Archive for July, 2009

Review: DemoCamp Toronto #21

Tonight I attended DemoCamp Toronto #21. It was my personal second time out at DemoCamp and I was loving the vibe in the room of the sold-out venue (approx. 250 people). Before I get to the meat of the post, I must throw out a big thank you to Leila Boujnane, who was awesome and gave me her seat at the packed event.

Below, I have done my best to provide some information on some of the demos from tonight’s event:

Zoocasa is an ad-supported, vertical search engine for real estate listings that allows visitors to search by neighborhoods and school district among other things. I’m not a huge fan of the ad-supported model as a sole business model and I believe that the business should quickly look for some innovative business models that they can layer onto their service offering to increase the monetization potential of their website.

ArtAnywhere was presented by an enthusiastic Christine Renaud. Her business is centered around a website that helps artists (painters, contemporary artists) meet and transact for their artwork with those looking to buy (or in this case — RENT). ArtAnywhere has a very interesting business model that charges people or corporate entities $XX/mo/piece of art (artist chooses the price) and the site takes a 15-20% tranaction fee. The company is launching in Montreal, Toronto and New York in September 2009. I am very curious to see if people will buy into her business model and find security in mitigating the risk of purchasing art by renting it on a monthly recurring model.

HomeStars is a website that allows home contractors to have a social media page with ratings and reviews. It doesn’t seem to be anything revolutionary, and certainly not a business that will scale to deliver venture-like returns, but it can certainly drive value to all of its users and potentially make a nice return for a business owner. Brian, who gave the demo, seemed like a nice guy and I wish him well in his venture.

Cascada Mobile is an interesting company that solves the problems of some mobile application developers who are looking to write-once and deploy an application across multiple devices. Their primary product is called “Breeze.” Using this product, a user can write code in HTML/ JavaScript/CSS and have it ported to a large number of devices (including the iPhone as of this week, albeit with limited functionality). They also host and manage distribution. Currently they have a free ad-supported version as well as licensing fees and revenue share deals for users who don’t want ads embedded within their applications. Very cool. I’d love to try out the full version and try to create my own mobile app!

MashupArts is a site looking to capitalize on social networks, collaboration, events and virtual goods. The company lets you customize one of a series of templates and integrate a number of mediums (pictures, slideshows, video, audio, text), and a commenting layer on top of this. The example given is a group-based collaborative birthday card to a friend or family member where all of the members of the network can contribute to card mashup. The website is currently in a beta, but if you really like the sound of this, let me know and I’ll see what I can do to get you a passcode into the realm of the private beta.

Guestlist is a sexy new event site by Ben Vinegar. Very slick and great use of AJAX elements here. It’s so good that DemoCamp mentioned that they are going to switch from EventBrite to Guestlist; so there, now you go try it! It’s in beta and just launched last week.

Guigoog is supposed to be an alternative to using Google’s “hard-to-navigate” boolean, advanced search. So for all the non-computer junkies, I guess there’s a market for this?! You tell me. In any case, Jason Roks got stuck demoing on a computer with IE6.0, and needless to say, it could not handle the advanced scripting necessary to pull of some of the snazzy UI elements he incorporated. Don’t worry Jason, I tried it on Google Chrome and it looks great. He describes the technology as: “If you’re looking for 2 things in a pile in front of you, you can filter out everything you don’t want, and you will be left with things that resemble what you are looking for.” Therefore, you can find things that you don’t necessary know exist, but think may exist given a number of parameters — great for searches where you know general characteristics but no specific names — I can think of many scenarios where this could be handy! Can you?

Great job everyone. It was a blast as always (i.e. last time). Looking forward to the next event.

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Guns, Germs, and Silicon Valley?

Yesterday I finished reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, and in the final hour of reading something sparked my attention:

Throughout history and despite relatively uniform intelligence across all of humankind, Diamond argues that widespread innovation had been limited to only certain countries in particular geographical contexts. He goes on to mention that innovation (as seen in those countries) was driven by the presence of higher population densities, close proximity to a number of neighbouring countries, and higher degrees of competitiveness between countries.

Naturally, I wondered, could this concept explain why so much technology innovation has led to an abundance of successful tech companies in the Bay Area, and to a lesser but still significant extent, the Greater Boston Area? On the flip-side, could this concept also explain why so many technology companies created in other regions have higher failure rates?

According to Diamond, innovation is driven by population densities of sorts. The Bay Area has one of the richest selections of successful and pioneering IT/internet/mobile technology entrepreneurs on the planet. As far as competitiveness, the US is the epidemy of a Capitalist nation, and competition is as fierce domestically as it is internationally (if not more fierce).

