Thursday, January 31, 2008

WebInno Meeting: Space, Race and Carbon Pace

If you’re looking for a better way to find parking spaces, want to play your own version of the Amazing Race or get a handle on the carbon footprint you and your Facebook buddies are leaving behind, then the January 29 Web Innovators event was the place to be.

Interesting timing, too. It coincided with the first day of DEMO underway on the Left Coast. Chris Shipley is a champion of innovation and the twice-yearly DEMOs represent another great venue for startups and new offerings from established firms.

But I digress…

The 16th in the WebInno series brought out another S.R.O. crowd of entrepreneurs-in-training, entrepreneurs-in-hunt, institutional and angel money folks, media old and new, and a couple dozen PR and marketing types. There to vet the portfolio of fledging teams that WebInno Founder David Beisel had arranged, the Main Courses and Side Dishes ranged from not-for-profits to hopefully very-much-for-profits. Here’s the roster.

Unveiling an audience text message voting system, SpotScout proved the tastiest among Main Dishes. An “eBay for parking spots,” per company exec/spokesperson Andrew Rollert, the startup seeks to solve a problem that most of us wrestle with on an everyday basis. It’s a one stop-shop for identifying and comparison shopping parking garages, and then reserving spots if desired in the preferred locale. Would-be parking magnates can get in on the action as well, by renting out their own spots when not in use…at prices agreed upon in advance by parker and parkee. There’s even an ability to sell info back into the SpotScout community about the public spot you’ll be leaving and when so others can get in when the getting’s good.

Bostonians are likely to be even more excited if SpotScout adds a feature for placing and removing lawn chairs and other furniture from shoveled parking places during the winter months.

Rounding out the Main Dishes were Urban Interactive and MakeMeSustainable. Like SpotScout, both have generated some decent buzz coming into WebInno.

Urban Interactive is a subsidiary of Conditor. Paraphrasing from its site and Main Disher Nicholas Tommarello’s remarks, Urban Interactive takes leisure time to another level by mixing mobile technology, improvisational actors, and theatric props together to deliver immersive adventures for tourists, for example. Notably, the company also sees a target market in organizations and their employees seeking to spice up the oft-dreaded team-building days, etc.

Have to admit I was predisposed to MakeMeSustainable even before getting to WebInno. That’s because my partner, Barb Heffner, crossed paths with company CEO Ben Brown through the work CHEN PR does with the MIT Enterprise Forum and has been a one-woman example of viral marketing on its behalf with regard to the company overall and its carbon calculator specifically. The value prop as I heard it – personalize all the Save the Planet noise we hear by enabling us to capture the impact we make individually on Mother Earth…and then once quantified, help us understand the little and the big things alike we can do to get our Green on. Leveraging Facebook, it also helps us share this info with family and friends, get some grass roots environmentalism rolling and hopefully make us the kind of people Al Gore would be proud to know.

Didn’t get a chance to talk with all the Side Dishers …but was duly impressed by Glasstooth
and Socrato. The former is a 501(c)(3) with a mission to capitalize on the Web to help people get more info and make better informed political decisions. The latter offers an eLearning solution to help kids prepare for and conquer things like MCAS and related standardized tests. The exec I spoke with from Socrato – I think it was co-founder Michael Oates – has 9-year-old twins and I’m the Dad of 13-year-old triplets. So after giving one another the secret handshake, we figured we we’re as good a focus group as any when it comes to kids, school, homework, tests and parenting…

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

PR Vets Should Mentor, Pitch?

AP Assistant Business Editor Joyce Greenberg offered some advice on pitching and cracking top outlets like the AP in today’s Daily ‘Dog.

Chief among them was her opinion that pitching should be left to senior not junior staffers. I agree with Joyce that it’s the responsibility of those of us with a little more life lived to mentor those just starting out. It’s up to all of us to carve out some time to share what we know. Nail the thirty second pitch long before dialing, know as much about the person you’re calling as you possibly can (without stalking) – and perhaps most importantly don’t loose yourself in your client’s story. A little confidence and a lot of basic phone etiquette can go a long way.

Good training and preparation aside, we can’t get around those first several terrifying calls. How does one fine-tune without tuning at all?

The receiver of my first phone pitch was Barb Darrow, a veteran CRN reporter now with 1105 Redmond Media Group.

Lucky for me, she looked beyond my nervous, stammering voice and was interested in the news I was trying to sell.

