Sunday, May 30, 2010

Goby: the best search engine for what's going on

Imagine if Google was good at allowing you to search for what's going on.  Then, it'd look like Goby.

This area of search is notoriously difficult to serve well using a standard search engine, like from Google (GOOG) or Yahoo (YHOO).  Most users, myself included, hop around to a multitude of bookmarked sites which list interesting events, as well as track related email lists in the hopes that we are presented with a reasonable representation of what's going on.  It's actually a lot of work, and who knows how many cool events slip through the cracks using this form of "manual search".  Worse yet, if you travel somewhere (even a short drive), most of your information is no longer relevant to your new locale.

In a way, almost all problems with search of "what's going on?" and "what to do?" can be summarized as contextual problems.  One such problem with generic search engines is that they don't understand the context of the user (what they're trying to find).  As a consequence, the user is deluged with irrelevant content.  Another huge problem is that crawled content has a lot of arbitrarily formatted yet helpful planning information which needs to be contextualized, before being presented to a search user.  For examples, location, phone numbers, and event dates and times are key pieces of info which need to be presented and factored into the search, but are likely listed in very arbitrary ways which need intelligent "contextualization" by the search engine.  Goby aims to solve these kinds of problems.  And it does it with an uber-simplistic user interface.

Besides this search vertical being incredibly under-served, it should also be very monitizable for Goby, as the net result of "what to do" searches is that people go places and spend money.  I would think their search advertising premiums would be quite good.  Google, take note...

Disclosure: no positions

Friday, May 28, 2010

"Ask Twitter": incentive driven responses for social networks

Now here's a startup idea that I'd love to see materialize: allow people to embed small financial incentives to questions asked on twitter.  Would be great to plug into PayPal (EBAY), Kachingle or other micro-payment play.  Google (GOOG), you were looking for a way to out-do twitter, no?

There's all this latent power of social networks, formed by people with at least a little disposable income and who have followers in their networks.  In the same way that someone would jump on Yelp to find out where to eat or go, why not send a query to your Twitter or Facebook networks?  They would potentially have more context information about you and your preferences than would say be known by Yelp in it's efforts to direct you to a particular set of venues.  But what makes it more interesting is that a person may want to trade off money for time -- for example if they don't have the time or wireless bandwidth to play around with surfing the web or using mobile apps, they may be interested in offering a small monetary incentive for a prompt and appropriate response (which they can check at their convenience).

So let's say someone is on travel and embeds a $0.50 offer in a tweet or Facebook message to the first-best response to a query such as "where can I get a healthy dinner around here?"  Followers (direct or ultimately indirectly dialed in through automatic mechanisms looking for such queries) could then message back possible solutions.  At their convenience, the requester could look for interesting responses.  It would be up to them to decide who to pay, and that payment could then potentially be recorded with a message to give transparency and show fairness.  There's also no reason they couldn't pay multiple parties (or none at all).

This would of course open up the possibility of a network of people who work full or part time, tapped into real-time for-pay-only query feeds from social networking sites -- indirect followers, if you will.  And potentially even AI based engines, which could scale beyond the human factor.  The key is that a person's past messages and profile give a lot of extra context information that can be factored into giving much higher quality responses.  And by way of people getting payed out (or not) for responding, a rating system could be formulated.

Besides a low barrier-to-use micro-payment system to facilitate this, one thing that I think would be really helpful is to allow voice queries, for people on the go.  So for example, how about a Twitter app (FB and other social network enabled would be nice) that allows one to send voice tweets?  Pumping these messages through something like Google's voice-to-text, would then allow the followers to see text (thus scaling the query better).  There really aren't many Twitter apps that do voice tweets though -- one of the best Twitter apps I found, for instance, that supports voice tweets is Tweet for iPhone/iPad.  With some extra plumbing on both the app and back-end infrastructure side, a truly interesting incentive driven service for social networks could be created, which is highly monetizable.  And btw, if you're thinking "wouldn't this also be really interesting for various marketing campaigns and other crowd-sourced information gathering?", then we're thinking the same things...

Disclosure: no positions

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Best of Finovate Spring 2010 in San Francisco

I spent most of the day at this year's FinovateSpring 2010 interviewing and chatting with many of the players.  Rather than summarize my thoughts on all the companies I talked with, I've culled the list to what I believe represents eight of the more promising companies.  Not all companies demonstrated or exhibited; some only attended.

