Monthly Archives: August 2008

A Startup A Day…in Europe!

Hi all – just a quick note that I’ll be taking about two weeks off from the ol’ blog to travel the great continent of Europe.  Should be a good time, and plenty of time to come up with seven final ideas for “The Challenge”.

Y Combinator Challenge #23 – More Open Alternatives to Wikipedia

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

23. More open alternatives to Wikipedia. Deletionists rule Wikipedia. Ironically, they’re constrained by print-era thinking. What harm does it do if an online reference has a long tail of articles that are only interesting to a few people, so long as everyone can still find whatever they’re looking for? There is room to do to Wikipedia what Wikipedia did to Britannica.

My Idea – Biograph

Pop quiz – if your house caught fire and you only had time to save three things, what would they be?  For me, besides my autographed photo of Dustin Diamond (obviously) and Dan and Sky, I’d probably choose to save our photo albums.  Of course, that’s what everyone would do.  Memories are, to quote Mr. Benjamin Linus, a fickle b*&ch.   Cavemen got around the problem by drawing on their cave walls, the Egyptians marked their territory with the pyramids, and after thousands of years of technological progress, we’ve finally gotten to the point where we can document our lives in digital formats that will likely be obsolete within twenty years.  Woot.

Enough rambling – today’s idea is a massive non-profit endeavor to capture biographies of every single person in the world.  People could visit the Biograph site, and instead of just creating a very basic profile or collecting a set of links to your social networks, you would instead document out hundreds, if not thousands, of details about your day-to-day life.  Users could enter details about specific events in their lives that would be categorized by time/date and location, and could also contribute stories about events that you shared with other people on the site.  While users would be encouraged to keep the information public, there would be privacy options to prevent users outside of your network from viewing your information.  Also, unlike Wikipedia, the point of this site would be to create a massive historical record of everyday, normal people, that could truly capture the personalities and culture of our generation.

Along with the daily stories about your life, users could upload photographs of themselves and their friends, and tag them with approximate dates when they were taken.  After a while, the site would begin to represent a massive timeline of events and photos that would represent an accurate picture of what life was like for people of all walks of life.  Users could also browse through their own past via a timeline interface, and either fill in details or just take a trip back through memory lane.  Even better, users could check out their friends and familes’ histories to get a better sense of who they really are, by browsing old photos or reading about stories and events from their past.

What do you guys think of this one?  Feel free to post any thoughts or comments below!

Y Combinator Challenge #22 – A Web-Based Excel/Database Hybrid

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

22. A web-based Excel/database hybrid. People often use Excel as a lightweight database. I suspect there’s an opportunity to create the program such users wish existed, and that there are new things you could do if it were web-based. Like make it easier to get data into it, through forms or scraping.

Don’t make it feel like a database. That frightens people. The question to ask is: how much can I let people do without defining structure? You want the database equivalent of a language that makes its easy to keep data in linked lists. (Which means you probably want to write it in one.)

My Idea:

blist

That was easy:)

Y Combinator Challenge #21 – Finance Software for Individuals and Small Businesses

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

21. Finance software for individuals and small businesses. Intuit seems ripe for picking off. The difficulty is that they’ve got data connections with all the banks. That’s hard for a small startup to match. But if you can start in a neighboring area and gradually expand into their territory, you could displace them.

My Idea – iAllowance

When I was growing up, I used to love getting my allowance.  After a long day out in the hog pen, pa would flip me a nickel and Laura, Mary, and I would skip down past Plum Creek to the Five & Dime and fill our pockets with penny whistles and gobstoppers.  Not really – but I’ve been dying to throw in a Little House on the Prairie reference ever since starting this blog.  One more item checked off the bucket list.

Where was I going with that?  Oh yeah – kids today have so many different ways to spend money, including lots of stuff online.  Between iTunes credits, XBox 360/Playstation accounts, monthly memberships to virtual worlds like Runescape or Club Penguin, plus pre-paid Visa cards, cell phone minutes, and good old fashion savings accounts, it’s just not that easy to hand kids a few bucks and call it a day.  WSJ has a good article about this problem, and while there are a few startups that are in this space, I think there’s room to come in and become the default financial option for a generation of teens, and add options to the service to provide them college plans, early adult plans, retirement plans, etc..  See where I’m going with this?

