Monthly Archives: July 2008

Y Combinator Challenge #9 – Photo/video sharing services

For more information about the Y Combinator Challenge, check out this post first 

9. Photo/video sharing services. A lot of the most popular sites on the web are for photo sharing. But the sites classified as social networks are also largely about photo sharing. As much as people like to share words (IM and email and blogging are “word sharing” apps), they probably like to share pictures more. It’s less work and the results are usually more interesting. I think there is huge growth still to come. There may ultimately be 30 different subtypes of image/video sharing service, half of which remain to be discovered.

My Idea – RealScrapbookStuff.com

This was a tough one.  As I took my daily walk and started brainstorming various options for photo sharing services, I kept coming up with ideas.  Problem was, they were all being done.  Submit a photo via Email?  Upload files without any sign-on friction?  Mashup photos with music?  Put live annotations on videos? (congrats, btw!)  Argh!  I kept racking my brain and finally decided to bring out my secret weapon – my wife.  As she was running out the door, I asked her what problems she has with image/video websites.  She thought for a few seconds and said “I need a website to help me to with my scrapbooking”.  She headed out the door, and I had my idea for the day.

Now, I know a handful of you are already heading straight to the comments to post a bunch of links to similar photo sharing sites.  However, every scrapbooking-type site I’ve seen falls into one of the following two catagories:

  1. Use your computer to create a physical scrapbook that is mailed to you
  2. Use your computer to create an online scrapbook that is embedded in social networks, blogs, etc..

This idea is different – I’m proposing a site where hardcore scrapbookers can upload digital photos to create scrapbook pages, and use digital reproductions of real stickers, stamps, and borders to mock up their pages.  The site keeps track of all of the materials that are used in the online creation, and when the user is finished they would then have the option to purchase all of the raw materials (including the cropped, re-sized, printed photos) and have them shipped straight to your front door.

I’m not a scrap-booker myself, but based on observing my wife and her friends, here are a few problems I believe this would solve:

  • Materials like stickers and background sheets need to be purchased ahead of time, which limits the creativity and options when the person sits down and starts scrapbooking.  This solution would allow someone to put a few basic pieces together, and then if they have a brainstorm for a different sticker or background sheet to use, they wouldn’t have to make another run to the store or wait a week to get a shipment from eBay.
  • Creating an online scrapbook is relatively easy and can be done anywhere – including at work (during a lunch break, of course). 
  • As cool as printed photobooks are (we buy them all the time for gifts, for example), part of the fun of scrapbooking is the ability to get together with friends and go through the process of physically pasting the photos to the pages and having the perfect sticker to finish off a page. 
  • Printing digital pictures still kinda sucks.  We have a digital photo printer, but even that isn’t a great solution.  With this site, you’d be able to bring together two of the biggest scrapbooking pain points (printing photos and buying stickers/paper) and merge them into a single online ordering/shipping experience.

I know this idea probably won’t resonate all that well with the audience that would read a startup blog like this, but for anyone interested in building a business with a solid revenue model, here’s some food for thought.  Over the past month our household has spent approximately five dollars online through Web 2.0 sites (I bought the new Walkmen album on Amie Street for $5 – and it went to charity!) and approximately forty dollars online to buy stickers and photos for scrapbooking, and the total scrapbooking market was $2.4B back in 2004.  Kinda puts a new perspective on things, don’t it?

What do you guys think?  Also, stay tuned for tomorrow’s post – I’ll be gone but I have a special celebrity guest post all lined up.

Y Combinator Challenge #8 – Dating

For more information about the Y Combinator Challenge, check out this post first 

8. Dating. Current dating sites are not the last word. Better ones will appear. But anyone who wants to start a dating startup has to answer two questions: in addition to the usual question about how you’re going to approach dating differently, you have to answer the even more important question of how to overcome the huge chicken and egg problem every dating site faces. A site like Reddit is interesting when there are only 20 users. But no one wants to use a dating site with only 20 users—which of course becomes a self-perpetuating problem. So if you want to do a dating startup, don’t focus on the novel take on dating that you’re going to offer. That’s the easy half. Focus on novel ways to get around the chicken and egg problem.

My Idea – Love at First Tweet

While I’ve posted ideas for dating sites before, I like Paul’s take on this.  It’s easy to get caught up in the “do what you know” mantra – and let’s face it, us geeks probably know a little too much about being single.  Add in the whole “plenty of fish” pipe-dream (one guy, 10 hrs a week, $10 million a year), and you get plenty of introverted entrepreneurs flooding this space with every offering you can imagine.  So it’s refreshing to take a step back and look at this from two sides:  how to solve that critical underlying chicken-and-egg problem to give the site an initial boost, while still looking for a hook that will be a competitive advantage against any one of the many entrenched players and their deep, deep pockets.

Aight, so how the heck are you supposed to start a dating site that is useful from day one?  I’m sure there are lots of ways to address this, but here are a few that I came up with.  For one, you could build a site that is based around the concept of matchmaking.  For example, let’s say Amanda and Britney are friends.  Amanda thinks that Britney would like this guy Chad from her math class, so she would submit Britney and Chad to the site and suggest that they get together.  Another option is to tie into an existing social network that already has a huge population.  The Facebook apps like “Hot or Not” or “Are You Interested?” fall into this category, and rack up insanely high users/lines-of-code ratios. 

For today’s idea, I’m proposing a dating site that is based around Twitter called “Love at First Tweet”.  To help kick off the initial population of the site, it would be extremely simple for anyone to join – just send a message to @LoveAtFirstTweet with a 140 character tagline that would serve as the centerpiece of your LAFT profile.  You could also create a profile for anyone who is following you on Twitter – just include their username when you do your @LoveAtFirstTweet to create a profile on their behalf.  Once the profile is created, the system would tweet back the URL of your new profile.  Once you enter your twitter username and password for verification, you can go in and add some basic details about yourself, such as your age, location, gender, and photos.

The main profile page would also allow you to browse other LAFT member’s profile pages.  Each page would contain the basic profile information, along with all of their most recent public Tweets.  From there you can follow other LAFT members – and send a notification to that member letting them know you’re following them.  In addition to simply following someone, you can take the extra step of sending a virtual gift to let them know you’re really interested (for a small fee, of course).  Any of these actions would trigger optional automatic posts that would be pushed out through the user’s Twitter feed, which would trigger a viral effect to bring in more users to the LAFT network.  

laft

What do you guys think?  I did a quick search for a Twitter-based dating site and didn’t find any…let me know in the comments below if something like this already exists.

Y Combinator Challenge #7 – Something your company needs that doesn’t exist

For more information about the Y Combinator Challenge, check out this post first 

7. Something your company needs that doesn’t exist. Many of the best startups happened when someone needed something in their work, found it didn’t exist, and quit to build it. This is vaguer than most of the other recipes here, but it may be the most valuable. You’re working on something you know customers want, because you were the customer. And if it was something you needed at work, other people will too, and they’ll be willing to pay for it.

So if you’re working for a big company and you want to strike out on your own, here’s a recipe for an idea. Start this sentence: “We’d pay a lot if someone would just build a …” Whatever you say next is probably a good product idea.

My Idea – PrioritizeThis

Man, if I’m going to make it through all 30 of these, I need to start strategizing a bit more!  The real answer to this question is YCC Idea #4 – Instant CMS, and yesterday’s idea fits this mold as well.  But, luckily for me, I participated in a two hour team meeting this morning and we went over our annual employee poll results – how perfect is that?!?  A couple of interesting issues came up during the conversation, but here’s one that I think is fairly universal.  It’s an issue of prioritization, and as we went through each specific problem area from the poll, I started to realize how many issues mapped back to this one.  Work/Life balance?  Work with your manager to prioritize your tasks.  Cross-group collaboration?  Work with the exec team to prioritize which groups to focus on. 

