Founder’s Round

I had the opportunity to attend Founders Meetup on Tuesday night (March 1) and listen to a few CEO’s speak about their technology, business models, milestones/goals, questions, and concerns.  They included SeatGeek, HyperPublic, and RocketHub.

SeatGeek, an NYC Seed portfolio company, is a sports and concert ticket search engine that uses predictive algorithms to show you the best price for tickets sold on secondary markets (meaning not directly from TicketMaster or another large service).  They also have spent an extensive amount of time mapping the configurations of stadium seating across America that way you can see exactly where you will be sitting during the show or game and make sure you are paying the best price on the market!

HyperPublic may be a little bit more difficult for me to explain correctly.  On the surface, at the moment at least, its gives you a simple way to tag and search people, places, or things that they you everyday and then find and connect to those things by location.  On the backend, they are creating really rich data layer from which other applications can be built.  Cofounder, Jordan Cooper, described it as the intermediary between infrastructure sites like SimpleGeo and heavy user generated content sites like Yelp.com.  Either way the opportunities that the dataset will provide to developers to build applications for local entities on the platform will be amazing.

Last one, since I really didn’t mean to go into a lot of detail about these companies.. RocketHub is similar to KickStarter, as it uses crowdsourcing to help people raise money for various projects.  Whats most interesting is their partnerships with larger brands who also join in on sponsoring some of the projects.

One of the more interesting topics that was raised was customer acquisition, which includes the debate about time spent on marketing and PR for startups.  By now everyone should have read Fred Wilson’s views on what it means for startups to spend time on different marketing initiatives.  Anyways, I wanted to point out a really interesting comment made in the audience about an example of a company that came up with a very clever, and relatively successful way to acquire customers.  The company is called Blingo (it still exists, not that anyone would use it) and they are a search engine owned by Publishers Clearing House.  However they offered one distinguishable twist from all of the other search engines in the market.  Every time a user searched for something they had the opportunity to win a prize at random.  GENIUS. Blingo successfully acquired millions of email addresses at the cost of giving away a few inexpensive prizes each day.  They also incorporated a social networking tool into it; users that recruited their friends to join would receive the same prize that any of their friends won.  Blingo encouraged their users that it was best to use the service like they would use any other search engine on a normal basis.  For the casual searcher, there was much more incentive to go to Blingo (which was using Google’s search anyways) because they had a chance to win.

While it seems obvious, I think campaigns like this could be applied to a number of platforms today whose largest priority is singing up millions of new users.  Foursquare is a great example.  Merchants that are willing to give out special offer are the most valuable for the platform because they keep users engaged.  Here’s the question: Is it possible to make it required for merchants to offer a special to a minimum number of customers on foursquare every week at random?  That would be such a huge incentive for current users who never receive anything to keep checking in and for people not currently using the service to sign up for an account.

*Note I got some information from wikipedia.  It’s credible enough in my mind. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blingo

Broken things= startup opportunities

Facebook invented the Events page.  Arguably one of the biggest attractions to the platform besides sharing pictures, the ability to tell friends about upcoming events is invaluable.  But, through all of facebook’s growth and development over the past 5-6 years, it seems that the Events section has not seen any major improvements.  Instead, the right hand corner of our home screens have become a haven for unsolicited parties and meetups and has slowly, but surely rendered itself useless.  The system is officially broken for what I would think is a large number of users.  Sharing events among a close network of friends is vital to any social network.  The traditional mechanisms to get a group together on a particular night are completely outdated. Unfortunately, Facebook Events can also be added to that list, along with snail mail, email, and mass text messages.

Presently, on facebook the types of events we receive usually fall into a few distinct categories: birthdays, planned parties, promo events/benefits/concerts, community meetings, and lost cellphones (if that can even be considered an event).  I usually have a range of 12-16 events in my list on facebook, of which there are 2 that I will respond to if I remember in time.  This is a problem that needs to be replicated, and I don’t think facebook will be the one to do it.  If a large technology company like Facebook won’t or can’t do it, it is definitely an opportunity for a startup. I think event planning online needs to be made a bit more spontaneous, allowing for organic growth of “attendees” rather than forced pressure (ie facebok messages, which I also think are useless).  There should be a dedicated application separate from email, facebook, and twitter that helps users manage the types of events they receive from their friends, the timing that you receive the event (for example, birthdays i would like to know way in advance, regular parties i would like to know about the day of or the day before), and the number of events currently in the “inbox”.

Anyways, I think it would be an interesting side project and I might just take some time to experiment with it.  I have a few ideas about how to best go about getting the data to build an personal event manager. If anyone is interested in joining or has some advice please send me an email at scott.amenta89@gmail.com or leave your comments below.

