communities


Bicycle stand

Bicycle stand (Photo credit: Superburschi)

Having spent much of the last year focused on  startup work, analysis, and angel investing, I wanted to briefly outline a focal point of the efficiency technology segment that I gravitate toward.  In particular, the most interesting opportunities revolve around existing activities that contain friction and inefficiency, and where the markets and providers seem comfortably numb –  and where entrepreneurs with a blend of critical and strategic thinking have seen beyond existing models and methods.

By evaluating issues facing each of an engagement’s constituencies, and re-thinking the engagement mechanisms of the activities involved, revisions for reducing or eliminating friction can be made to the processes so as to also elicit valuable inputs from participants, unlock additional value — even for bystanders, and/or open doors for new constituents.  Entrepreneurs and companies who are doing this with a vision for what lies beyond initial disruption are the ones that really pique my interest.

A great example lies in one of my earliest individual angel investments (outside of the Soundboard Angel Fund that I am involved with — which also subsequently invested). The company is Social Bicycles  (a.k.a. SoBi), led by Ryan Rzepecki.  Their focus at this point is in the bikeshare space, which is generally outlined pretty well in this article.   Some of the key issues around bikeshares (beyond those for the operator, such as reliability/repair/maintenance, loss of bikes, and fleet management and flexibility) tend to involve: ability for users to locate bike availability where they want it, and importantly, knowledge that there is space at their destination station to receive their bike.  This is due in large part to bikeshares generally being “station” based.

 

Citi Bike Share

Citi Bike Share (Photo credit: ccho)

Such station-based systems have their “smarts” in the kiosk and rack assemblies that hold the bikes.  Once you take a bike from such a system, you’re on your own until you bring it back into the system by parking it in another of the system’s smart racks.  Obviously, the destination rack won’t always be at the exact location you’d like to go to, and when you arrive at the one closest to your destination, it may well be full — meaning you have to find another of the system’s racks in order to park/return it.  Chances are, particularly if you’re using the bike for commuting purposes, you don’t have a lot of time to hunt for a parking space, nor do you have the flexibility to show up late because you were doing so.

 

In contrast, (and not to oversimplify all that Ryan and Social Bicycles have done), SoBi has shifted the smarts and locks, from residing within the rack system to the bikes themselves, integrating GPS into the bikes, and using the cloud for procurement — and in so doing, they’ve evolved bikesharing to an un-tethered state.

Image representing Social Bicycles as depicted...

Image via CrunchBase

Ring and post bicycle stands in Toronto, Canada

Bike stands, Toronto, Can (Wikipedia)

This means you can pull out your smartphone and find the bike closest to you, reserve it before you get there, unlock it on arrival, and take it wherever you want to go, without worrying that there might not be a space at your destination because, while they prefer you lock it to a designated regular old bike rack, in a pinch you can lock it to a tree or parking meter (local rules allowing).

With reduced infrastructure requirements, other added benefits of this revised approach include significantly lowering the cost of entry, not to mention lowering the hurdle for any necessary approvals.  The cost per bike is about a fifth that of a station-based scenario, and can be eased into and adjusted relatively flexibly in response to what is learned in regards to demand and patterns through operation.

There are many other details to this particular system, and there are many other realms to which this approach of constituency analysis is unlocking real value.  In future posts, I plan to share more about some of the other companies I have found to be doing this good work.

(SoundBoard Angel Fund is a democratic fund, with members active in selection and analysis of companies and in ongoing relationships with its portfolio, which is primarly focused in education, consumer products and services, and efficiency technologies).

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Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing (Photo credit: cambodia4kidsorg)

Back in college (and we’re talking about the early ’80s), I’d thought little about crashing at someone’s pad – even someone I didn’t know when backpacking around.  You meet some people you like, and you’re somewhere you’re not too familiar with – so what better way to get to know the place than hang out with some “locals” (even if they too were visitors to the place) – and take advantage of the convenience of being able to flop somewhere and leave your backpack while you’re out investigating.