The most satisfying stories of which I’ve been a part all involved much behind-the-scenes collaboration and mutual respect. Those of us who like what we do, truly respect the reporters we get to work with. We care about the markets they’re writing about, and we follow their coverage like fashion junkies devour Vogue’s epic fall issue and sports junkies frenzy over…. Yeah, okay, I confess I don’t have a clue.

So I guess I’d ask seasoned journalists to look beyond stereotypes and dig deep from time to time for a moment of “new to the job” empathy. Maybe that young person on the other end is shaky not only because it’s his first big call, but because he has immense respect for your publication and your work – and who knows, underneath it all, there might be a good story just waiting to be told.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Now This is Authentic: Using YouTube to Mea Culpa

When it comes to newspapers, I'm still a print kinda girl.

I'm good about reading Scott Kirsner's Innovation Economy column in print every week, but I have to confess that I sometimes forget to pop onto his blog to watch the accompanying videos. (If I do this at work, I always worry that my colleagues will think I'm watching TMZ videos.) But I finally caught up today with the videos associated with Scott's story last week on Nuance. In this video from the Globe site, a Nuance executive, Peter Mahoney, demos the Tom Tom 920 GPS system, which uses Nuance's speech-recognition technology. But when Scott gives him "Morrissey Boulevard" (the Globe's address) as a test address for the GPS, the Tom Tom can't find it. So the demo casts a little cloud over an otherwise positive article.

YouTube to the rescue! Mahoney posted a follow-on video, which Scott in turn posted on his blog, wherein Mahoney endearingly says something like, "I did a pretty horrible demo of this Tom Tom device, really one of the worst ones I've done in my 20+ years of doing technology demos. After my wife got done laughing at me, she said that when she used to work at the Globe in the early 90s, she saw the full address on letterhead, and it's really William T. Morrissey Boulevard."

Mahoney goes on to repeat the demo, using the full name of Morrissey Boulevard, and of course it works like a charm. But he also acknowledges that this type of snafu points out that the industry still has some work to do.

Kudos to Mahoney and his PR brethren at Nuance. This is a textbook and cutting edge way of repairing a demo damage. (We've all been there.) Points to Mahoney for being funny, honest and self deprecating. We're smiling and cheering for Nuance by the time we finish listening.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Xconomy's Battle of the Bands

One of the most iconic musical moments from my childhood is from a video of Aerosmith playing “Dream On” before a crowd of thousands holding up lighters. It was a visually stunning moment that elevated an already great song to new heights. As if that song needed any help inducing goose bumps.

The scene at Xconomy’s “Battle of the Tech Bands” Tuesday night was visually reminiscent of Aerosmith’s performance of the quintessential rock ballad, except rather than lighters in the air, the venue was lit up with the digital glow emanating from BlackBerries, iPhones and Treos. While the display of LCDs instead of fire has been an emerging trend at concerts for the last few years, this was different. These attendees weren’t holding up their devices in hopes of propelling the acts on to extended jams, they were checking email.

This is no fault of the bands, which were all extremely talented and put on great performances. It is just what happens when an entire audience is comprised of techies. The event, hosted by Xconomy, a Kendall Square based news site that focuses on local business and technology, featured six bands from Boston area technology companies competing for a grand prize of studio recording time. The cell phones mentioned above ended up playing a crucial roll in the event as all the voting for the bands was done via text messages.

The CHEN crew went in to the evening hoping it would be a great networking event but it quickly became clear that it was going to be difficult without yelling. The Middle East Downstairs is small and gets to be pretty raucous when electric guitars are plugged in and a drum kit is being whaled on. Regardless, everybody there managed to mingle around the room while they enjoyed a buffet of delicious Middle East food and plenty of complimentary libations as the drink tickets seemed to be floating around like confetti at a New Year’s party.

Highlight performances included the eventual winners, “Deadbeat Darlings” from Akamai, who came off as far too talented to be competing in a Battle of the Bands and “The Souled Out Superband” from Bose, which strung together an exciting set of cover songs that had a roomful of techies as close to dancing as you could ever hope to get them. Regardless of winners, it was clear to everybody there that these bands were having a blast playing for us and were relishing the opportunity to wear sunglasses indoors and channel some Mick Jagger (or Aretha Franklin as the case may be). Ultimately, I was most impressed that all these people were capable of creating live music while my creative musical ceiling is replicating prerecorded music with a plastic guitar (Guitar Hero).

The only real disappointment of the night was that my co-workers and I didn’t win either door prize. I’m not sold on the Zune, but I would have been very excited to exit with a free Rock Band bundle. Oh well, there is always next year and this was definitely an event worth returning to.