  1. Blippy: Essentially, "twitter for purchases".  Blippy is sure to elicit reactions of disbelief in much the same way that Twitter did, but it's revenue generating potential (IMO) far outweighs anything like Twitter.  In a lot of ways, Twitter popularized the meme of publicizing one's private life minutia in real-time. Blippy piggy-backs on this now "market-proven" meme, and allows people to publicize their purchases in real-time.  It's hard to stop thinking about powerful ways which having this kind of information can be used by real business: brand placement (what kind of cigar does Brad Pitt buy?), real-time viral marketing campaigns to drive purchase analytics instead of vice versa, a whole new form of search (for purchases) with time machine, location, and other rich demographic data (the next search startup ?), product distribution chain optimizations, etc.  It almost goes without saying that rather than tweets, which may or may not have commercial value, blippy represents real purchase transactions.  And btw, you can channel your blippy feed to Twitter.  What should we call these blippy-tweets?  I proposed "bleets", which the Blippy rep seemed to really like.  So I'm hereby claiming bragging rights if it catches.  :)  Btw VCs, if you missed Twitter, than quit crying about it and get into Blippy for heaven's sake.  Feels like a much bigger score to me.  Amazon (AMZN), eBay (EBAY), Google (GOOG) et al ought to be paying attention.
  2. HiddenLevers: If recent financial history has taught us anything, it's that macro events can have monumentally large effects on one's portfolio.  Currently, macro trumps nearly everything else, and without understanding & modeling macro changes, you don't have a clue of true risk in your portfolio.  Well, FINALLY, after talking with a lot of plays surrounding optimizing portfolio management, I found HiddenLevers.  They get this and let you scenario-ize macro events to truly analyze your portfolio.  I ran into a HiddenLevers founder, though they were only attending for this Spring's conference.  Why I think they're really powerful is because I see them as much more than a site.  This is a service which could plug into nearly every other type of portfolio management system/app/site, whether used by big money or retail investors.  Think about that for a moment.  If you want one to watch for at FinovateFall 2010, look for HiddenLevers.  And for the VCs, don't wait until Fall.  For starters, TD Ameritrade (AMTD), E-Trade (ETFC), Charles Schwab (SCHW), TheStreet (TSCM) and every other financial brokerage & news site ought to pay attention.
  3. Kabbage: Financing exclusively for high volume online sellers.  They can tap directly into marketplace data to determine credit worthiness of sellers.  And lending decisions can be made nearly real-time. Vis-a-vis standard bank lending, it's hard to see how Kabbage has any competition.  This one deserves a huge "Duh!  Why wasn't someone already doing this?"  With the sheer number of online sellers which could join the "Kabbage Patch", it's hard to overstate the opportunity here.
  4. RiskKey: What if compliance management was more continuous than just periodic audits, more collaborative, and yet centralized to a web based system?  Then it'd look a lot like RiskKey.  The result is that management would be hit with a lot less costly surprises, and compliance quality would increase due to a broader set of inputs.  Initially, RiskKey is targeting the banking world, but I don't see why this wouldn't be a big hit in the ever-expanding health care industry.  They may not have had the sexiest offering at Finovate, but they're addressing some big-ticket pain reduction.
  5. PerkStreet: Now here's a novel idea, get perks while spending responsibly on your DEBIT card.  They save enough by not having branch bank locations, that they can afford to make money and give you back some of the savings (which was your money to start with) via perks.  Shouldn't every college brand one of these PerkStreet cards and encourage students to start off on the right financial foot?  Currently, perks are tax-free.  I'm not sure how long that's going to last, but get while the getting's good.  Anyways, a hint for colleges; some of those perks should be for buying next semester's books.  And what a boon for charities if perks could be donated to the card holder's selected favorites.  Maybe even brand cards with charity monikers, for those who are outwardly charitable.
  6. FTRANS: Rather than each B2B business manually managing credit and accounts receivable (which can be daunting given how many customers they may have), these functions are offloaded to FTRANS.  The result is less costs to the B2B business and the acceleration of the time it takes to receive cash for sales from 50 days to 5 days.  This is a true economy of scale play, and one that is sorely needed.  Anything that can remove inefficiencies in business credit, is likely to help lubricate the economy.
  7. Wikinvest: What Wikipedia did to encyclopedias, Wikinvest aims to do to all information that is investment related.  This is another application of crowdsourcing (see for example, my prezo on the future of Venture Capital being crowdsourced).  Thanks to Wikipedia popularizing/proving the value of crowdsourcing, I don't have to here.  Another thing Wikinvest takes aim at is the UI for your portfolio.  Their UI is pretty slick, and it'd be nice to think in terms of living within one UI which fronts for whatever your actual brokerage account may be.  But, until they can plug into brokerage accounts in an active way (e.g. when you can execute trades from within Wikinvest), you'll end up having two UIs.  If & when that happens, I'd say they'll really strengthen their proposition and gain yet more traction and participation.
  8. WorkLight: In a nutshell, they wrap up the web app logic for online banking / financial services / e-commerce, and make it portable across mobile devices and your web browser, so that each application vendor does not have to re-invent it.  This is the part of an app that you really want well tested, secure and of course portable.  So it makes sense to turn to a company who does this for a living. WorkLight is also an economy of scale play, and lets companies focus on creating the parts of applications which relate to their value.  The net result: cheaper development, more trust-worthy apps, and portability across myriad portable and desktop devices.
Finovate is really picking up steam, and I look forward to the even larger FinovateFall 2010 in NYC.

Disclosure: no positions