Nowadays I can’t imagine doing that – and I chalk it up to aging and parenting.  Enter AirBNB. This is the peer-to-peer service you’ve heard about whereby you can rent a spot on someone’s couch for the night. Would I do this now?  Probably not – but apply that concept to using a car, and maybe I would.

That’s what Getaround is about. Need to use a car? There’s a car rental (peer-to-peer sharing) option that’s essentially a network of personally owned vehicles wired to be accessible for procurement via their smartphone app.  Think Zipcar, but in a form that lets car owners leverage the downtime of their own car.  Also in the space is Wheelz, which is similar to Getaround, but is focused on sharing within a known community (i.e. students on a campus), and now has Zipcar as an investor/partner.  Yet other geographically focused services are RelayRides and Car2Go.

Somehow I see myself more likely to be a user of the crowd-car before the crowd-couch. I guess I’m just more comfortable with the concept of peer-to-peer in this form – perhaps because I’d be awake, conscious and on my own (versus asleep and vulnerable).  Call me old fashioned – but I’m trying.

What’s next?  Renta-potty?

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Here’s the latest installment of our Semantic Link podcast, hosted by Paul Miller of Cloud of Data

and joining with me were Christine Connors, Trivium RLG, LLC, Eric Franzon, SemanticWeb.com, Bernadette Hyland, 3 Roundstones, and Andraz Tori, Zemanta

Topics covered this month were:

Marbles - Schulenburg, Texas

Image by adamj1555 via Flickr

While I’m still actually waiting to get “in”, I have a couple of comments regarding Google+, from outside the Circle.

From descriptions of this Google Social Networking effort (following Orkut, Wave and Buzz), key elements as of now are: Circles (think of them as groups of people within your network); Sparks (which are topics or areas of interest); Hangouts (video chat rooms); Huddles (group chat); and Instant Upload (automatic mobile photo syncing).

Considering potential for integrating capability across product areas has always been most intriguing to me.  In serving them up “together”, G+ makes it that much more likely for capabilities to be used together.

First, and I think most interesting, is the way that the concept of Circles melds the idea of a network of friends/connections with tagging/categorization so that, without having the clunky thinking of classifying or inviting people to groups, the user is able to achieve the elusive sense of having multiple personas representable within one system.   Some people maintain their professional network in one system (LinkedIn, for example), and their personal network in another (e.g. facebook).  Others maintain multiple accounts in a single system in order to segregate their “work” online presence from their “family” or “personal play” selves.  For those who already maintain multiple Google accounts, G+ lets you log into multiple accounts at once.  I have yet to see how well you can interact in ways that cross over account lines.
Image representing Twine as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

The second area of note is the way that Sparks re-frames the idea of Alerts in a way that subtly shifts the nature of the material that results from them from being one-off emails or links — that you might dig into or forward on — to material that relate to particular areas of interest, which presumably parallel or align with groupings of people you associate with around those topics.  Twine had used the approach of integrating topic areas and social groupings for alerts – but these were groups that potential recipients would have to join.  In G+, the “proximity” to the Circles aspect, and the fact that those Circles are unique to the individual, and don’t require reciprocation, make for a compelling scenario for the “push” side of the equation. (At the same time, I see some potential issues in terms of “pull” and management by those on the receiving end).

Together, Sparks and Circles could take us a lot closer to a dream system I yearned for a few years back, that I referred to as a Virtual Dynamic Network.  In this, rather than having defined groups that you would need to join (which would send you related material along with much you would prefer to do without), material you both receive and send would be routed based on what it is about and how it is classified. I would love to see distinct sets of controls for in-bound vs out-bound content.
I won’t know until I get to try it, but ideally G+ will enable you to tie Sparks to Circles for you.  I’m also hoping you’re able to group your Circles – to relate and arrange them even hierarchically (consider: a large Circle for your work persona, which might contain multiple Circles for various client or team categories; or a large personal Circle, with sub-Circles for family, local friends, remote friends, classmates – all with overlap management to avoid multiply-sent content).

