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Cooliris – the Silicon Valley photo tech startup with a German twist Written by Nina Fowler on 9. November 2012


Cooliris @ Sankt Oberholz

Behind most good startups is a good venture capitalist but how often does that investor take the plunge and become an employee? In 2010, T-Venture’s Silicon Valley managing director Sebastian Blum did exactly that, switching sides to became VP of business development at one of his former portfolio companies, Cooliris.

Blum (above left) and Cooliris CEO Soujanya Bhumkar (above right) told us the story on a recent trip to Berlin. Since then, we’ve also spotted Blum and Cooliris at ProSiebenSat1’s Seven Ventures Pitch Day at NOAH in London, vying for €7million worth of television advertising in Germany.

One photo app to rule them all

The new Cooliris iOS app, released in July, is the latest of several products since 2006. The pitch is simple: a beautiful way to browse all digital photos at once, in one place, as well as enable selective sharing of photos and “conversations” with friends.

Most striking is the 3D-like photo wall, that seems to scroll at an angle away from the screen. The images themselves are fetched in real-time from Instagram, Facebook, the iOS Camera Roll, Google Drive, even plain old Google Image Search.

iPad Cooliris

An upcoming version of the app will make good use of Google’s in-built image and optical character recognition (OCR), allowing a search for “flower” or “Taj Mahal” to return relevant results even if they’re not tagged.

From VC to startup cycle trips – “quite a change…”

It’s a promising idea. From talking to Blum and Bhumkar, though, it’s clear the team and the thought of living the “startup lifestyle” drew Blum in just as much. It started when his former boss at T-Venture sent him over to check the company out:

“He sent me over to these guys and I met them in their garage,” Blum recalled. “OK, it wasn’t really a garage – but they had their meeting room in a garage in a residential place, and that’s when I met them for the first time.”

T-Venture invested $3million in a Series A round in 2007. Two years later, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, DAG Ventures and The Westly Group joined the party, with all four investors coming together for a Series C round in early 2011 that brought total funds raised by Cooliris to $28.1m.

Blum started working with the team after the 2007 deal, especially on their transition from desktop browser use to mobile apps. At a certain point, he said, he was spending so much time with Cooliris – and enjoying it – that it only made sense to switch sides.

CoolirisCooliris family outing in Germany

Cooliris cycle tripCooliris’ recent bike trip – “extreme” startup lifestyle (image courtesy Cooliris blog)

So, how has the dynamic changed, now he’s an employee and not an investor? “For me, it was quite a change, not necessarily on the company level but more on an overall career level. I’d been working for one company for 11 years…

“Also, all of a sudden, there’s an intense relationship with colleagues with me in the one office. As a venture person, you’re certainly part of a team but you’re actually the only guy on deals. You have a reporting line to somebody else on top of you but there’s not eight colleagues working with you.”

Being on the other side of the negotiating table is very different, he added. “As a VC, you’re trained to give a quick judgment and be very opinionated about either an entrepreneur or a team or a startup. On the other side, you actually need to be someone who’s more of a listener, and always try to understand the person on the other side, because you’re a dealmaker. You’re trying to close deals.”

Cooliris @ OktoberfestCooliris at this year’s Oktoberfest in Germany

Bridging Berlin and Silicon Valley

There are now five or six Germans on the Cooliris team, including Blum. When we met, the team had just hired a new intern from Berlin and convinced her to move to the US. “We hardly ever use the term employee,” Bhumkar insisted. “Everyone’s a teammate.”

The Seven Ventures Pitch Day prizes might have gone to Busuu, and Wynsh yesterday but it’s still shaping up as a promising year for Cooliris. In the three months since launch, the new app scored one million downloads and ranked as #1 iPad app in 104 countries.

Blum, from talking to his VC contacts in the US, is optimistic about the Berlin startup scene, too. “Every year the Berlin thing keeps coming back and getting bigger and bigger. It’s amazing, it’s really really great.”