Do it or dont do it..

..Or Call it A Side Project.

The thought of running a successful company can be overwhelmingly daunting. I believe many first time entrepreneurs suffer from a common problem; the idea of starting a successful company gets put on a pedestal.  As new entrepreneurs begin to think about their idea, assemble a team, create decks, and reach out to their network they get caught up in the hype of creating a startup.  All of the sudden, it becomes a big deal to take an untraditional path and run your own company.  Founders become more aware of the risk of failure, the time commitment, and the thought that maybe their idea isn’t worth the next five years of their time.  As soon as an entrepreneur puts their company on a pedestal, they are destined to fail. Excuse after excuse, they get caught up doing everything but what needs to get done; building a prototype and getting it to users or customers to test.  There is no reason to open a bank account, incorporate the company, or even to spend time alerting friends, families, and even potential mentors or investors until it is absolutely necessary.  All of this acts as a waste of time.  Time that could have been spent testing the product, talking with customers, and figuring out the next iteration.

To this problem, my solution is the side project. Having a side project means that one is also spending time on one or more things simultaneously.  The benefits of having a side project outweigh the benefits of committing 100% of your time to a single idea.

Here’s five reasons why:

  1. Dedicating 5-25% of your time to a side project forces you to focus on the most important aspects first, like building a prototype and speaking to customers.
  2. Side projects can change by week, month, or year.  This keeps things interesting and allows you to explore different opportunities without committing all of your resources at once.
  3. The risk of failure does not appear as daunting, especially to a first time entrepreneur because there is always something else to fall back upon.
  4. Side projects teach you how to manage your time more efficiently to get things done quickly.  Having a lot of things going on at the same time doesn’t leave room for procrastination and keeps you engaged.
  5. Side projects are great conversation starters and generally make you look more interesting.  They are a great way to meet new people with interests that parallel whatever you are working on.

Arguably you can have one or more side projects at the same time. Building a website, running a blog, doing volunteer work, or taking online classes, are just a few types of side projects.  Of course, everyone is always busy working on a thousand different things at once.  The lesson for myself and other first time entrepreneurs is that its dangerous to think about things as being absolute. So call whatever you’re doing a side project.  Put your mind in the right place and your work and time will be better spent.  Failure is just an excuse to focus harder on something different.

Nurds who bike. #bikenyc

Courtesy of Dmitry Gudkov

For those that don’t know, #bikenyc represents a quickly growing twitter group, tweeting and sharing everything bicycle related in New York City.  #bikenyc is a combination of petitioners, community builders, bicycle enthusiasts, commuters, bloggers, and if you hadn’t guessed by my title, tech nurds who ride bikes.

The first #bikenyc tech meetup was hosted at pivotal labs, current home of TechStars and organized by Noel Hidalgo (@noneck), Lara (@bicyclehabitat), and Michael Green (@bikeblognyc).  I happen to be interested in both the bicycling and tech communities in NYC.  Little did I know there were others like me.  The intersection of these two communities at #bikenyc is a great step towards using technology to make NYC a safer, more social place to ride.  Here are some of my thoughts regarding the future of the meetup and what I hope to see come out of it.  While I’m not a programmer, I hope to do my own part contributing through idea generation, business development, my network, etc.

  1. In order to build great products, programmers need great data.  The bike infrastructure in NYC can only be enhanced with the release of city data through open API’s.  Obviously, getting the Bloomberg administration to release this information will be a slow and painful process, but I think it should be made a number one priority.  We could hold our own version of Big Apps competition, inviting programmers to participate in a hackathon specifically for cycling infrastructure in New York.  The innovations that come out of these programs could help put pressure on the government.  Proof of use cases with the data will certainly increase the argument for open API’s.  Moreover, we need to recruit other groups that would also have a strong use for city information.  Joining forces with other transportation startups like Roadify will help apply pressure in critical mass.  From my own perspective, interning at NYC Seed, it would be tactiful to organize the large venture capitalists in NYC to apply pressure for open API’s as well.  They have a lot to gain, as many of their portfolio companies could benefit from the increased amount of data.  As Silicon Alley grows, east coast VC’s can wield a certain amount of power over local government.  It is their companies that are supplying jobs as they grow.  Our economy relies on startups for these very reasons: innovation and employment.
  2. There seemed to be somewhat of a division between the #bikenyc technologists and the #bikenyc community not-for-profit organizers. At its heart, the #bikenyc tech meetup should exist to facilitate communication between these two parties.  Those interested in enhancing the cycling community through initiatives like group rides, community board meetings, etc need to state clearly to programmers what their problems are and how they could be addressed by building online platforms and applications.  I believe the majority of #bikenyc tech meetups should be focused on bridging this divide.  We may try to model our meet-ups on the fashion 2.0 conferences. One or two questions could be proposed prior to the meetup to align everyone thinking about the same topics.  Although classifying whose an “expert” in this field may be difficult, we could invite entrepreneurs from other startups to come speak and offer their own input on how we can help them, and vice versa.
  3. Following the notion of proposing specific topics each meeting, we need to decide on a long term goal.  Whether that means increasing the number of bike lanes, getting more cyclists on the road, reducing the number of vehicles, saving bike lanes already built (PPW), or getting data from the city.  Establishing some long-term goals will help put everyone’s thoughts into perspective about what is and is not realistic to accomplish right now.

I expect a lot will come out of the #bikenyc tech meetup in the future.  There is certainly a ton of room for improvement when thinking about New York becoming a safe, friendly environment to bike.  The reasons for supporting these initiatives are simple.  Biking makes people healthy, social, and above all happy. If we can use the internet to progress this thinking, we will have done our part to make our community that much better.  Until then, ride on #bikenyc.

Oh, and shout out to my photographer/friend Dmitry Gudkov whose #bikenyc portraits you can find on his blog or by clicking the image above.  He has done a great job bringing the #bikenyc community together through his photography. And feel free to hit him up for your own picture as spring approaches!

Pop Culture Meets Startups?

So I may or may not have upset a few Britney Spears fans yesterday afternoon with a single tweet stating I had a leaked official Hold It Against Me (HIAM) video on my page.  I admit, it was wrong. I just wanted to see what kind of clicks I would get from a single tweet with lots of hashtags on trending topics.  The results were surprisingly not as large as you would think.  This probably demonstrates the fact that twitter is and should be used conversationally.  Mass promotion is certainly a difficult sell, especially if you are lying about the end content.

That said, I’ve been listening to Hold It Against Me probably about 5 times a day since its release at the beginning of the month (my brother @StephanPaul92 and roommate @bfaerb1632 are obsessed with Britney, so it pretty much runs constantly in my apartment).  Before the video was released it never once occurred to me that the song could have anything remotely to do with technology, startups, and especially dating sites.  And then BOOM- right at the peak of the song out of nowhere comes PlentyofFish.com? What?  Now I don’t know very much about POF, other than its a free dating site, based out of Vancouver, started a long time ago (2003), and reportedly was hacked by an Argentinean who stole a bunch of usernames and passwords at the end of January 2011.  It’s also possible that they have over 15 million accounts, but that is besides the point.

My question is why?  Why Plentyoffish.com?  Did the Britney Spears production staff have a sudden urge to incorporate technology into one of her videos, and they decided this was the best opportunity to do so?  Is Plentyoffish.com such a brilliant site that it was destined to fall into the hands of the queen of pop?  Is Britney secretly one of those 15 million users on POF and one lucky fan could potentially find themselves on a date with her?  Either way, there are so many amazing startups in NYC, Silicon Valley, and the rest of the world that if Britney was really going to endorse the technology scene, her staff could have done a little bit more research on the startup market.  Honestly, there were enough televisions around her for Youtube (although not a startup anymore), VYou, Qwiki, justin.tv, Blazetrak, or any startup for that matter to all get a piece of the action!  Not to mention that this wasn’t PlentyofFish’s first debut on a music video.  They were also featured in the official Flo Rida ft. Akon song titled “Available” back in 2009, which may or may not actually be a PlentyofFish advertisement.  Seriously, look at it below, the entire video is about online dating.  Nonetheless, considering POF looks like it hasn’t had a UI update since its birth in ’03, you’ve got to hand it to them.  Whoever is in charge of attracting new users at POF is hitting it right on the money.  Where better than to put your brand/logo than a video that will be viewed by millions worldwide and enter a lifetime of infmay with the B-Spears empire.  Why spend millions of dollars on an ad spot in the superbowl if you can be in a Britney video?  POF, possibly the most unlikely candidate of all, has put a lot of companies to shame this time.

Reposting Britney Video Was Disabled by Youtube follow the links below to watch:

Britney Spears Official HIAM Video

PlentyofFish @1:27

Flo Rida “Available” Video

Writing about this has sparked my interest in the relationship between celebrities and startups and the positive/negative effects influential people can have on young companies.  I would like to write another post examining this relationship and if anyone would like to contribute information or examples where it has or has not been advantageous to join forces with celebrities, it would be much appreciated!