Hangouts and Huddles are by nature “social” already, for which you’ll presumably be able to seamlessly leverage Circles.  As with topical material, Instant Upload brings your photo content automatically one step closer to where you are sharing.  Success of all this as a social platform depends significantly on integration between the parts for seamless use by a user across capabilities – for example, adding someone who is participating on a video call or chat right into one or more of the Circles touched or represented by the other participants on that call or chat.

Ripples

Image by Bill Gracey via Flickr

Leveraging other capabilities such as linguistic processing of AdSense (and G+ may already have this in the works) it would not be a stretch for the content in your interactions to generate suggestions for Sparks which you could simply validate — places or people in photos, words in chats, terms that show up in content within Spark items.  From there, it wouldn’t be far to being able to interact with your life through what I might call a “SparkMap” — reflecting relationships between terms within your areas of interest.

 

UPDATE: I’m now in, as of Friday afternoon, July 8. So now I’ll be playing, with more ideas to come…

Additional links:

  • How to Get Started with Google+… (socialmediaexaminer.com)
  • A good ScobleEncounter listen (scobleizer on cinch.fm)
  • Quite a collection of tips growing on this public google doc
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    'Ida' fossil - the Missing LinkImage by Ragnar Singsaas via Flickr

    What do you get when you cross a set of technologies with an evangelist, a community activist, a business strategist, a Hungarian from the W3C, an ontologist / library scientist, a standards expert, a seasoned Internet executive, and a Slovenian entrepreneur?

    Hopefully, what you get is an interesting discussion.  Eric Franzon from SemanticWeb.com and Paul Miller of  Cloud of Data have organized just such a cross-section of participants for a monthly discussion – The Semantic Link podcast series – on things Semantic and/or Linked – from multiple perspectives.

    King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table...Image via Wikipedia

    I had the honor of being included at the table, and at this week’s inaugural conference call and Semantic Link podcast, we covered our different thoughts on the highlights for the space over the past year, and our hopes and dreams for the year to come.

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    AULogo

    Every now and again, I’m asked why one post or another of mine seems to be off on a tangent from “the usual”.  In these cases, it seems that while I’ve stayed true to the theme of connecting ideas to create value, the exchange for that value isn’t as obvious or direct.  To me, these are the times that are most interesting – involving translation of the currency, whether to or from knowledge, experience, or goods.  It is that value translation that is at the heart of the Second Integral.

    I’ll speculate now that this will likley prove to be one of those times.

    While walking through Maplewood, NJ last weekend, I came upon a new store in place of one that had recently closed.  I ventured in to see what it was about, and discovered it to be an art/craft boutique, with lots of hand crafted and nicely made/decorated items.   A woman approached me and asked if I needed any help, and I asked if these were all things made by people locally.  She was Cate Lazen, and she turns out to have been the founder of Arts Unbound, the organization that opened this “pop-up” store.  She answered my question, saying “well, yes, and everything in the store was made by people dealing with a disability of one sort or another.”

    With a part of my brain dedicated full time to triangulation, I found myself automatically thinking about the coalescence of purposes here.  On the one hand, people with disabilities, engaging in artistic work as physical therapy, an expressive outlet, to perhaps generate income, while gaining pride, satisfaction, experience… all through their creative art.

    Art as therapy itself is clearly valuable – but what struck me as particularly interesting was its combination of it here with (at least) two other constituencies.  According to Cate, the shop also employs people with disabilities, so it satisfies many of these same therepeutic purposes for the workers as it does the artists.  And of course, being a shop, it brings customers into the mix.

    The simple combination of manufacturer + shopkeeper + consumer may not, on the surface, seem so interesting – it is just how a business works.  But the dynamic in this case yields some additional benefits beyond the traditional.

    Along with the direct purposes noted above, for the artists and workers, and obviously filling customers’ needs, there are some more subtle byproducts as well, and they’re accentuated by the season’s spirit, due to the timing of the shop’s materialization just in time for the holidays.