Note: As far as the Bay Area goes, I believe it remains at the apex of innovation due to its abundance of human capital, sharing of know-how, entrepreneurial culture, access to world-class research facilities/universities and venture capital financing. However, I do buy into the fact that proximate competition can help to turn good ideas into great ideas when the developers of the ideas have the ability to see and innovate on top of other very good ideas very quickly.

Although I don’t have the time and/or resources to explore this in further detail, I find this to be an interesting theoretical discussion about how a local geography can evolve in such a way that promotes rapid innovation in a particular niche. If you have an opinion on the matter, I invite you to please share it below.

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Business and Military Strategy

I have been reading the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, and it has inspired a concept/theory on developing competitive online and mobile businesses that I am going to pursue further in my work with our portfolio companies.

At one point in the book, Diamond discusses the invent and adoption of guns by a number of countries. At the time, guns were the most powerful weapon. Countries that failed to adopt and manufacture guns for military use (the reason did not matter, whether cultural, tactical or lack of know-how), eventually succumbed to their neighbors or other invading troops in possession of such advanced weaponry.
A parallel can be drawn to online or mobile businesses in today’s world that have a product, but are not leveraging the necessary tools (or “weaponry”) to compete aggressively. Consider a small, vulnerable startup without “guns” taking-on larger industry giants with “guns.” The startup needs to get on level footing before any shift in market share or significant user adoption takes place. Another way to view this is to ensure your product has at least the same level of core functionality as your most significant competitors, and then innovate on top of that base. Note: There are obvious exceptions and I am being general in my statement.
Right now, there is an unprecedented number of free tools that allow business to increase the virality, social interaction, visibility and overall stickiness and competitiveness of a product or service. These can and should be leveraged to topple giants.
Virality and Social Interaction: I am referring to the use of Facebook Connect and Twitter/OAuth to increase social interaction, sharing of links, and recommendations to a user’s social network. The websites that have adopted the use of Facebook Connect have seen massive increases in hits to their website; laggards and late-adopters are suffering, and those who adopted early are reaping the benefit. Use Facebook Connect. Virality can be spread many other ways; remember content is still king — create a company/product blog and start a Twitter feed to inform your followers about industry trends and product updates; also make sure to address any concerns that users voice about your product. By using Twitter, companies can stop bad press before it starts, which could save startups one of their nine lives so to speak.
Stickiness: Give users a reason to return to your website or mobile application. Can you think of way to demonstrate continuous value to users of your site? If you can, you may enjoy more frequent visits from users. A user’s return could be influenced by social pressures (responding to a request driven/initiated by a friend), self-interest (check alert / view an update), curiosity and general need. Make use of different technologies to stay in touch with users, according to the preferences they like — allow them to select options including email, SMS (may be costly), Facebook, Twitter or through other widgets that may integrate with iGoogle or other portals.
I am going to continue to develop this theory. The next book on my reading list is Art of War by Sun Tzu; I hope that will be a good catalyst for a good follow-up post.
As always, I invite you all to contribute your thoughts below. Can you draw any other parallels between military strategies and business?
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The Future iPhone

It seems Apple has been on a patenting frenzy, and it may be sheding some light on what the next-gen Apple iPhones are going to look and feel like.

In a couple of recent articles by FierceMobile, they discuss a new series of patents recently filed by Apple: object ID and enhanced messaging and haptics and fingerprint IDs. Sounds pretty bad, right?

In any case, here is some more detail on what this could mean:

Object Identification Tools — Your iPhone could determine a user’s present surroundings and offer contextual information via RFID reader or camera. [LINK: US Patent Application 20090175499]

Improved Messaging — “Objectionable content filtering” on children’s text messages, message delivery notifications (ensuring messages got delivered, such as the functionality seen in BlackBerry Messager Messaging), and saving text that was sent to prevent re-entry of text. [LINKS: US Patent Application 2009017750, 20090176517]

Haptics Feedback Technology — Touch-based input components can use, for example, a grid of piezoelectric actuators to provide vibrational feedback to a user, while the user scrolls around a click wheel, slides across a trackpad, or touches a multi-touch display screen. Cool!! [LINK: US Patent Application 20090167704]

Fingerprint ID Safeguard — Besides the obvious login and authentication features, Apple discusses the possibility of using specific input signatures (or fingerprints) to launch specific commands or functions. Apple also alludes to designing a device with multiple fingerprint sensors to allow for advanced multi-touch, multi-fingerprint functionality. [LINK: US Patent Application 20090169070]

Lookin snazzy Apple. Looking forward to what’s around the corner.

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