My idea is basically a to-do list that is shared between two people – an employee and their manager.  The employee can use this list to track their daily or weekly activities.  Not only would the manager be informed of everything that each of their direct reports are working on, they can take the opportunity to give a simple high/med/low priority rating to each activity.  As a result, the employee can then use this as a guide for them to determine how to best manage their time.

What’s in it for the employee?

  • Better understanding of what’s truly important to their managers
  • Good way to “manage up” and inform their manager of all the great things they are working on
  • Early detection of potential work/life balance issues that can drive a fact-based discussion with manager (i.e. “Ummm…are all 25 of these things really high priority?”)

What’s in it for the manager?

  • Easy to track and influence day-to-day activities without resorting to micro-management
  • Scalable process for managing multiple activities across a large team
  • Ability to drive higher productivity by ensuring that the daily employee activities are aligned with strategic goals
  • Consistent historical view of employee’s past activities for performance reviews

A couple of other features could include the ability to roll up multiple levels (i.e. group manager’s activities roll up to org VP), exec-level reporting functionality, ability to add additional fields (i.e. estimated time of completion, comments, employee’s perceived priority), and integration with company mail system (i.e. Outlook plug-in, Notes module).

OK – I need help!  My family is coming to town this week and I’ll be offline all day Friday – anyone want to try their hand at a guest post?  Friday’s idea will be based around #10 on Paul’s list, a new approach to online auctions.  Anyone interested?  Shoot me a mail at kleneway@hotmail.com .

Y Combinator Challenge #6 – More variants of CRM

For more information about the Y Combinator Challenge, check out this post first     

6. More variants of CRM. This is a form of enterprise software, but I’m mentioning it explicitly because it seems like this area has such potential. CRM (“Customer Relationship Management”) means all sorts of different things, but a lot of the current embodiments don’t seem much more than mailing list managers. It should be possible to make interactions with customers much higher-res.

My Idea – MRC

Now this is my kind of idea.  About three years ago I was in charge of building and launching an internal CRM system, so this is probably the one time on this blog that I’ll be posting about something that I’ve thought about for more than an hour or two.  To start, here are a few personal observations I’ve had about what works for a typical CRM system.

What Works:

  • Be flexible – if your system can’t support a new field or minor business requirement within a very short window (1 week is about the max), users will be frustrated and resort to their old CRM system (namely pen/paper, Excel, rolodex, filing cabinets, etc…)
  • People work primarily through their Email inbox – use that to your advantage
  • Provide a very clear “what’s in it for me” explanation for your two main user groups – the day-to-day users and the execs who rely on the underlying reporting
  • Make it look good – simple things like having a few slick visual reports or extra user-centric “wow, cool!” features available for a demo/training session can heavily influence the initial impressions of any new system and help with the critical issue of early user buy-in and adoption

The simplest explanation of my idea is “Xobni for CRM” (MRC, get it?).  The idea is to work within a user’s inbox to pull structured CRM-style data from their unstructured daily communications.  Instead of relying on a centralized independent database to store all of this information, all of the data would be stored within the users inboxes and a few special accounts created on the corporate mail system.  This enables online/offline scenarios, eliminates typical privacy/security concerns, reduces the need for separate hardware, and allows the system to be as reliable as the corporate Email servers (which are arguably the highest-priority boxes in a company). 

To best illustrate how this could work, here’s a typical scenario:

Scenario – Account Manager following up on a lead

The Account Manager (let’s call her Shirley) attended a conference and has a business card from a lead (let’s call him Frank).  Shirley opens up her inbox to fire off an Email to Frank.  Now, instead of writing an Email from scratch, she clicks on the “Templates” section of her MRC plug-in and finds a fantastic pre-written Email that she’s used with other leads before.  Note that this is a plain-text (or HTML) Email, which can be modified and personalized as needed.  The one difference between this mail and any standard Email is a small check-box in the header that says “Track This” – this is checked by default, but can be unchecked if Shirley wishes to keep this mail private. 

Shirley clicks send, and two separate Emails are sent – the original mail to Frank, and a behind-the-scenes mail that is sent to the MRC system account.  This mail provides structured Email back to the master system with information about the communication – the fact that Shirley is mailing a potential lead, the Email address of the lead, the fact that Shirley sent it, the time the mail was sent, etc..  The system also scans the mail to see if Shirley made simple minor updates to the Email that can be used to further understand the lead.  For example, imagine the template had a line that said “I’m interested to see if we can meet to discuss your company product product from company name this week.  I’m available on insert times here to discuss in more detail.”  If Shirley entered the info into the template, the system would pull it out and store it – if not, though, no big deal. 

MRC workflow

The next day Shirley has a message in her inbox from Frank.  When Shirley opens it, the system would recognize Frank’s Email address and the sidebar on the right-hand side of her inbox would be populated with key information about Frank, including his name, his company, previous Emails, the status of the lead, any upcoming appointments, etc..  In addition, the system would reach out to professional networking sites like LinkedIn to pull in additional details about Frank, his current position, and his company.  Shirley could go in and easily edit any of that information (or enter new information).  Also, if someone else in Shirley’s company had previous contact with Frank or someone from Frank’s company (via Email domain matches), the system would pull up that account manager’s profile and interaction history.

In Frank’s Email message, he responded with a new date/time for the meeting.  The system would recognize this date/time combination and add a button to the MRC sidebar to “Create a new meeting”.  By clicking on this button, Shirley would open a new template – if Shirley was free at this time, it would be a calendar invite with Shirley’s phone number/online meeting place info.  If Shirley was busy at this time, it would be a new template that included several open times on Shirley’s calendar (similar to what Xobni does).  Again, if Shirley accepted the privacy agreement, the meeting would automatically be tracked as part of the engagement history with this lead.

I could go on with more scenarios around the executive reporting level or other scenarios around creating mass Emails or adding/removing custom fields, but it would all revolve around this concept of having awesome templates, easy access to valuable data about people/companies, and using a design-first UX philosophy that makes using the CRM system…dare I say it..fun?  At the very least, visually pleasing and not painful. 

Speaking of cool CRM solutions, one of my favorites is Rave – great example of using design to drive adoption of an Enterprise product. 

Y Combinator Challenge #5 – Enterprise Software 2.0

For more information about the Y Combinator Challenge, check out this post first     

5. Enterprise software 2.0. Enterprise software companies sell bad software for huge amounts of money. They get away with it for a variety of reasons that link together to form a sort of protective wall. But the software world is changing. I suspect that if you study different parts of the enterprise software business (not just what the software does, but more importantly, how it’s sold) you’ll find parts that could be picked off by startups.

One way to start is to make things for smaller companies, because they can’t afford the overpriced stuff made for big ones. They’re also easier to sell to.

My Idea – Judy’s Book for Enterprise Software

I was at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Fran a few months back and if there’s one thing I learned from walking the conference floor, it’s that the enterprise software field is very, very crowded.  So instead of coming up with a new idea that will inevitably receive several “have you seen site XYZ? It already does this.” comments, I’m going to read between the lines of Paul’s idea and come up with an idea that improves upon the process of selling software to business (Pickaxes for sale!  Get your pickaxes here!)

Today’s idea is to take the community-review concept popularized by sites like Yelp, Judy’s Book, and others, and apply it to the enterprise software space.  Check out any of those sites for the overall basic idea, but here are a few features to make this concept pop in the B2B space.

  • Self-Assessment Tool – This component would allow a user to fill out a questionnaire to get a sense of the type of software that may be the best fit to address the user’s business needs.  It would take into account factors such as company size, industry, budget, privacy tolerance, growth rate, etc..  Once the system determined the categories of software that the user may be interested in, they would get back a list of software options for the various categories, sorted based on ratings assigned by other users.  From here the user would have the option to purchase the software and (optionally) find service providers who can help with training, implementation, hosting, customization, etc..
  • User Ratings and Comments – In this section, existing users of the systems can provide feedback on the system from a day-to-day user perspective.  This is very important for Enterprise software vs Consumer software, as it often takes a large up-front investment for customization and deployment before a customer can fully evaluate the usefulness of a system.
  • Three Minute Demo Videos – This section would consist of a series of 3 minute (or less) demo videos created by the software makers to pitch the value propositions of their products.  Each video would be tagged and easily searchable, and would allow users to get a visual impression of the features and functionality offered from each product.

For revenue opportunities, there are a few options.  As much as I usually don’t advocate for ad-based revenue models, given the target audience and motivation to purchase, I think it might actually make sense here.  Another option would be to create a freemium model for software companies where they would be able to perform basic functions like submit product information for free, but might need to pay for additional services such as the ability to post demo videos.

What do you guys think?  Is something like this already out there?  Let me know in the comments below!

Y Combinator Challenge #4 – Outsourced IT

For more information about the Y Combinator Challenge, check out this post first   

4. Outsourced IT. In most companies the IT department is an expensive bottleneck. Getting them to make you a simple web form could take months. Enter Wufoo. Now if the marketing department wants to put a form on the web, they can do it themselves in 5 minutes. You can take practically anything users still depend on IT departments for and base a startup on it, and you will have the enormous force of their present dissatisfaction pushing you forward.

My Idea – InstantCMS

Nice – these next 3-4 challenges are right in my wheelhouse, solving problems with the current state of corporate IT.  I spent a couple years working on internal systems and tools at MS, so I’m pretty well versed on the problems that are facing the modern IT department.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far at MS, it’s the power of creating flexible systems.  Here’s one idea that I never got around to implementing, but definitely would have (actually, still would!) make my life a heck of a lot easier.

The basic concept of this idea is to bridge the gap between an application that was coded from scratch and a full CMS-style framework that only needs to be customized and deployed.  The CMS framework is ideal, but oftentimes you get stuck with a one-size-fits-all approach that causes serious usability and pretty-ability issues.  Custom coding definitely offers the opportunity to create the perfectly tailored app, but often requires time-intensive and costly rewrites and redeployments to make any updates down the road (and trust me, they will come). 

To get around this problem, I have an idea for a hybrid solution.  The idea is a magic piece of software that would allow power users to update sections of the custom-coded live site in real time, without the need to recompile and/or redeploy the site. 

Here’s how this could work. When the developers are creating the site, they can define regions of the site that can be updated.  To start this could be limited to blocks of text or static HTML functionality, but over time this could be integrated deeper down the stack.  Once the site was deployed, there would be a simple rendering engine running client-side within the browser that would take the output from the server-side code and re-render it in the live page.  Users with the proper permissions would see a special icon on the customizable sections, which would deploy a wiki-like editor to allow the user to make changes.  These changes would be stored back to the server in a special XML file.  Once the page was refreshed, the rendering engine would combine the original server-side code with the edits from the XML file to display the updated page to the user.  Of course, this solution would also need a way to resolve the changes on the server-side prior to the next deployment, but this could probably be done with a plug-in to the IDE. 

Here’s a quick and ugly diagram to explain the inner workings a little better:

instantCMSimage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For revenue I see this as a great freemium offering.  The basic version can be deployed for free but only within a limited capacity (i.e. can only be used for static text blocks).  The premium version offers support for updating full html and potentially even simple data-driven controls (i.e. adding an item to a drop down list). 

What do you guys think?  Better yet, does this already exist?  The awesome guys at Wetpaint are doing something similar with their Wetpaint Injected offering in the consumer wiki market, but it’s not quite what I’m looking for in terms of an enterprise solution… 

Y Combinator Challenge #3 – New News

For more information about the Y Combinator Challenge, check out this post first  

3. New news. As Marc Andreessen points out, newspapers are in trouble. The problem is not merely that they’ve been slow to adapt to the web. It’s more serious than that: their problems are due to deep structural flaws that are exposed now that they have competitors. When the only sources of news were the wire services and a few big papers, it was enough to keep writing stories about how the president met with someone and they each said conventional things written in advance by their staffs. Readers were never that interested, but they were willing to consider this news when there were no alternatives.

News will morph significantly in the more competitive environment of the web. So called “blogs” (because the old media call everything published online a “blog”) like PerezHilton and TechCrunch are one sign of the future. News sites like Reddit and Digg are another. But these are just the beginning.

My Idea – The Newsroom

I get lost easily.  The other day I was a good ten minutes late to a meeting and was roaming the halls of a strange building when I turned a corner and stumbled upon what appeared to be the msnbc central command room.  There were glass windows on the outside and you could see all the editors, writers, and talent running around like crazy trying to discover the latest scoop and push it out to the millions of readers/viewers out there.  The energy in the room was amazing, it definitely looked like a fun place to hang out.  So for today’s idea, instead of trying to go all crazy reinventing the entire news space, I instead came up with a fun way to bring together the power and excitement of the traditional newsroom into a distributed online community.

In a nutshell, this idea is the “AP wire for the web”.  Picture a scenario where users visit a site and choose the role they want to play: copy writer, copy editor, fact checker, reporters, and editor-in-chief.  As news stories break in real time, users on the site would collaborate with each other online to publish formatted, high-quality stories via a web service and/or rss feed.  Here’s how this could work, following the workflow of a story as it progresses from the initial discovery through the final publishing.

Reporters – Reporters would be responsible for discovering the most interesting news items of the hour.  Reporters can submit their own stories that they find from a variety of sources (either fresh stories from standard news aggregation services or breaking news from their own sources).  The posted stories are displayed on the page, and the other reporters on the site can discuss which stories should be published (via chat, voice, or streaming video).  The reporters then cast votes for the stories they want to see published, and the ones with the most votes get pushed to the copy writers.

Copy Writer – The Writers review the stories that are pushed out from the Reporters and choose one to write up.  Writers have several different options of stories to write, such as 50/250/1000 word summaries or opinion pieces.  Writers work quickly to complete their stories and post them back to the site where they are fed along to the copy editors.

Copy Editor – The copy editor role is pretty basic – they take the initial stories from the Writers and fix issues such as spelling/grammar mistakes, style problems, etc..  Once the stories are edited, they are sent along to the Fact Checkers.

Fact Checker – Again, pretty basic.  Fact Checkers go through the stories and do some basic due diligence to verify any specific facts stated in the articles.  They are also responsible for making sure that the sources are properly attributed and to ensure that the posts aren’t simply copy/paste jobs from existing news sources.

Editor-in-Chief – The editor-in-chief is the only role that cannot be self-selected.  These are the top contributors on the site and are elected from within the community. These guys have the final say on whether a story is fit to be published to the live stream.  Editor-in-Chiefs also can make last-minute updates to the copy or send a story back to a specific team for further review.

So, what makes this idea work?  For one, it would be really fun!  This site would bring together people who are passionate about the discovery and creation of news into a fun, fast-paced environment that functions almost like a social game for writers and news junkies.  Also, instead of hundreds of individuals posting similar blog posts on each story that comes out (and likely not getting much attention on their own), these users instead have the option to come together and contribute to a story that would potentially reach a massive audience.

From a business perspective, this approach harnesses the wisdom of the crowds to produce a 24/7 high-quality web service that any site on the Internet can take advantage of.  Unlike traditional news aggregators that push out links or copy from hundreds of different sites with different voices and different agendas, this service would push out news with a uniform voice and standardized format (i.e. 50/250/1000 word stories).  The site would start off with standard news verticals (such as sports, entertainment, politics, current events, etc..) but could expand into almost infinite niches (think local/hyperlocal editions) using the same platform.

Thanks to everyone for the great comments on the ideas I’ve posted so far and welcome to all the new visitors to the site.  So far this series has been getting some fantastic attention – in fact, ASAD was at the top of the WordPress fastest growing blogs for 8/23!  As always, let me know what you think about this one in the comments below.