    Those who find their way to the shop will undoubtedly gain awareness of the overall purposes being served by the organization.   Additionally, buying a gift from this store provides the giver the satisfaction of giving twice (at least) – to the recipient of the gift, to the artist, to the shop worker, and even the good feeling of having contributed in some small way.  All this can even make you feel a little better about buying something for yourself.

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    Complementary anglesImage via Wikipedia: Complementary Angles

    Since Tony Shaw wrote his post about their motivations and intentions in selling the SemTech Conference and Semantic Universe, some others have asked what I was thinking by having proposed it in the first place.  That’s actually pretty easy to explain.

    In my initial post about the deal, I touched on my sense that the WebMediaBrands approach to the space, and its efforts to date, complemented what Tony was doing with SemTech.  Sure, they both focused on similar material, and involved many of the same cast of characters, but the interesting part was in their individual strategies and execution.

    As background: Outside the more academically focused ISWC, SemTech had pretty much become the annual convention for the community, a good part of which was about migration to the business potential of these technologies.  The energy caught the attention of what was then Jupiter Media, who saw the opportunity to focus right in on what outside business was looking for: how to leverage these capabilities for competitive advantage.

    SemTech too was looking to help answer that question – but was doing so within the context of fostering that community and its discovery, with programs structured to focus on sector-specific application.  Jupiter came from the other direction, with the LinkedData Planet conference asking right off, how business can make use, which they sustained in the subsequent Web3.0 Conference, under WebMedia’s Mediabistro.

    It is the underlying approaches of the organizers that shines a light on the potential synergies here – the complementary angles – and the benefits should manifest outside the organizers themselves.  The modus operandi in the case of the SemTech organizers has been methodical community building, across academics, standards and business, while that for WebMedia is vertical integration of offerings for their consumption.  So the thinking was that SemTech’s introspective contemplation of the question, and WebMedia’s pragmatic approach would yield brass tacks.

    68/365 - TackImage by Niharb via Flickr

    To put a shine on those tacks, combining of the big SemTech event with WebMedia’s year-round and multi-pronged focus-within-the-vertical should also help wash away a subtle but present “us versus them” undercurrent from among participants.  For today, the community can ignore any “which team” questions, or what “it” (Semantic Web, Linked Data, Web 3.0, Web of Data) should be called, and who coined which terms.  As one, the combined efforts can focus on furtherance - for interoperability, efficiency, usefulness…  Perhaps we’ll see the first signs of this happening at this week’s Semantic Web Summit, in Boston.

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    Sand Hill Road sign from 280 north. Image via Wikipedia

    Earlier this week, I attended the VANJ Entrepreneurs Expo & Elevator Pitch Olympics, (VANJ stands for the Venture Association of NJ) primarily to explore paths for a current client. This was a healthy mix of education and marketing, from multiple perspectives including: business and entrepreneurship support entities and associations; professionals; consultants; investors; and early-stage startups and some ventures a bit futher along.  Among the support entities was an alphabet soup of communities, associations, publishers, and institutions such as NJBIN (a network of 12 incubators), NJTC, NJEF, NJSBDC, NJBIZ, NJ Entrepreneur, FDU’s Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurship and NJIT’s Enterprise Development Center, and NJ Angels.net (among others).  There was a helpful panel comprised of professionals and investors (both VC and angels) – each of which first provided an overview of their perspective on what they look for in a pitch and investment opportunity.  They then judged the 20+ pitches which followed, judging them on pitch presentation and their sense of the fundability of each opportunity.

    Diagram of venture capital fund structure for ...Image via Wikipedia

    I won’t go into the individual companies that presented, but their presentations each consisted of a brief (2 minutes), clear and concice explanation of what they do (in terms of the problem they seek to solve and how they solve it), the challenges they face and how they intend to overcome them, the success they’ve experienced thus far in a quantifiable form and where that is relative to the size of the opportunity, how much they need to get there, and how they intend to use the funds they seek in order to get there.

    In addition to being informative, it was a good opportunity to self-assess in the terms that the other startups were looking to satisfy in their own presentations, and to exercise some proclivities – which for me, includes naming and word play…  (I was, after all, sitting next to the person who came up with the name for Viagra!)  The atmosphere certainly got the ideas flowing – yielding my own suggesting to VANJ president, Jay Trien, a phrase for describing their efforts: that “VANJ is doing a service by being an eVANJelist for business and entrepreneurship in the state”.

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    Morning FogImage by Nick Chill via Flickr

    I have a tendency to think on the edges or outskirts of domains – in the interstices – where domains overlap with one another.  When the morning fog clears, I typically get brainstorms that result from word plays that bridge multiple domains that may be on my mind.

    For example, while attending a meeting this week on Usability in the context of Agile development, I had the thought that there ought to be an application of the methodology within the realm of cooking – and the Scrum component of agile could be referred to in this context as “Scrumtious”.

    Another of these hit me while walking out of the grocery store, and no doubt subliminally having picked up “low cal” while thinking about communities and marketing within them, that a calorie conscious faction could refer to their region as a “Low Cal Locale”.

    On the heels of my wife’s latest marathon (her fifth), I’m thinking there ought to be a womens’ triathlon called the “Iron Maiden”.

    The Scrum project management method. Part of t...Image via Wikipedia

    If I had a nickel for every one of these wordplay thoughts, my pockets would bulge each day! My kids tend to be my reluctant test-subjects for these sometimes painful ideas.  As I trust their untainted minds, they are sometimes the end of the line; sometimes though, in the spirit of Agile development, they’re the beginning of an iterative process.

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    Day 191: Sticky Notes Mean ProductivityImage by quinn.anya via Flickr

    If you haven’t already encountered Google’s newly released Sidewiki, it is a web annotation feature accessible via browser plug-in or their toolbar – and is essentially a means for people to comment on pages and, unlike tools for making notes for just yourself (like sticky notes on your screen, or the electronic equivalent), these comments are visible to others who use it and visit those pages – right on the page with the content.  This isn’t a new concept, but one that gives cause to consider the “traditional” dimensions of web experience.Generally speaking, users of web resources have typically thought of the pages they view as being depicted in the way intended by the owner of the domain (or page).  If we want to get philosophical, ownership of the rendering of the page, it could be argued, is the user’s – and plug-ins empower such customization, as this is referred to.

    Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...Image via CrunchBase

    Similarly, functionality of a site is has typically been considered by users to be provided/delivered by, and/or controlled by the site owner.  In the context of beginning to think of rendering as being other-webly (i.e. from other than the provider), the same holds true with respect to functionality.  The functionality being added to the experience here is around the ability to comment, and to see comments of others, about the page.

    This starts to bring home the concept that the browser is acting as the actual platform, rather than the page/site itself.  In this case, we’re talking about the bringing together of the page’s content with toughts or opinions about the page – or about things that are on the page.  So in essence, what sidewiki adds is a virtualized forum – where the forum content is in the hands of Google rather than those of the owner of the site – but is displayed alongside the content itself.

    Image representing AdaptiveBlue as depicted in...Image via CrunchBase

    This is not altogether different from what AdaptiveBlue’s Glue does – though there are a couple of key difference.  In both cases the user must be using the plug-in in order to see or add content – akin to joining the community.  And in both cases the comment / opinion content that is generated as a result, is in the control of the plug-in provider.  The first, and most notable difference (for now, at least) is that sidewiki “acts” as if the user generated content is about the page which it annotates, while Glue’s emphasis is on the asset to which the page refers.  The key benefit of the latter, in the cases where the commentary relates to an asset referenced on the page, is that it decouples the item referred to from location which makes reference to it.  This translates to Glue displaying  the comment on any page in where the same item is found, as opposed to just being seen on the same page where the comment was made.  This difference won’t likely persist, and seems more a matter of emphasis/focus and positioning.

    Since the annotations are only visible to users making use of the particular service used when making the annotations, the more of these services we see, the more fragmented the sea of commentary.  The next level may be about “aboutness”, and differentiation by the ability to determine relatedness of otherwise unassociated commentary and content – and making the virtual connection between the two for the user.

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