Here are a few features that might set this apart:

  • Parents would set up the child’s account and add weekly funds, and the child would be able to easily add money to online accounts (iTunes, XBox, Visa Buxx, etc..).  The parents could choose the services that the child would be able to spend the money on, which would prevent them from getting caught in phishing attacks or spending money on sites where they weren’t supposed to.
  • To help teach kids the value of saving, parents would initially deposit the money into the “savings account” section on the site.  Kids could move funds from the savings section to their “spending” accounts, but there would be a $1 fee for doing so.  While part of the collected fees would be used for “site maintenance and hosting” expenses, these fees could also be used to bump the savings account percentage returns above what kids/parents could earn at a standard bank.
  • I wouldn’t normally say this, but I think that selling iAllowance gift cards in grocery stores would be a good way to kick-start the site.  Along with the advertising and network effect (“Oh, this would be a great gift for little Suzie!”), it would add some legitimacy to the service and overcomes the difficult trust issue of just giving financial control to a newly minted site.

What do you guys think about this one?  Besides PayJr, do you know of any good services like this already out there for kids?

Y Combinator Challenge #20 – Shopping Guides

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

20. Shopping guides. Like news, shopping used to be constrained by geography. You went to your local store and chose from what they had. Now the space of possibilities is bewilderingly large, and people need help navigating it. If you already know what you want, Bountii can find you the best price. But how do you decide what you want? Hint: One answer is related to number 3.

My Idea – WWJB (What Would J-Lo Buy)

Editor’s note: Since it’s such a beautiful day here in Seattle, I’ve asked Courtennay Marie Smith, a high-school junior and guest writer for several popular teen magazines (including Teen Dream, Teen Scream, and Non-Threatening Boys), to write up today’s idea on my behalf.  Enjoy!

Oh.  My.  Gawd.  When Kevin told me about today’s idea, I almost wet myself in excitement!  Or as Brit and I like to say, ‘I almost Fergied‘ – LOL!  This idea is so huge, it’s bigger than Ruben Studdard.  It would be so addictive, Lindsay Lohan would crush it into a powder and sniff it (sorry, girl – you know I’m just playin’!  LOL!).  It would be as big a secret as Miley and Nick – in other words, like, it wouldn’t be a secret at all and everyone would know about it and be talking about it!  (It was sooooo obvious, you two!!! *smiley*) 

OK, so enough with the red carpet pre-show here, right?  Here’s the 411 – it’s a site where users could check out photos of their fav celebs and…wait for it…buy the clothes and accessories that they are wearing!!!!!!11ONE  And there’d be this totally underground nickname for it – WWJB, which stands for What Would J-Lo Buy?  Get it?!?  Of course, I don’t know if I would be caught dead wearing anything from J-Lo’s closet, she’s like sooooo 2007.  Anywho – here’s some boring “features” that Kevin wanted me to talk about (*hitting the snooze button* LOL!):

  • Users would upload photos of their favorite celebrities, and create hot-spots on the image that highlighted a piece of clothing or an accessory [CMS - like that time I tagged that photo of my bff Brittenniey on Facebook, only she got busted 'cause she was at a party but had called in sick and Hollister fired her!  Sorry, girl. *frownie*]
  • After creating a tag on the image, the user could search against an affiliate database of products to find the item the celeb is wearing (added bonus – tie into visual search technology from Pixsta or Like.com.)  Once the product is associated with the tag, the user could add more tags or post their tagged photo to the site.
  • From the front end, users who are interested in checking out celebrity photos can browse through the site, click on any wardrobe item that they like, and get a direct link to purchase that item.  Users could search for specific celebrities, or just browse through the newest and/or most popular tagged photos on the site.
  • Here’s where it gets interesting – if a user posts a photo, they would get a cut of any affiliate revenue created from users who click-through and purchase items.  This gives an incentive for users to upload and tag more photos, and also be more accurate when associating a product with a tag.
  • Users would also be able to install a simple plug-in that would allow them to tag or view tags on photos posted on popular celebrity sites or blogs.  Added bonus – celebrity site owners could tag their photos directly, so user’s wouldn’t need a special plug-in to see the tags.  This would be a great way to monetize their sites while providing value back to their audience.

