Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Dragons' Den at Mobile Monday

Last month, on March 7th, the dragons were out at the MaRS Building in Toronto. No, not THE Dragons from Dragons' Den, but a panel of smart, business-savvy tech experts and investors nonetheless. In this special, DemoCamp-style edition of Mobile Monday, a handful of start-ups and entrepreneurs were given 5 minutes each to pitch their ideas to the panel - and the audience. One-by-one they took the stage, trying to win the hearts (and wallets) of those in attendance.

Were they good? Were they bad? Well... a little bit of both. But although some ideas seemed more fully-baked than others, each showed varying degrees of both insight and potential. Here are three of the most interesting pitches from the night...

NModes - A New Dimension of Spam

Let's start with the worst idea of the night, shall we? :) NModes, presented by Sasha Uritsky, is a Twitter program that, in a sense, brings a new dimension of spam to the Twitterverse. The program is essentially a 'bot that monitors tweets and attempts to understand sentences and questions in order to respond in kind. Kind of like the Twitter version of Watson - the IBM-creation that proved it had the AI to outduel the two winningest contestants on Jeopardy!

By listening and responding to tweets, NModes can connect buyers with sellers on Twitter. