Monday, December 06, 2010

Innotech 2010: a new batch of entrepreneurs

I typically go to Innotech just for the Beta Summit, a showcase of Austin technology startups. (That, and because I've been getting free passes for 3 years in a row, and for their happy hours, receptions, and networking.) A few select startups present their products and -- what's even more interesting -- their business models, in 10-minute talks. I've blogged about previous Innotechs here.

This year the startups were:

Recycle Match. Their goal is to make landfills obsolete. Companies are wasting resourcces to dispose of the garbage they generate in their manufacturing process, but one company's trash is another company's treasure. Many millions' worth of recyclable materials in landfills, while they could be sold to companies that could use them. Recyclables market in the US is huge, but it's offline and very inefficient. Recycle Match connects companies to let them offload their recyclable materials onto each other. Recycle Match charges companies $10 a ton to make a match; whereas landfills charge much more to dump stuff in landfills.

Ricochet Labs is a company that publishes a location-based trivia game QRank. It has rapidly taken off among Austin's Twitter community. They are saying that they are building service architecture for QRank, and looking at "verticals such as for-profit education" -- I have only a vague idea what that means. Would an average iPhone user like some education mixed in with his or her trivia game? Now that's an idea. Even better, let them get a degree from an online university solely via trivia games! (Just kidding.) QRank is also adding content channels, such as sports or movie channel, and location-based offers and redemptions. They are adding more platforms -- Android and Blackberry.

Matt Curtin from Social SmackChad Farrell from Recycle Match
Matt Curtin from Social SmackChad Farrell from Recycle Match

Hurricane Party is a free iPhone app that lets people get together. What? Evite, Meetup, Eventbrite, or Facebook events aren't enough? We need yet another application for creating events?

Maybe we do. Hurricane Party's cofounder Eric Katerman is a self-admitted prorastinator. He doesn't plan his free time before the last minute. When he got an urge to hang out with his friends, he used to set a Facebook status asking if anyone wants to get together, but got few responses, and even fewer timely ones. That's where Hurricane Party comes in, he says. To get together with friends, he creates a "hurricane", and invites people. Hurricane Party is great for creating spontaneous events with friends, that take place within a very short time window. Invites are sent via text messages. In this it differs from Evite, Facebook events, or other event planning applications. You can create an event as far as 12 hours in advance, and easily move it to another location.

Who are your "friends" on Hurricane Party? It's a subset (I didn't understand if it was an intersection or a union) of your Facebook friends and people in your contact book. Everyone logs into Hurricane Party through Facebook. You can also group your friends into groups, such as Yoga or Sushi, to make it easier to invite the right groups of people to a "hurricane".

Hurricane Party also offers location-based specials. A group of friends getting together at a particular venue may get a big discount, e.g. half-price domestic beer. While this sounds a lot like Groupon, HP claims to solves problems that Groupon has. Most Groupon customers redeem their coupons during the time whe then business is at its busiest (Thursday-Saturday nights), and most of its users are established customers at a venue they where they redeem Groupon, not new ones. So Hurricane Party also helps businesses grow traffic, since not everyone who has been invited has already been to this venue.

Hurricane Party plans to have a big launch at the next SXSW.

Rodney Gibbs from Ricochet LabsEric Katerman from Hurricane Party
Rodney Gibbs from Ricochet LabsEric Katerman from Hurricane Party

Workstreamer lets people keep track of companies. Marketing departments are interested in keeping track of competition, vendors of their customers. Historically people did that through Google. But, as the presenter Ray Renteria demonstrated, if you search for, e.g. Target, you'll get lots of irrelevant results. A savvy person might create a Google Alert. But you don't want to keep track of things "at an atomic level", he says, because you probably follow more than one company.

Workstreamer pulls in tens of thousands of streams of information. It determines what is business and non-business related, and delivers those results to you via its website and an AIR desktop application. So you get filtered, relevant news, as well as what people are saying about a particular company on social networks, like Facebook and Twitter. Workstreamer is free, but as a premium feature it's planning to offer technology that will "plug into other contexts", such as email, and into other platforms as well. Another paid feature in the works is a repository of structured data about businesses. It will let you find out, for example, which companies bought other companies, or which ones recently went bankrupt.

Ray Renteria from WorkStreamerJason Cohen speaks about entrepreneurial lessons learned from Smart Bear Software
Ray Renteria from WorkStreamerJason Cohen speaks about entrepreneurial lessons learned from Smart Bear Software

In a separate session on entrepreneurship, Jason Cohen gave a talk "From Geek to Entrepreneur: Sifting Through The Bull5h1t". The gist of his advice for techies who want to start their own companies was this: take all the established entrepreneurial wisdom with the grain of salt. Advice exists in context. Rules -- from how often you should blog about your company, to how hard you should work, to whether you need salespeople, to whether it's better to be bootstrapped or funded -- are dependent on the nature of your business, and exist solely in context. Since rules are meant to be broken, pick the rules that are fun to you! In his speech, Jason Cohen illustrated how he broke each established rule, and still built a successful software company, Smart Bear Software. For example, entrepreneurs are often advised to blog once a day, keep blog posts short, and use simple words. Cohen instead reduced the frequency of his blogging to once a week, and wrote 1500 word-long posts -- and his company's blog started getting many more visitors. It also depends on whether you are building your business to become rich, or would you rather be a king of your domain (read more on Rich vs. King distinction), whether it serves business-to-business or business-to-consumer market market, whether it's a lifestyle or a growth business. And maybe you don't need an experienced salesperson, if, by picking a right acronym and motto for the company's name, you make viral marketing work for you:?

Viral marketing: STDS - our invoices flare up every year

Several more slides from this presentation that talk about Rich vs. King model and other dimensions that characterize startups, can be found in in my photo gallery.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

My NaNoWri3Years

... and just like that, I realized I am writing the final scene of my first novel. Not NaNoWriMo -- I've been working on this one for three years. I didn't expect this scene to be final, but it seems fitting to end the novel here, and leave the rest to the reader's imagination. Well, at least in Draft Zero -- it's subject to change in subsequent drafts. Yes, I said Draft Zero, because it does not deserve the title of first draft yet. That's even taking into account that, as they say, the first draft should look like it was hastily translated from Icelandic by a non-native speaker. No, my Draft Zero is nowhere near as polished as that.

It needs:

-- a few more characters. At the very least it needs me to decide what happened to some secondary characters that made brief appearances and left plot threads dangling. Those characters need to be rounded up and brought back into the plot;

-- figuring out which parts of the story need to happen before other parts; in other words, a consistent timeline;

-- a firmer grasp of physics (it's a science fiction novel);

-- a decision on whether it should have just one point of view, or if the two protagonists each need their own POV. I am leaning towards the latter, because if everything is shown from the POV of Protagonist 1, readers won't have a way to find out what happened to Protagonist 2 (except by P2 giving an infodump to P1, and we know desirable infodumps are);

-- last but not least, it needs character development. More vivid descriptions of places would be nifty too.

Oh, it also needs names for characters and places -- time to stop designating the characters as X and Y. And a title.

If I'm lucky, it will take me another year to get to Draft One, at which point I might start taking it to critique groups. But now I'm actually tempted to put this aside and write a new novel, which has been marinating inside me for months now. It started out as a short story, and grew into a novella, and then I realized that to do proper justice to those ideas, I need to make it a novel. But on an average day, I only have time to work on one or the other. There's no way I would have time for both. So I think I'll have to do revisions of this novel, and let the next one wait a year.