Wow – databases, plug-ins…that was as boring as Mr. Gordstein’s (more like Bored-stein, right Brit?  LOL!) 4th period trig, only without being able to stare at the back of Braendon Fischer’s head – sigh. *floats* 

Aight – I’m outtie.  Peace!  And don’t forget to save the earth.

Y Combinator Challenge #19 – Application and/or data hosting

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

19. Application and/or data hosting. This is related to the preceding idea, but not identical. And again, while we’ve already funded several startups in this area, it’s probably going to be big enough that it contains several rich markets.

It may turn out that 4, 18, and 19 all have the same answer. Or rather, that there will be things that answer all three. But the way to find such a grand, overarching solution is probably not to approach it directly, but to start by solving smaller, specific problems, then gradually expand your scope. Start by writing Basic for the Altair.

My Idea – UniversalAPI

“Start by writing Basic for the Altair.”  This is probably my favorite line out of the original 30 idea post.  After reading the first paragraph I thought to myself “OK, here we go – what obscure twist can I put on the over-saturated store-your-photos-in-the-cloud genre?”  But that last bit really got me thinking outside of the box.net (pun intended).  One thing that came to mind is the idea of a universal API that would basically act as an interface to the multitude of cloud-based  storage services that are out there today.  As much as I love APIs, there are a couple of big issues that API consumers face when deciding to utilize a particular API:

  • Betting on a winner – When you choose to build your service on top of someone else’s API, you’re putting a lot of trust in their hands.  Not only are you expecting a basic level of uptime and responsiveness, you also need to make sure that the service you pick is going to be sticking around for a while.  Given the high failure rate of web startups, this can be pretty tough to do. 
  • Steep learning curves – It can take a while to get a new API connection up and running.  Besides needing to request a developer key and all that, there’s lots of documentation to read and new keywords and interfaces to learn prior to getting started.  Efforts like OpenSocial are a good start, but there’s still no real universal API standard (that I know of) that you can learn once and apply to all of the major startups in a given area (photos, videos, file storage, etc..)
  • Failover options – When S3 goes down, if you’re using their API, you’re going down right along with it.  Same goes for Twitter, or pretty much any other API-based service.  Smart developers can write code to store critical files locally in case of emergency, but it’s expensive and far from being automatic.

My idea is a service that provides a simple and standard set of APIs to handle the basic nuts-and-bolts operations for Web 2.0.  The service would start by covering three basic areas – photo, video, and file storage.  The service would act as a business layer that would take the simple API requests by the developer and map them on the backend to the various custom API specifications for all of the major online storage APIs.  For example, the developer might write a simple line of code like “pUniveralAPI -> StorePhoto(fileHandle, auth)” and this service would take that file and post it to PhotoBucket, Box.Net, drop.io, etc..  Besides being able to map to the best possible service, the developer can learn a single API and not have to worry about the messy details of every unique API across the various services.  There are lots of details that would need to be worked out around how to handle the developer keys (i.e. throw a master dev key + url through a hash to  map to the unique dev key for a service) and user authentication, but let’s skip that for now and jump to a few key features:

  • Automatic mapping to the best service for a scenario – Instead of spending hours trying to evaluate which photo sharing service to use, just use the features you want out of the UniversalAPI and the system will figure out the best one to use.  For example, if you are storing extra large files, the UniversalAPI will map those files to a service that specialized in large files.  If the goal is to have fast file retrieval times, UAPI would choose the optimal service for that. Of course, if developers want greater control over which service to use, they can add a flag to the call to ensure the file gets mapped to their preferred service.  Another advantage of this approach is that if one service goes out of business, the system can automatically re-route those files to a different service without the developer needing to write new code or the deal with any lost user files.
  • Local storage and caching to improve performance and uptime – The UniversalAPI service would optionally be able to store files on their own local storage system in case of emergency (or to minimize latency caused by the extra layer of abstraction).  This way, if the file storage service is experiencing downtime, the service would be able to return a cached local copy of the file.  Of course, this would be a premium service that developers would have to pay for.  What’s nice is that devs could start off with the free version while they are still in the early stages (read: dirt poor), and upgrade to the premium service once revenue/funding is available.
  • Code snippets to provide direct access to an API – One big problem with this plan is that you’ve basically introduced another potential fail point into your system.  Now instead of worrying about one service going down, you have two services to worry about.  The solution?  The UniversalAPI service could allow the developer to embed a “failover function” into their code that would bypass the UniversalAPI service and instead interact directly with the storage APIs.  In pseudo-code this would be “If UniversalAPI.Fail then RunFailover” where RunFailover would contain code to submit a file to S3 or whatever service(s) the UniversalAPI is mapping that particular developer’s calls to. 

 I’m fully aware that there are a ton of holes in this idea as presented.  That being said, what do you guys think of the high-level concept?  Also, sorry for missing a day, I’ll try to make up for it by doing a bonus post this weekend.

Y Combinator Challenge #18 – The WebOS

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

18. The WebOS. It probably won’t be a literal translation of a client OS shifted to servers. But as applications migrate to servers, it seems possible there will be something that plays a central role like an OS does. We’ve already funded several startups that could be candidates. But this is a big prize, and there will probably be multiple winners.

My Idea – Cloudix

Whew, almost didn’t make this one.  Looooooong day. 

There are a few core pieces to tackle on this one.  A drop.io-dead-simple virtulization service is one.  An extremely basic core OS that is capable of doing nothing but run a browser off SRAM is another (Arrington himself might fund this one).  Some sort of Mesh alternative might be another.  The idea I settled on is nothing too creative, but something that has the potential to be pretty huge for anyone who can overcome the major challenges associated with building out a p2p cloud OS.

The basic idea is a set of services similar to Amazon’s S3, EC2, and SimpleDB.  However, instead of a mega data center controlled by a single corporation, this system would allow individual users or smaller hosting companies to share their spare CPU cycles or hard drive space up into a shared pool of resources. For developers taking advantage of this service, they would interact with an abstraction layer that would be similar to the interaction model of the Amazon Web Services.  The cost to devs would follow the same on-demand pricing model as AWS, and that money would be used to pay the users who are sharing their resources. 

Any thoughts on this one?  I kinda phoned this one in – if anyone wants to detail out any must-have features or point out some glaringly obvious flaw, please go for it in the comments below.

Y Combinator Challenge #17 – New Payment Methods

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

17. New payment methods. There are almost certainly things whose growth is held back because there’s no way to charge for them. And the people who could implement solutions don’t realize how much demand there would be, precisely because this growth has been held back. So pretty much any new way of paying for things that’s easier for some class of situations will turn out to have a bigger market than its inventors expected. Look at Paypal. (Warning: Regulated industry.)

My Idea – MyVC

Shucks.  I had two ideas around this one, but I did some quick searches and turns out they’ve both already been done.  The first was an option called “PayLater”, where users could opt to purchase items immediately and then get a bill up to one year in the future (there would be an increasing fee depending on how far in the future they wanted to be billed).  But, BillMeLater is already in that market – and doing really well.  The other idea was for a virtual currency that you would earn by playing mini-games (and viewing ads).  But I knew it sounded familiar and, sure enough, my buddy Adam had already cornered this market with his awesome ZuckerBucks Facebook app

Well, as my grandpappy used to say: “When life gives you lemons, make a consolidated online virtual currency gateway and payment system”.  I never quite understood what he was talking about.  Until today.

My idea is a consolidated online virtual currency gateway and payment system.  The limited number of virtual currency systems in the market today are already ridiculously fragmented and closed – and it’s not likely to change as new virtual currencies come online.  What if I wanted to use my XBox 360 points to buy something on Amazon.com?  Or use my Facebook dollars (this has to be coming and it will be huge) to buy some shoes on Zappos.com?  Or use my MySpace bucks (they’ll jump on this along with every other social network once Facebook rolls it out) to buy party favors from eBay?  Or what about a more complex case, such as using my Linden Dollars to refill my Starbucks card using the current exchange rate (approx 250 LD to 1 USD)?

