Monthly Archives: November 2009

Five Ideas for Turkey Day

turkey

Ever since my great-grandparents sailed across the Pacific in 1492 and landed at Plymouth Rock to teach the Native Americas the proper way to carve a turkey and watch football, it’s been a time-honored tradition in my family for the most athletically-challenged first-born male of the household to kick off the holiday season with a cornucopia of Web 2.0 startup ideas.

OK, I made most of that up.  Except for the ideas part.  And the athletically-challenged part.  Here are the ideas.

1. Martha Stewart (De)liv(er)ing

I’m in charge of the Thanksgiving feast this year, and I’ve spent a good 5-6 hours so far looking up recipes online (Martha Stewart actually does have some great T-day stuff), making a list of all the ingredients, and driving from store to store to do all the grocery shopping.  Amazon Fresh just started grocery delivery service in Seattle, so why combine the two and make a web site that pulls in popular Thanksgiving recipes, gives you an option to choose the ones you want to make, and then creates an Amazon Fresh list with all the necessary ingredients.  You could remove any items you already have, and then with one click you could have everything delivered right to your door.

It’s a good thing.

2. Farmville: This Time, It’s Real

Farmville:This Time, It’s Real is a twist on the popular Farmville Facebook game.  However, instead of having a completely virtual farm, the game would hook up with real-life turkey farmers and link each in-game turkey to a live turkey on their farm.  Users would purchase their turkey in the spring, and through the online interface they could remotely feed, water, and care for the turkey.  Once Thanksgiving rolls around, the turkey would be butchered and shipped to the player to be used for their Thanksgiving dinner. 

And before you dismiss this one as my usual too-far-out-there ideas, you might want to check this out.

3. Persecutr

With all the shopping and chaos and gluttony that our modern Thanksgiving brings, it’s important to remember the true historical spirit of this holiday.  To help people experience the same religious persecution that sent the original Pilgrims to America, persecutr.com allows users to enter their religious beliefs, and then watch a 3-hour streaming video of an angry English guy berating you and your religion.  Fun for the whole family!

Bonus: monetization tip – insert 30-second commercials into the video stream, Hulu-style!

4. iTurkey

This mobile app has everything you need to cook the perfect turkey.  Just enter in the weight of the turkey, pop the turkey into the oven, and hit go.  The iTurkey app displays a timer to count down the proper cooking time, with reminders when it’s time for basting.  The app could also display tips around stuffing the turkey, seasoning the outside (my method: cook some bacon until it’s crispy, brush the bacon grease over the turkey, and rub on chopped bacon, salt, pepper, rosemary, and sage), and carving techniques.

5. Tom’s Revenge

Check out this premise for a video game.  It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and Tom, a hand-traced turkey cut out of construction paper for a class project, is unceremoniously thrown away to make room for the Christmas decorations.  Tom decides to take revenge, and using weapons such as a turkey baster flamethrower and cornucopia bazooka that fires gourds, Tom roams the neighborhood taking down any Christmas decorations in his path. 

You play as Tom, battling against classic Christmas foes such as the Nutcracker Army, Frosty the Killman, and the dreaded Fruitcake of Death.  Along the way, search through trash cans to find other discarded Thanksgiving decorations to power up your weapon in preparation for the final showdown with…yes, you guessed it.  The Festivus pole.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  I’ll be back with more ideas after the long weekend, follow me on Twitter at @astartupaday for updates on my latest postings.

Why Washing Machines Suck

washday

When I look back over the 30 years that I’ve been on this planet, the amount of technological progress we’ve made as a society has been nothing short of stunning.  It’s impacted the way that we work, play, communicate, and ridicule those “who” are less grammatically “inclined” than we are.  And yet, despite all of the incredible innovation out there today, we still have a few things that just plain suck.   

The washing machine is one of them.

And not just the washing machine itself, but the entire process of transforming dirty clothes into clean clothes is broken.  Let’s take a look at my laundry workflow.

First, at the end of the day, dirty clothes are taken off and tossed into a laundry basket, where they are piled up in a heap left to sit for about a week.  Once there are enough clothes for a load of laundry, I manually carry the clothes down a flight a stairs to the washing machine.  I need to separate the clothes into whites and darks, start up the machine, and measure out the right amount of soap. 