**Note: This post would be better suited for sites like TheFatBrat.com but I decided to give it a shot at pop culture with a bit of my own spin.

To be or not to be. Fb Connect

I’ve been trying to decide for a while whether or not I agree with using FB Connect to log on to various sites.  On the plus side users can instantly connect to a site, see who is using the platform from their network, and get a somewhat personalized service.  On the backend, developers can access an array of information about their users from facebook, which could, if used properly, really enhance the service.  Knowing a users social graph, likes, interests, activities, etc is super powerful.  But with great power obviously comes responsibility, and a bunch of startups out there have come up with very creative ways to abuse the FB Connect button.  Take Honestly.com for example.  The other day I found this in my inbox, seemingly innocent, yet totally unexpected from both parties.

Here’s what apparently happened, coming from my friend whos name is blurred out, which I did using Aviary.com and their new HTML5 photo editor.. highly recommended for quick edits and novice photoshoppers like myself.

The homepage on Honestly.com asks you to connect through facebook.  It then provides a list of people in your network and then shows a button that says “follow”.  Now “follow” normally implies that the people listed there are people also using the service.  Anyone in their right mind would begin adding friends that are also on the same platform… until you realize that Honestly.com’s true intention is send an automated spam blast to everyone you just clicked on in your facebook social network, and get this, your gmail address book.  I would say customer acquisition costs for this type of campaign are probably about $0.00 considering the viral coefficient.  With 10 initial customers who each send an average of 50 “follows” (because they think these friends are already part of the service) at a 20% conversion rate of invites into new customers, the viral coefficient (K) = 10.  Honestly, honestly.com, thats nuts.

Anyways, not to discredit Honestly.com, formerly known as Unvarnished, the site actually looks pretty interesting. It allows users to manage and research professional reputation online.  I don’t think taking advantage of Fb Connect, intentionally or not, will leave a good reputation, but it just goes to show how careful you have to be about user experience.

Startups like Jibe, for example, have done an amazing job incorporating Fb Connect and LinkedIn to show users where their friends have or are currently working and the jobs available from companies Amazon, Conde Nast, and MTV.  Even if you’re not looking for jobs, the value add for seeing what companies and industries your network works in an easy-to-use interface is great and feels completely secure.  Startups take notice, this is a proper way to use features like fb Connect.

First Pivot

A friend once told me that the maximum number of times a startup can pivot is twice.  By three pivots you are back to square one and left with exactly what you started with.  I’m not sure what the rules for pivoting a blog are, but this is my pivot towards something that I also find very interesting in addition to bicycling around NYC: technology startups.  Similar to the bicycle community, the tech startup community here in NY is thriving.  In fact, its growing at such a crazy rate that even Silicon Valley is taking notice.  So my blog, CitySpoke, whose name and/or logo may be changed in the upcoming weeks will focus on a couple different things from here on out.  In addition to some of my favorite bloggers/blogs out there like Fred Wilson’s “AVC”, Charlie O’Donnell’s “This is Going to Be Big”, Techcrunch, Mashable, Mellow Yellow, Transportation Alternatives, and Prolly one of my goals is to become a consistent, recognizable voice as both a tech and bicycle enthusiast and participant.  My other goal is a bit more personal; to share some of the thousands of random thoughts I have everyday from the things that intrigue me about NY, my friends, relationships, technology, bicycles, food, fashion, and other things I find inspiring.

Fixed gear bicycles fascinate me.  Think about it.  They are the simplest, possibly oldest form of any bicycle.  Before the freewheel was invented, fixies ruled the street for both casual and professional riders.  Even Madison Square Garden was built to hold a velodrome.  But, it’s the pure lines that make these bike so beautiful, the customization and thought put behind every part that has created such a unique  culture.  There is something intrinsically exhilarating about riding a fixed gear bike in New York.  It’s the idea of forming a bond between man and machine.  The feeling of ultimate control in an environment of uncontrollable chaos.  Slowly, constantly, and effortlessly pedaling to what end.  Let me for a minute draw the link between entrepreneurship and riding a fixie.  Entrepreneurship is a slow, sometimes lonely adventure.  The best entrepreneurs  never stop moving forward.  They are constantly pedaling, differentiating themselves, checking the environment around them, assembling with other riders that share the same dreams, and navigating through unknown territories around hundreds of obstacles faster than anyone else on the road.  The life of a NY cyclist reflects the most important aspects of starting a business; knowing the market, creating a unique product, assembling a team beating the competition, and moving quickly and fluidly.  If you’re debating becoming an entrepreneur in this city, there’s only one answer. Try riding a fixed gear.