The core feature of this system is the ability for e-commerce sites to add a simple bit of code (like PayPal offers) that users could click on for an additional payment option.  Users would be redirected to the site, and once they logged in they would see all of the balances across each of their virtual currency accounts (converted into USD or their local analog currencies).  Users could choose the virtual currency they’d like to use, and under the hood the system would manage the process of deducting points from the virtual currency and passing the payment on to the e-commerce site.  Users could also set up “quick pay” options, where they would just have to enter their name/password (or click on an infocard) and the system would automatically carry out the transaction via the user’s primary virtual currency account.

This idea is a little bit ahead of it’s time, but what do you think?  Maybe something worth patenting now, and waiting a few years before the technology catches up before it would be implemented?  Or maybe start by defining a standard for adding or deducting to/from a virtual currency system? Thoughts, feedback, and mockery are all welcome in the comments below.

Y Combinator Challenge #16 – A form of search that depends on design

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

16. A form of search that depends on design. Google doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses. One of the biggest is that they have no sense of design. They do the next best thing, which is to keep things sparse. But if there were a kind of search that depended a lot on design, a startup might actually be able to beat Google at search. I don’t know if there is, but if you do, we’d love to hear from you.

My Idea – Search4Change

searchme

There, I beat you to the punch.  If you haven’t checked that site out, stop reading this crap and go there now.  Be careful, though, it’s a time sink.  I actually jumped over there about 20 minutes ago just to grab the URL.  Sigh. 

However great SearchMe might be, I think there’s definitely a little catch.  I actually think of SearchMe more as a discovery engine than a search engine.  It’s a great way to find new and interesting information about stuff you already know about, but it’s not really replacing G/Y/L as the best way to find the answer to a question.  That’s something that’s going to take a little more time – I’ve previously posted my thoughts about one company that could take on that challenge. My personal opinion is that design is a good way to pull some share from Google on the discovery front, but not so much for core search. 

Stick with me here, ’cause I do actually have an idea.  I’m coming at this with an idea that can put an interesting wrapper in front of a standard “enter text into a box and get a page with 20 blue links” approach.  The revenue sharing may not make you rich, but as we all know, there’s more to life than just adding numbers to your bank account. 

My idea is a search engine that allows users to help save the planet with every search query they run.  I know there are non-profit search engines out there, but by using the core results from a trusted engine and wrapping it with an amazing design and extra features, this search engine could really be differentiated enough to gain some traction.  I’m going to make the assumption that you know how a standard search engine works, and while the back end results would be powered by one of the Big 3′s engines + revenue sharing plans, here are some features that would set the front end apart.

  • Instead of just having a generic “every search contributes 1/10th of a penny to The Human Fund” heading on the top, the user would see something tangible that they are contributing to, along with the progress that has been made.  For example, users might see a picture of a tree – the bottom 75%might be in full color and the top 25% would be greyed out with the message “only 500 more searches needed before this tree can be planted in Brazil.” 
  • The site would introduce a concept of multipliers.  For each multiplier level you reach, the impact of your search contributions would go up by a factor of 1.  For example, if the standard contribution is 5 cents per search, a person at multiplier level 10 would generate 50 cents per search. 
  • Multipliers could be gained by adding a sponsoring company’s banner to your main search page.  For example, Nike might put up an offer to sponsor your search results in exchange for a +1 addition to your multiplier score.  Users could choose to accept this offer and have a Nike banner appear in the search result page.  Since users have control over the ads that they see, this is a good example of using a “permission marketing” technique that Seth Godin wrote about.
  • Users could also earn multipliers by recruiting their friends/family to join the site.  This is similar to raising money for walk-a-thons – this could simply be referred to a “search-a-thon”.  Users could see a list of their friends or family who are using the site, along with rankings displaying which member of the group has raised the most money to date.  In theory, you could also put in some standard social-networking stuff (or hook it up to Friend Connect).
  • Instead of contributing a small amount for each search they conduct, users could opt-in to a feature that would be more like a simple lottery-style game.  For example, users would run search queries and would not generate any money for each search, but for every 10,000th search executed, the lucky user who ran that search would get a $100 donation made in their name.  This adds a little fun and excitement to the site, as raising money 1 cent at a time can feel like a pretty long (and boring) uphill battle before any progress is made.

What do you guys think about this one?  Am I missing something huge when I make the claim that search cannot be won with design alone?