While the washing machine is running, it’s having a considerable impact on energy and water use.   An average washing machine accounts for 14% of household water usage, and emits 160 lbs of CO2 each year (source).  Also, most laundry detergents contains phosphates and other chemicals that can be harmful to the environment.

Once the machine is done after about an hour, I need to go back downstairs, pull wet clothes out of the machine and put them into the drier.  After checking the lint trap to make sure that it’s clean and adding a drier sheet, I need to set the timer and wait another hour for the clothes to dry.  While running, each load burns another 4.4 lbs of CO2 (source).

After the clothes are done drying, that’s where the real fun begins.  I bring the clothes upstairs (quickly, to avoid wrinkles), and go through the process of folding and hanging up clothes to put back in the closet and drawer.

Along with the time involved with this process, there’s also considerable expense.  The washer and dryer each cost between $500 and $1000, and they need special electrical outlets and water hookups to run.  You also need a fairly large amount of space in your house/apartment dedicated to this task.  And, of course, if you don’t have enough space, you need to load up your clothes and spend a few hours at a laundry mat. 

OK – so I know I sound like a huge whiner, but the point I’m trying to make is that there is this process that has multiple pain points across time, money, and environmental impact.  Any innovation that could greatly reduce or eliminate those issues would surely result in the potential for massive profits.  And yet, I haven’t seen any progress made to apply our 2009 knowledge to fix a broken 1930’s solution.

The fundamental question is: why?

This actually reminds me a lot of the situation we’re in now with automobiles.  While cars today are more advanced than previous models, we’re still using the same old core technology wrapped in a nicer package.  One reason that a major change such as a move to electric cars hasn’t taken place yet is that gas-powered cars have such a massive legacy infrastructure of gas stations that have been built out over the past 100 years. 

However, I feel like that’s a solvable problem – the real problem is that the general population has a set perception of what a car is supposed to be.  Switching over to something completely new and different is a huge leap of faith, and as you increase the cost and necessity of the item, you also reduce the chance that someone will branch out and try something new. 

That’s why it’s so easy to innovate on the web, where trying out something new will only cost a few minutes of your time, and so hard to innovate on something like a car (or washing machine), where the cost of choosing something new and risky has a massive economic impact in the case of failure.

So, despite the issues involved with brining a total new clothes-washing paradigm to market, let’s look at what a perfect cleaning workflow would look like.

First, let’s do away with the water.  That would take away the environmental impact of both the washing and drying, and would also take out the need to have a separate water hookup (which provides more flexibility in where it can be set up).

Next, forget this whole business of putting the clothes off a rack, into a pile, moving them around a bit, and placing them back on the rack.  Instead, I was to just take my clothes off at the end of the day and hang them back on the rack.  When I wake up in the morning, I want those garments that I hung up the night before to be clean and ready to wear again.

One way to do this is to add on a special compartment to one end of a closet.  Clothes that are hung up in the compartment could use a combination of ultraviolet light, ultrasonic waves, micro lasers, and specialized nanobots to both remove odors and spot-treat any spots or stains.  Once the clothes are cleaned, the compartment opens and the clothes are automatically moved into the main closet.   

Of course you could poke a hundred different holes in this plan (I’m looking at you, random Internets commenters!), but if some random nobody like me can crank out an idea like that in a few minutes, just imagine what kind of real progress we could make if some of the world’s smartest engineers and entrepreneurs got to work on this?

Edit: Here’s a link to some washing machine patents to see some of the latest innovations taking place.

So, what do you think?  Anyone else hate doing laundry as much as I do?  To stay update on my latest ideas and essays, you can follow me on Twitter at @astartupaday.

YC RFS #5 – Mobile Development

i heart c64 Yesterday Paul Graham posted an essay about Apple and the iPhone dev process, along with a new Request for Startup (RFS). It’s a good read, and one of the hypothesis put forth is that developers will write software for the device that they have.  Many developers have iPhone, and therefore are targeting the iPhone for development.  As a result, one way to woo developers away from the iPhone ecosystem is to create a killer app for developers, and suggests that one such app may be an environment that allows developers to write code on mobile devices.

It’s good timing from my perspective.  I’ve been away all week in LA at Microsoft’s Professional Developer Conference (PDC) and have been immersed in dev content.  I love events like this because being surrounded by smart people and new concepts helps to stimulate my own thinking.