Other articles on the event:


Boston Globe

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tonite: Xconomy's Battle of the Tech Bands

Don't let the snow flurries, wind and 20 degree weather get you down. We're tough New Englanders!

A bunch of CHENers are going to brave the elements tonight to venture out to Xconomy's Battle of the Tech Bands. The event starts tonight at 7 p.m. and you can still register at EventBrite. Just $20 in advance, $25 at the door.

According to the site, some brave souls are going to sport their chops so that us hardened tech types can vote on best band of the evening. Contestants include:

Deadbeat Darling / Akamai
The Knuckledusters / Bioprocessors Corp & Veritas Medicine
McAlister Drive / Linedata Services
One Hand Free / IBM
Sad Marvin / Smiths Medical
The Souled Out SuperBand / Bose

Who knew IBM could rock out? :)

Hope to see you there.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hear Paul Gillin on New Social Media

Many of us know Paul well and his presentation about the new social media on January 24, 8:00-10:00 a.m. should be fascinating. If you've seen Paul present in the past, you know this will be entertaining and informative. The author of the book "The New Influencers," Paul will discuss and answer questions about the power of social media with guidance on evaluating and deploying strategies to match your business needs. Presented with the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, simply click here to find out more and sign up.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Show Me The Money...Please?

"What game did you pass on that ended up being the most successful?” asked Dan Scherlis. Every ear in the room perked up at this question. “Puzzle Pirates,” said the first panelist to quiet rumblings. “K2 Network,” said the second panelist to heavier groans. After a weighted breath the third panelist spoke: “Guitar Hero.” At this admission the room filled with laughter and grimacing. Panelist number three had passed on one of the fastest selling games of all time. Who knows if another “Guitar Hero”-sized blockbuster is currently in the larval stage amidst the potential developers who attended the recent MIT Enterprise Forum event entitled “Financial Games,” but it is certain that all in attendance hoped their idea wouldn’t meet the same fate.

The evening’s panel and moderator did their best to focus on the subject of venture capital funding for video game companies, but the wealth of ideas explored were scattered all over the digital entertainment arena. The event’s moderator was Dan Scherlis, CEO of Etherplay, an online entertainment company, and a former employee of Turbine, a mega game developer who released the influential “Asheron’s Call” during Scherlis’ time there.

The panel was comprised of three venture capitalists from different firms around Boston: Ryan Moore from GrandBanks Capital, Matt Nichols from Highland Capital and Neil Squeira from General Capitalist. All three have been very actively involved in providing funding for young companies looking to break into the gaming industry.

The discussion began when Scherlis made an insightful observation about the gaming industry, saying that it is unfair to use a blanket label, “video games,” for such a diverse segment of the entertainment industry. He pointed out that linear video (everything from HBO movies to documentaries to pornography) is rarely referred to by an overarching title and that video games shouldn’t be either.

Scherlis went on to delineate the gaming industry into four categories. The first was retail video games -- the games we see on the shelves at Best Buy or Gamestop in packaging to be taken home and played. They typically cost $10-20 million to develop and the average user is a male between the ages of 20 and 40. The second category is casual games. Scherlis defined these games as those distributed online, typically for free, to be most often played through a website. This includes games like chess, Sudoku, backgammon etc. Casual games are very cheap to manufacture and typically are played by women between the ages of 40 and 50. Third, he classified mobile games, which are played on cell phones or PDAs and are very easy and cheap to develop. Currently, this will involve mostly games from the Casual category, but as the last MITEF event on mobile gaming showed, this shouldn’t be the case for long. Scherlis defined the final category as online games. While some of these games are also retail products, they are only playable over the Internet and typically with many other people. Currently, games like Second Life and World of Warcraft are dominating this category and becoming more popular than anything coming out of the other three.

After this list had been compiled, the panel proceeded with discussing the complexities of financing games. They addressed each category from the perspective of an investor and explained what they looked for when pitched by a potential developer looking for funding. The panel was unanimous in saying investors are not interested in retail games. The amount of money that goes into the majority of these games is also beyond what most VCs are going to invest and the work load greater than most young companies can handle.

Instead, VCs are much more interested in the casual, online and mobile gaming genres . These games are usually cheaper and easier to develop and can be just as lucrative given the amount of interest currently shown in such gaming options.