Y Combinator Challenge #15 – Off the Shelf Security

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

15. Off the shelf security. Services like ADT charge a fortune. Now that houses and their owners are both connected to networks practically all the time, a startup could stitch together alternatives out of cheap, existing hardware and services.

My Idea – iSecurity

Editors note: I don’t know the first thing about security systems, so proceed with caution.  Sometimes, though, being an idiot can be a good thing.  For one, it allows you to approach an idea from an entirely new point of view.  If Muhammad Yunus can build a bank, surely I can come up with a new way to do security, right?  :)

From my understanding, security systems work a little bit like cell phones or cable boxes.  The initial hardware and setup costs are fairly low, but there’s a big catch – you’re required to sign up for a lengthy contract with a recurring monthly fee.  The main cost here is the monitoring system, which is basically a call center that is alerted when any suspicious activity is detected.  The agent can tell what type of emergency it is (fire, break in, flood, etc..) and notify the proper authorities. 

Here’s a thought – what if instead of needing a security system 24/7, you only want something that monitors for break-ins in your apartment when you’re out-of-town?  Or only need a system to monitor for flooding at your summer lake house?  Or what if you want to be alerted if the power goes down in your server room?

My idea is pretty simple – a security system that is easy to set up and relies on real-time notifications to yourself and your friends/family/neighbors in case of emergency.  The hardware would be modular and built using commodity parts, and instead of having a centralized call center, the system would allow users to set up alerts to themselves and others via an iPhone/Android/WinMobile app, text message, Twitter, etc..  The key feature is the ability to get as much information as possible as quickly as possible to the right decision makers, and provide drop-dead-simple options for how to handle the situation (i.e. ignore false alarm vs act on true emergency).  Here’s how it could work. 

Hardware: Users could purchase ala carte low-cost sensors (commodity hardware packaged in well-designed exterior cases) which can be installed without professional assistance.  Each sensor would have wireless networking capabilities built in (wi-fi standard, with cellular upgrades optional) and would cover basic security/remote monitoring scenarios such as door or window monitoring, smoke sensors, water sensors, etc..  Users could also purchase networked cameras that would began recording once a sensor was triggered.  Added bonus: additional components could be snapped onto core modules, similar to the Bug Labs concept (i.e. infrared detector snapped onto camera, alarm and strobe snapped onto door sensor). 

Software:  From the website, users can schedule when they want various sensors to be activated (every day from 8-5, August 15-17, every weekend, etc..) and how they want to be notified.  Ideally this would be via an iPhone (or similar) app, but could also be through other standard communication channels as well.  Also, users could set up secondary notifications for additional people (i.e. friends, family, neighbors) to ensure that an emergency message got through to someone in case the primary user was completely off the grid. 

Once a sensor is activated, an alert would be sent to the primary user, along with a snapshot (or video or sound clip) taken by the camera at the time of the incident.  Users would also be shown buttons to allow for immediate action, such as “Call Police”, “Call Fire Department”, “Call Plumber”, or “Ignore” which would either make a connection via the direct emergency service number (911 would obviously not work for remote monitoring) or remotely turn off the alarm.  Users could also respond via text message (text “1″ for Police, “2″ for Fire) or direct message from Twitter.  If after a pre-set amount of time had passed without action, the system could then send the notification alerts to the secondary users (i.e. neighbor or friends) to allow them to make the decision on how to address the situation.  Added bonus: users could pre-record a message like “There is a break-in at 123 Fake Street.  Please send police immediately.” that could be sent if the user was unable to respond (i.e. intruder is in the house and you needed to be silent). 

Additional Features:

  • Instead of installing a keypad to disable the alarm (for example, if a house sitter is stopping by periodically), users could text message a security code and time duration to a number which would temporarily turn off any alerts.  A simple sign could be posted on the door saying “To disable the security system, text your secret code and duration to 555-1234″ – which would also alert would-be intruders that a security system is in place.
  • The hardware could be compatible with a service such as ADT monitoring, so users could potentially still have high levels of service for break-ins, but also use features such as the remote video monitoring or water detection sensors.
  • The software could utilize new computer vision techniques (such as this research done at the University of Washington) to detect the difference between motion caused by your pets vs motion caused by a person.

What do you guys think about this one?  Also, happy birthday to the most amazing person in the world and the best wife a guy could ever ask for.  Love you!!