When thinking about mobile development, there are a few assumptions that I’m going to put forth to differentiate between a traditional IDE:

  • Extremely limited screen size
  • Cumbersome to enter text
  • Low client-side processing power

Of course, you could just get around these constraints by connecting to a mouse, keyboard, and monitor – but that’s kinda boring, so I’m going to focus on a scenario that assumes no access to peripherals.

OK,  now let’s start to narrow it down a bit.  First, let’s focus only on building mobile apps.  There’s no reason why you couldn’t spread to web apps, but mobile apps make sense because you’re already on the device itself, which gives you a slight advantage due to the WISIWYG-iness of it all.

To start looking at how this would work, let’s walk through a simple scenario and start explaining some of the details as we go.  Since I’m typing this up in the airport waiting for updates on my delayed plane to arrive (I heart LAX!), let’s say that you wanted to build an app to track the status of a specific flight. 

To get started, the first thing a dev would do is to create a high-level model of the app.  This would be a simple block diagram that would start by walking through the UI flow of the app.  Once you had each block in place, you would drill into each block and define the type of functionality you want for each step.  For example, your first screen might be a splash screen with your logo.  Next would be a form that would let you enter your flight information, followed by a third page that would display the status.

Each block would be driven by customizable templates.  There would be 100’s of pre-built templates available from the system, and also the option to pull in user-generated templates from the community.  For our example, the first block would be a “Splash Screen” template.  Once you choose the template, you then walk through a simple wizard to modify the template.  Again, for this example, the wizard would ask for the image that you would want displayed on the splash screen.  When you’re finished, the system would do all the work on the back end to turn it into a fully-functioning splash screen for your app.

Once you have the UI elements in place, it’s time to start wiring up the back end.  This would be done using a similar model-based approach to build out a high-level abstraction of the program’s functionality.  For example, let’s look at the input form for the flight tracking example.  The logic flow is roughly something like this:

  1. Get the airport code for the user’s starting and ending destination
  2. Hit a web service to look for all flights to/from those locations over the next 12 hours
  3. If there are multiple flights, let the user pick the correct flight
  4. Send the flight info to a web service and pull back the flight status
  5. Pass the flight status to the display page and give up control

One of the keys to making this work is to rely very heavily on the ability to package up very common mobile development tasks into small snippets of code.  As devs work through the logic for their app, the goal is to break down the elements of work into smaller and smaller pieces until you get down to something that can be represented by a short, common snippet of code. 

Of course, the code could be modified once it’s in place, but by starting with a rough framework, we solve two problems.  One, it would significantly reduce the amount of typing.  Two, it would enable the developer to spend more time simply modifying code instead of having to switch over to a browser to look up syntax or do a search/copy/paste.

The revenue model would be similar to Weebly, where users could build one app for free, and could build additional apps for a small fee.  Another potential revenue possibility is to automatically submit the apps to the app store and tack a small “service fee” on top of the standard submission cost. 

There’s a lot more to this idea, but this post is already getting a bit long so I’m going to call it.  To stay updated on my latest ideas, you should follow me at @astartupaday on Twitter.

Shop It Like It’s Hot

 

fashion

<boringstoryaboutkevin>

Way, way back in the early days of my career (‘01 or so), I started an incredibly small little startup focused on building custom software for researchers.  For two years I wrote software that would track the movement of lab rats in cages for Parkinson’s researchers, which led into an opportunity to work on an insanely awesome project called the Direct Brain Interface (DBI).

The premise of the DBI was to detect patterns in the electrical activity in the brain, and use those signals to control a simple video game.  There are a few catches, though.  First, instead of using rats, the team was working with real live humans.  And second, as opposed to the Indirect Brain Interface, the signals we were reading came from probes that were inserted directly into the brain.

Like I said: insanely awesome.

Of course we didn’t insert the probes for the sake of the experiment, we worked with patients who already had the probes inserted for other medical reasons (mostly as treatment for severe epilepsy). 

Anyway, I spent the summer writing all sorts of crazy signal processing algorithms for two main purposes.  The first was to look at the signals coming in from the 30 or so probes to try to discover the location of the specific “thought” we were trying to capture (brains are crazy flexible, no two are the same).  Then, once we found the right location, we then analyzed that one channel to pick out the “thought” as it occurred.

I had never done much signal processing work before, but the amazing thing was that once you got all the wickedly complex math right, it would actually do a pretty good job of picking up a signal out of this incredibly noisy input from the probe. 

