Tulane alums found The Spoke, a new way to source recommendations

Tom Stern and Brenan Keller graduated from Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business in 2014. While they were students, they started their very first business together. Though that business didn’t work out, the two friends used what they learned from that first experience to build a new recommendations engine – The Spoke.

Tell us about your time as a student at Tulane. What activities were you involved in? What did you study?

Tom: An alumni of the Freeman School, I double majored in finance and management. When not working on Threadix (the first startup we founded during Sophomore year of college), I was a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity and spent lots of time playing intramural sports.

Brenan: I attended the Freeman School of Business from 2010 to 2014, where I double majored in management and marketing. I was also among the first class to graduate with a computer science coordinate major from Tulane’s re-established CS department.

You started your first business while at Tulane. Can you tell us about that business?

Brenan: Threadix was a truly powerful idea. It combined ticketing and event apparel (i.e. jerseys) by embedding radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips into the apparel. That same chip could be used to personalize the experience through instant event entry, cashless payment, targeted communications and more. Plus it gave event organizers unparalleled insight into their audience and event, thanks to machine learning technology we developed as part of my capstone at Tulane. Unfortunately, Ticketmaster moved to acquire the sole competitor in the space, and we were under-capitalized to compete. Tom and I learned an incredible amount during that experience and we were able to apply that to building our next venture, The Spoke.

Tom: We also competed in The Big Idea during New Orleans Entrepreneur week in 2014.

What have you been working on since graduation?

Tom: After becoming a Venture for America fellow, I worked at zlien (now Levelset) as the 13th employee and third member of the sales team – growing the small business segment to $1.5 million in annual recurring revenue. Then, I kept having this issue with my girlfriend at the time where it would take us forty five minutes to find a movie. To solve the problem, I created a content matrix with streaming availability on one axis and movies recommended by friends on the other. It worked, and the rest is history.

Brenan: After graduation I went on to work as an engineer at Lucid, a market research and ad tech company headquartered in New Orleans. I headed Lucid Labs, where we incubated new products and ideas and I led a team of engineers working to automate the exchange of market research sample.

Tell us about your latest business venture, The Spoke. Why is this an innovative idea?

Brenan: The idea behind The Spoke is centered around aggregation. It stores all the things you want to do, highlights which friends would like to do those things with you and shows you how you can go out and do it (rent, stream, buy, book a table, order in, etc). Other recommendation systems rely on algorithms shrouded in mystery and based on what everyone else thinks. The Spoke is trying to bring a human element that mimics the way we exchange recommendations offline. The system shows you results based on the people that you trust—whether that be friends, influencers or brands.

Tom: We’re also challenging the traditional startup logic of “focus on one category and then expand.” After using multiple apps and seeing the best solution was a spreadsheet, I realized the time between use cases would be too high if we just focused on movies. Instead of looking through Netflix, we want users to remember there is an app that helps you find things faster. When we add what to eat, read, listen etc… it creates a stickier, all inclusive product. The business model is our largest differentiator – we are going to enable brands and content creators to connect and monetize fans in an authentic, non-intrusive way by leveraging attribution and preexisting consumer demand for content, experiences or products.

Where do you see your business in five years?

Tom: There is a home for photos, a home for videos and a home for general search queries. We’d like to become the home for recommendations (33% of all search queries) because results are currently based on paid ads and consensus algorithms.

Brenan: Our business will be leading the movement from an app-centered internet to a user-centered internet. Currently everything is spread around hundreds of different applications and sources. Users have to venture out to each of those sources to get what they need, and it’s very difficult to keep track of it all. We imagine a future where those applications and sources come to you through one centralized experience.

What resources do you need to make this vision a reality?

Brenan: The most important resource a company at our stage can have is team members. We’ve built an incredible team so far (13 and counting) and we’ve been able to build a truly incredible product together. As we grow we’re always looking for skilled contributors to bring their unique perspective to The Spoke.

Tom: Funding! We’re currently raising $2.5 million.

What was one thing you learned while at Tulane that helped make your newest venture possible?

Brenan: There are many learnings from my time at Tulane, but I would say the most important was the experience we took from Threadix, which was how to bootstrap a company and get it going. Tulane was instrumental in helping us along the way with expertise and resources to guide us when we needed it.

Tom: We’ve also kept up with the Tulane network, which has been extremely helpful.