Sure the latest initiatives from the Teslas, Apple and Googles of the industry tend to dominate the tech news space — and with good reason. Still, the tech titans aren’t the only ones bringing innovation to the sector.
In an effort to highlight up-and-coming startups, Built In has launched The Future 5 across 11 major U.S. tech hubs. Each quarter, we will feature five tech startups, nonprofits or entrepreneurs in each of these hubs who just might be working on the next big thing. You can check out last quarter’s Chicago round-up here.
Chicago is known for its world-class architecture and a large number of Fortune 500 companies. Lesser known are the smaller startups creating innovative tech and solutions. From fintech companies creating new ways to invest or niche grocery and e-commerce platforms helping businesses grow, the Windy City has it all.
This quarter, Built In sat down with five local startups who have yet to raise a Series A funding round. These companies are building tech solutions to help create gifts for loved ones, invest in children’s futures and scale small businesses.
BUILT IN’S FUTURE 5 UP-AND-COMING CHICAGO STARTUPS, Q2 2022
- CASHDROP (E-Commerce)
- EarlyBird (Fintech)
- Quicklly (Food)
- Songfinch (Music)
- Workbox (Coworking)
Founded by Ruben Flores-Martinez, a Latino tech entrepreneur, CASHDROP is a free-to-use e-commerce platform meant for small and independent businesses and has some serious backing behind it.
Through the platform, businesses can set up a website to showcase their products in 15 minutes without having to write code. The platform also helps businesses process web transactions. Although Shopify is the go-to e-commerce platform, Flores-Martinez said it are not for everyone due to the high cost and the complexity of the software.
“CASHDROP prides itself on a user-friendly interface, which allows anyone to own and operate their own business regardless of technical skill level. From a 13-year-old entrepreneur who started selling slime from her smartphone to a husband and wife duo who turned their candy side hustle into a full brick-and-mortar business, CASHDROP allows anyone to make their business idea a reality, fast,” Flores-Martinez said.
Besides the e-commerce platform, Flores-Martinez also developed a point of the sales platform for restaurants that charges a 5 percent processing fee at checkout instead of a yearly fee. The platform helps restaurants adapt to the digital age by allowing for online ordering and accepting digital wallet payment methods.
Ensuring that children are financially well off is every parent’s dream and to achieve that, most open savings accounts or college savings plans. However, Chicago-based startup EarlyBird has a new solution that offers brokerage accounts for parents with newborns.
Through the EarlyBird app, parents can open a custodial brokerage account for their newborns and set up recurring contributions. The money in that account is then invested in a portfolio managed by EarlyBird that consists of securities, bonds and crypto. The idea behind the app is for parents to start investing in their children’s future the day they are born so by the time they take over the account at age 18, they have a significant amount of money saved and can continue to invest themselves. The app is also set up to receive donations from friends and family. Upon donating, they can record a video and store it on the app.
“You buy the baby books, you set up a nursery and you set up an EarlyBird account to invest in their future. If you can get started at day zero the power of compounding interest over the years can literally provide an entire retirement account,” Jordan Wexler, co-founder and CEO of EarlyBird, told Built In. “It’s an incredibly impactful and amazing and powerful tool that, if leveraged right, can really change how we think about wealth creation.”
The app launched in 2020 and has raised $7.1 million in funding from several VC firms and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and his VC firm Seven Seven Six Ventures. Going forward, EarlyBird is looking to work on new additions for the app and integrations that will allow it to be added to baby registries.
Quicklly, an online grocer, e-commerce site and meal-kit startup, has been thriving over the years by focusing on selling only high-quality South Asain foods. According to Keval Rej, co-founder of Quicklly, the company witnessed 500 percent growth at a time when larger meal kit companies were also seeing significant growth.
Quicklly’s platform sells over 250,000 unique food products that range from perishable goods, spices and roti to a bevy of other South Asian foods. Besides selling its own products, the platform also lets small businesses and restaurants list and sell their items on the platform. Since launching, Quicklly has been able to draw in over 300 small vendors to use the platform.
In addition to providing a platform to sell goods, Quicklly also provides analytics for vendors and inventory tools that help keep fast-selling items in stock. With the selling and analytics platform, Quicklly says vendors see a more than 50 percent improvement in sales.
Though the company was founded in Chicago, it ships food and meal kits nationwide. With future plans to expand and serve more customers, Quicklly recently partnered with Instacart.
“Our vision is to become the most comprehensive marketplace for [the] South Asian food and grocery space by continuing to bring authentic Indian flavors to our consumers,” Rej said.
Finding gifts for loved ones can be hard but Songfinch wants to make it easier by gifting songs. Founded in 2016, customers can use Songfinch to connect with the platform’s contracted artists and work with them to create a unique song for a loved one.
Buying a song on the website costs $200 and includes one song with two verses, a chorus and revisions. The company also sells add-ons such as a slideshow, printed lyrics or CDs and vinyls. Songfinch can also upload the unique song to streaming services.
The company was started by John Williamson, a musician turned tech entrepreneur. Prior to the Songfinch, he launched a similar company that was meant to help businesses find artists to create songs for ads. He sold that company to Coca-Cola in 2011.
Songfinch has raised $5 million in seed funding. Its latest round included investments from musicians like Doja Cat and The Weekend, among others.
Coworking spaces have a lot in common, however, to stand out from the crowd Workbox offers its members connections to VC firms and programming to advance their business.
The company was founded in 2019 but during the pandemic it acquired new leases and now offers four coworking locations in Chicago. With its highest membership, meant for small startups, members get access to Workbox’s network of over 40 angel investors who are willing to take pitches from the companies that use Workbox’s locations.
“I just thought that the sector had no differentiation; everybody was just selling space,” John Wallace, CEO and co-founder of Workbox, told Built In. “We started the business to be a toolbox for early and growth-stage companies to be successful.”
With new funding, the company is looking to expand beyond its current locations. According to Wallace, there are already plans to launch in another major city by the end of the year.