</boringstoryaboutkevin>

This is leading somewhere, I promise.

There are millions of candid photos floating around the Internets, especially as more and more people opt-in to share their Facebook data with the public.  And just like that tiny signal that could be pulled from the noisy brain probe, I believe there are lots of interesting things that could be pulled from these pictures using similar signal processing techniques. 

The one that I’m focusing on today is a site that looks at pictures of people and tries to determine the most popular clothing and fashion choices.  For example, if the algorithm found 100 pictures of people wearing the same purple-and-pink tank top from the Gap in the past 24 hours, it would show up on the site in the “Hot Now” section. Users could go to the site to see what clothes, shoes, purses, etc.. are popular today, and click through to purchase the items online from their favorite stores. 

Along with just pictures, we could also throw in a little metadata for more accuracy.  For example, if the photo is from a public Facebook feed, we can cut the data by age, location, and even popularity (measured by number of friends).  You could also use that same data to apply weighting (i.e. a purse that is worn by a college student in New York City with over 1,000 friends would get a high weighting)

The end result would be a constantly-updated site showing the hottest fashion styles in real time.  Think of it as a Digg for fashion, but one that doesn’t have the wicked-hard chicken/egg problem of getting users to contribute content to an unknown site.  Along with generating money via lead-gens to online stores, the data could be used to generate real-time reports for fashion designers. 

Like this idea?  If so, you should follow me on Twitter at @astartupaday

If not, you should probably follow someone else.

YC RFS #1 – Future of Journalism

newspaperblog

If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you’ve at least heard of Y Combinator and the community over at Hacker News.  If not, stop reading immediately and go check those those sites out.  There’s a lot of good content on the web, but these sites are consistently churning out some of the most thoughtful and interesting stuff around. 

Last year I did a series of 30 posts centered around a list of 30 startup ideas that Y Combinator published as a creative starting point for applicants to the YC program.  This year, they took a bit of a different approach by posting only a handful of ideas, but with much more detail.  Today I’m going to take on the first one, which is called “Future of Journalism”:

Newspapers and magazines are in trouble. We think they will mostly die, because we think we know what will replace them, and it is too far from their current model for them to reach it in time.

And yet people still need at least some of what they do. You can’t have aggregators without content. So what will the content site of the future look like? And how will you make money from it? These questions turn out to be very closely related. Just as they were for print media, initially. The reason newspapers and magazines are dying is that what they do is no longer related to how they make money from it. In fact, most journalists probably don’t even realize that the definition of journalism they take for granted was not something that sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus, but is rather a direct though somewhat atrophied consequence of a very successful 20th century business model.

What would a content site look like if you started from how to make money—as print media once did—instead of taking a particular form of journalism as a given and treating how to make money from it as an afterthought?

(The good news is, we think the writing will actually end up being better.)

Groups applying to work on this idea should include at least one person who can write well and rapidly about any topic, one or more programmers who are good at statistics, data mining, and making sites scale, and someone who’s reasonably competent at graphic design. These functions can of course be combined, and in fact it’s even better if they are. Ex-Googlers would be particularly well suited to this project.

For those of you who didn’t read my ideas from yesterday and Friday, I posted some thoughts around a site that generates real-time, user-curated content, and an ad model that is optimized for ads that appear on real-time content.

Those two ideas actually started out from this post about the “Future of Journalism”, but it ran so freakin’ long that I decided to break it out into two separate posts so I’d have more room to explain them both.  So, looking at the RFS, I started with this line:

What would a content site look like if you started from how to make money—as print media once did—instead of taking a particular form of journalism as a given and treating how to make money from it as an afterthought?

The revenue model I came up with is the Real-Time Ads model, where users could instantly bid to have their message (commercial or not) appear on the page.  Now, in order for this to work, you need to have a whole heck of a lot of real-time content.  That’s where the Real-Time Content (or Qwiki) idea comes in.  This would be a content site that scans for the latest Twitter trends and automatically creates a basic page about the topic, which users can add to over time. 

Bring these two ideas together, and you’ve got my answer for how to take on RFS #1: Future of Journalism.

What do you guys think about this one?  As always, if you want to stay updated on my latest ideas, you should follow me on Twitter at @astartupaday.

Real-Time Ads

 

advertising

I think it’s safe to say that advertising has advanced quite a bit in the past fifty years.  It’s an interesting field because it’s such an incredibly big market ($350 billion worldwide, and growing fast) that the opportunities for disruption are huge, which historically has led to a ton of innovation in the space centered around major inflection points in the way we consume information. 

From print to radio, radio to TV, TV to the Internets – each has opened up massive opportunities for the companies that have unlocked the delicate balance between consumer tolerance for interruption and profitability.  Looking at the market today, I see a big inflection point around the shift from the traditional web and the real-time web.  There are lots of players in this space, but we have yet to see a breakout advertising platform to find that balance and cash in around this major opportunities.

For today’s idea, I’m going to take a crack at this with something I’m calling Real-Time Ads.  These are ads that are optimized for type of quick-hit, real-time content that has a virally-powered explosion and quickly dies away. 

It’s a bit hard to explain, so let’s start by looking at the following scenario.  The Seattle Seahawks won a late-season game in overtime are making an improbable trip to the playoffs.   I’m a huge Seahawks fan, and after reading an article on the big win, I decide to post the following social ad on the page:

socialad1

Now, let’s say that this week the Seahawks are playing the 49ers in their playoff game.  I decide that I want to have a little fun, so I head over to the 49er’s page and bid on the following ad:

socialad2

The key is that anyone can click directly on the ad, and for a very nominal fee, immediately purchase the opportunity to get a targeted message in front of a massive viral audience.  Also, this is a simple way for very small businesses who don’t want to learn about traditional online advertising to instantly see their message on a site that they know is relevant to their prospective clients.

The other nice thing about these ads from a consumer’s perspective is that the ads aren’t just the same old boring AdSense ads that users have learned to ignore.  Because they are coming directly from users, they are likely more interesting and fun, which will make these not feel like ads at all to the consumer.

Here are a couple of other scenarios where social ads might come into play:

  • Twitter user “@iPhoneNews” advertising on a popular article about the iPhone
  • The person selling “Bubble Boy” Halloween costumes advertising on a hot story about BB.
  • A pizza place in a small town offering a $5 coupon on a story about the local high-school basketball team winning their game.

All right, what do you guys think about this one?  Leave comments below or hit me up on Twitter at @astartupaday.   

Real-Time Wiki aka “The Qwiki”

speed

As you might have guessed, I love trying out new sites that pop up on the Internets.  The vast majority I check out once, and never return.  However, the one place that I’ve been going to more and more over the past few weeks has been the new Twitter search functionality that was built into Bing

Full disclosure for those who don’t know – I do work at Microsoft.  But putting silly religious search engine wars aside, it is a cool service and will likely be implemented in a similar way when it rolls out to the search engine of your choice in the near future.

Anyway, it’s a very useful service and got me thinking about real-time search.  Before checking out Bing’s Twitter search, I had assumed the problem that needed to be solved was something like this: now that we now have a ton of real-time content (tweets), how do we index, weigh importance, and filter the content to discover the most interesting tweets? 

However, after seeing how much more useful Bing’s Twitter search is compared to Twitter’s built-in search, I started to look at the problem differently.  The key is that the tweets themselves aren’t the content, they are simply indicators that can help determine what links to non-Twitter content are most important for a given topic, at a given time, in a given location. 

If you look at it from that perspective, the problem is now reversed.  Instead of trying to build a real-time search engine, what about creating a real-time content engine?  That’s the basis for today’s idea, Qwiki.

Here’s how it would work.  An algorithm would monitor Twitter to determine the newly-trending topics.  Once a topic hits a certain threshold, the Qwiki site generates a web page for that topic with as much information as it can automatically pull from both Twitter and the web.

Qwiki would then tweet out a link about that topic.  As people come to the Qwiki site, they could start to fill out information about the topic, and retweet the link out to others.  As more and more people come to the page and contribute information in real time, the wisdom of the crowds will take over and page will quickly become the best source of information about that topic.

As a result, just as Wikipedia is one of the top entries on most search engine queries, Qwiki results could rise to the top of real-time search requests.  And while I usually don’t like ad-based revenue models, it might actually make sense for this one – especially if location-based, real-time advertising begins to take hold.     

Speaking of real-time, I’m in Mountain View today and will be working out of Red Rock Cafe from about noon to 2:30.  If you’re in the area, swing by and I’d be happy to buy you a coffee.  I’ll be on Twitter, you can contact me there at @astartupaday