WebInno7 – Welcome back to 1999

On Monday night I attended WebInno7 at the Royal Sonesta here in Cambridge. It’s been a while since I was at a local networking event like this and was surprised by the crowd and the companies that presented.The event itself is put on by the Web Innovators Group, an informal collection of start-ups, designers, developers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The focus is on mobile and Web-based technology. Monday’s event featured three six-minute demos and four “side-dish” vendors with table-top displays.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived was the number of people. By 7:00 there were close to 200 people and when all was said and done there were probably 300 people there. A much larger crowd than I anticipated.

Most of the attendees were men. Out of the entire crowd, I think I say no more than 10 women. The attendees were mainly hipster-geeks, with a few investment types thrown in for good measure.

I had an opportunity to spend time talking to two of the side-dish companies: Glance and LoudCity. Glance does a very nice, light-weight version of Web conferencing. There’s no software to download – not even an applet. One user simply provides a URL and passcode and they are able to share their screen with another user via the Web. It worked well, very fast but they are up against some stiff competition – WebEx, NetMeeting, etc. They don’t have all the features these products offer but that’s by design. I could see them appealing to companies that don’t use Web conferencing as a primary communications tool but on a frequent ad hoc basis.

LoudCity helps Internet broadcasters deal with licensing and advertising issues. Few Internet stations have much traction at this point and most see advertising revenue through site banners rather than in their audio streams. Advertisers are unsure about the audience size for these outlets and have been wary of spending with them. LoudCity, helps by tracking usage and listenership for these stations so they can attract advertisers. This is still a nascent market – most of the stations have fewer than 100 listeners at any given time so building listeners needs to happen before advertisers (and revenue) are realized.

One interesting point that one of the founders made, was that some of these stations make more through donations than they do through advertising and that getting listed on iTunes is the Holy Grail. One station, which had 40-60 listeners jumped to 1,400 after they were listed on iTunes. Not a huge number but a massive jump from where they were.

The three main-course companies were SwapTree, MyBloglog and PawSpot.

SwapTree – allows people to trade items that they don’t want for ones that they do. The service is limited to books, CDs, DVDs and video games. SwapTree is able to conduct complicated multiparty trades using individuals “want lists” and “trade lists”. It sounded easy, somewhat appealing but totally 1999. When someone asked about business model, those dreaded words – and the death knell for so many companies from days gone by – rang out: targeted advertising.

Certainly this is an idea with some merit (enough that several people have tried it in the past) but advertising isn’t going to cut it. One could imagine a small monthly fee, a VIP membership that would provide first dibs on items or a “Can’t find it? Buy it!” relationship with an Amazon. Another possibility might be to have the item listed for trade on SwapTree and also for sale on an eBay or Craig’s List giving the trader more options and creating a means to get additional users into SwapTree.

Mybloglog – allows bloggers to see where people came from, what they looked at and where they clicked out to from a blog. The idea is that people spend very limited time on most blogs, visiting one page once per month. Their special sauce is the ability to deliver “intelligence” on reader behavior to bloggers can focus on developing more appropriate content and serve more focused advertising.

The most interesting thing about this presentation was the fact on blog visitation. Not very encouraging news for for bloggers. It would be interesting to know more details on blog traffic; has readership increased or decreased? Are there classes of blogs that get more readers than others? What sources drive most traffic to blogs? Some of this is what Mybloglog hopes to answer but there must be research out there that gives a broad view of the market.

One interesting thing I’ve heard as I’ve been talking to people is the fact that blogs seem to be of less interest to the media than they had been even six or 12 months ago. In one case, an editor who is meant to be blogging daily said he’d stopped because his publication’s blogs just didn’t see that much traffic. Another said that while people at his outlet still blog, stories are much more important. (At one point, this outlet had actually toyed with the idea or replacing traditional news writing with blogs all together.)

PawSpot – A social network for pet owners. No, really. Pet owners are busy, successful people. We know they’re busy because they have pets instead of kids (I’m not joking, they actually said this). When you need to travel, who will take care of your dog or cat? A kennel? Too traumatic, “you did it once but will never do it again”. A dog walker? Too expensive; and who wants a stranger in your house? So what could be the answer? Someone you meet at PawSpot! The business model – ecommerce and advertising.

But if I’m too busy with my own active lifestyle, how am I going to find the time to take care of someone else’s dog. Give me a listing of the trusted dog walkers and quality kennels (attested to by other pet owners) and that would be useful. Trading animal care doesn’t seem like a great business. The other idea of this site is to create local communities of pet owners. This seems like a solution to a problem that people have already figured out. Since dogs need to go out, people in cities tend to take them to parks, where – get this – there tend to be other dog owners! I’ve even heard rumors that at this “parks” people “talk” to each other and arrange to “meet” again. They’ve even been known to “ask” each other about other “parks”, “vets”, “brands of dog food”, etc. An online adjunct to this isn’t a bad idea, it just doesn’t seem terribly interesting.

All three of these companies felt very reminiscent of the start-up of the late 1990s; after they presented, and I confirmed that it was actually 2006, I began talking to people.

The first person I spoke with was Akshay from MIT. He wasn’t too enamored by the companies that presented either. While I was speaking with him, James joined us. James organizes parties. Big parties at hotels. I couldn’t help thinking that when he said “party” he meant “orgy”. I gave him my card and received 12 emails and invitations the next day.

Next I spent time with Brian Costello, the CEO of MaMoCo. These guys actually sound pretty interesting. They are working on an application platform for mobile devices that allows applications to be developed once and then deployed on any carrier’s (save Verizon’s) network. User profiles are the centerpiece of what they do and they are able to make them persistent across platforms, carriers and devices.

Greg Boesel and Mark Hexamer are both with SwapTree. We talked for a while about their business model and of other approaches they could take (subscriptions, premium memberships, buy now, etc.). They are convinced that while this model failed in the past it has a chance now. They think it is viable for two reasons – more people are online than there were in the late 90s and they are very focused in what they will allow people to trade. The selected books, CDs, DVDs and Games because these are the biggest sellers on Amazon and eBay.

While we were talking, Rod Begbie – a self-described “tech curmudgeon” – joined us. He’d been asking the presenting companies questions on their business models and was REALLY doubtful about SwapTree.

At this point it was nearing 9:00. I still hadn’t had dinner (or breakfast or lunch) and decided to head out.

All in all, it was a good event. Great turn out. Lots of enthusiasm. Some interesting technology and discussions. It did feel like I’d been sucked back into the time that business plans forgot though and that was weird.

If anyone wants more details or has questions, let me know.

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