Scherlis then guided the discussion to debate the differences between publishers and VCs as financial backers. Why would a company go through all the effort of pitching to VCs when they would probably have an easier time going to game publishers (such as EA or Activision) and getting the funding from them? The problem with going to publishers, Scherlis said, is that they will take up to 80% of the profits generated by the game and eventually want control of the brand and/or the franchise. With VC funding, however, developers are given more control over a product’s destiny as well as a chance at replicating that success if their product turns out to be a blockbuster. Scherlis closed this discussion saying that game publishers are like “VCs without the upside.”

Also interesting was the discussion of different ways of making money in games outside of the actual selling of the software. Scherlis pointed out that when Turbine released Asheron’s Call, there was more money to be made selling high-level characters and equipment from the game to be controlled by other users than there was from game sales and subscription charges. People would play the game for hours a day, advance the characters in the game to the point where they were very powerful and then sell them for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

This forced the online gaming industry to come up with other means of generating revenue from their product. One example that works in MMOG (massively multiplayer online games) is to assess actual monetary value to the digital items in the game. A character in Second Life could theoretically buy a new outfit and actually pay $20 to the game company for it. With this model, developers could make their games free to play online and expect to make all their money from these sorts of sales.

Another idea that has already begun to take root in games is advertising within the gaming world. This is seen most prominently in sports video games right now as digital replications of real world stadiums and arenas often carry the same ads in the game as they do in real life. This is a great idea on paper, but the problem arises when it becomes impossible to track how much visibility (or how many “eyeballs”) an ad is getting. With a banner on top of a website, Scherlis argued, advertisers can see exactly how many people view their ad, but when an advertiser puts up a digital billboard on a racetrack in Gran Turismo (video below of gameplay with in-game advertising), there is no objective way to determine what sort of exposure the ad is getting.

Ryan Moore pointed out that the same could hold true for a physical billboard on a real race track, but the fact remains that digital in-game advertising is a difficult way to make money because the results are so hard to measure.

After a lot of interesting, if unrelated, video game industry talk, the panel finally shifted gears to address the theme of the night. What were VCs looking for when investing in game developers? Matt Nichols was the first to speak saying that Highland Capital’s first interest was in the project’s management team. “I invest in a management team that has succeeded.”

Scherlis quickly responded, coyly asking, “So if you want the funding to achieve success, you need to have already achieved success?”

The room laughed, most likely a nervous laugh. Considering the number of young game developers in the room, this idea was hardly encouraging as some had no management experience at all, let alone enough to impress a venture capitalist. Other members of the panel were quick to add on. They agreed that a strong management team was the easiest thing to look for when assessing a developer, but that it wasn’t the only way to get funding.

Neil Squeira said there are three things he looks for in a potential investment: the potential developer and his or her network, a creative and exciting approach to what the team is doing and most important to him, the ability to attract technical talent to the project. Experience and past success are clearly beneficial, but all three panelists agreed that if the idea was good and the brains behind it were passionate, creative and connected, then they could be sold on it.

If anything, the discussion left potential developers hopeful that there are people with money out there that want to invest in video games. With the amount of funds and creativity present in the room, it seems that the future of gaming is a bright one.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Looking Back, Looking Ahead + Battle of the Bands!

Everyone is doing year-end retrospective articles. I'm enjoying getting to know the Xconomy site, and its laser focus on local innovation. Because the site launched mid-year, it is featuring the whimsically titled: "Half-Dozen-Stories-of-the Half-Year Awards."

The awards lead with the "Who Knew? Story of the Half Year," which highlights the rockin' music scene around Boston. The article provided the inspiration for the site's Battle of the Tech Bands, which will be held at the Middle East in Cambridge on the evening of January 22nd. (At least one member of each featured band must be working at a New England tech, life sciences or tech investment firm.) What a fun idea. Audience members will pick their favorite band, and so will the Xconomy editors. More here.

Meanwhile, over at Scott Kirsner's Innovation Economy blog, he's offering suggestions for what we can do to goose the local economy in '08. Amen to this one:

Culture is created by the beliefs and actions of individuals. Can we stop repeating the old trope that the culture here is somehow closed, or unfriendly to new ideas and people, and act in ways that make it feel more open and welcoming?

For a broader view of the tech scene, check out:

The Most Bookmarked TechCrunch Posts of 2007 here
Engadget's Top Posts here

And since we know there's life beyond tech, check out Newsweek's 2007's best in "microculture": viral videos, podcasts, blogs, advertisements. If you've somehow missed the YouTubing of poor Miss South Carolina Teen USA explaining why Americans can't find the U.S. on a map (which somehow takes us to South Africa and Iraq), you'll find it leading the article. You know it's a great article because Fake Steve is named as one of just two breakout blogs of the year.

Happy New Year!

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