Calif.
Founded: 2008

What it is: WePay is an online payment service provider for small businesses. The company assists in invoicing, charging customers' credit cards and accepted payments on websites. It also allows for payments on mobile devices.

How it started: Best friends Bill Clerico and Rich Aberman realized there was a huge pain point in payment processing, and they wanted to change it. 

To get their idea off the ground, Clerico quit his investment-banking job and Aberman turned down a full scholarship to law school. After getting accepted into Y Combinator, they knew they were on to something and now have 45 full-time employees working at WePay.
While co-founders come and go, these guys are in it for the long haul. To cement their dedication to WePay, they made a purchase that will bind them together for years to come: A dog named Randy.

Why it's a winner: Any application, software or product looking to level the playing field for small businesses, is a winner in our book.
Another reason it receives the gold medal is how it embraces technology to make it easier for businesses to get up and running. While some payment processing companies just depend on social security numbers and credit scores to approve businesses, WePay incorporates a risk-engine technology, one that examines social graph data of businesses. This feature allows companies to start accepting credit cards in less than a minute.
 

PeerFly

Founder Chad French (age 28)

Image credit: PeerFly

Alachua, Fla.
Founded: 2009

What it is: PeerFly is a full-service sales and marketing agency focused on affiliate networks.

How it got started: Founder Chad French can thank himself for his success. After dropping out of school in 8th grade, French tried to make it through homeschooling and college but didn't have much luck. So, he taught himself everything, including coding.
After selling a business in 2008, French started talking to industry experts in the affiliate marketing world. Originally, he had plans of building a platform and leasing it to marketers but had a change of heart after he dug deeper and found out he wanted to create his own. 

Why it's a winner: In an industry that is extremely competitive, PeerFly manages to be flying high. To date, PeerFly has approximately 46,740 affiliates who use PeerFly for marketing -- anything from dating sites to antivirus software and car insurance. Using performance marketing alone, PeerFly generated around $50 million in sales in less than five years for clients. Twice in a row, the company has been named the most popular affiliate network in the world, according to Performance Marketing Insider.
 

Scopely

Co-founder Walter Driver (age 31)

Image credit: Venture Beat

Culver City, Calif.
Founded: 2011

What it is: Scopely is a next-generation mobile entertainment network looking to redefine how social games are developed, distributed and monetized. The company looks to help reduce costs for independent gaming studios by allowing people to enroll in its developer program and also co-develop games. 

How it started: After graduating college with a degree in creative writing, co-founder Walter Driver set out to use his skills in a unique way. In Silicon Valley, Driver observed how many gaming companies were only focusing on one side of the equation: coding and programming. But they were ignoring user experience. Driver set out to create a gaming company focused more on emotional experience and launched Scopely. 

Why it's a winner: Scopely offers fresh opportunities for independent gamers who have dreams of making it big but lack the financial means to do so. By allowing for technology sharing, it's leveling the playing field. The business allows independent game developers to compete head-to-head against the largest game companies in the world in the battle for reach, revenue and users. For the little guy, this is a pretty stellar opportunity.
 

Pure Fix Cycles

Co-founders Zachary Schau (age 26), Jordan Schau (age 25) Austin Stoffers (age 25) and Michael Fishman (age 25)

Image credit: Gary Krueger

Los Angeles, Calif.
Founded: 2011

What it is: Pure Fix Cycles offers customers affordable, stylish and unique bicycles.

How it started: Childhood friends, the co-founders of Pure Fix Cycle --  Zachary Schau, Jordan Schau, Austin Stoffers and Michael Fishman --were attending college together and were loving the European bike trend focused on fixed gears. But at $800 a pop, their wallets weren't feeling the same love. The team set out to design a more affordable line and funded their first order of 165 bikes from birthday bucks, savings and Bar Mitzvah cash. They sold out in two weeks. The rest is history.

Why it's a winner: Finding a bike that is affordable and high quality can at times be next to impossible. So, we give props to Pure Fix Cycles for taking the headache out of bike shopping, while also provide some pretty cool styles at a price point that doesn’t break the bank. Plus, Pure Fix Cycles is in the business of giving. The company is currently supporting charity: water, a non-profit organization that brings clean water to developing nations. If customers buy particular bike styles, the company will donate $100.
 

View Comments (0)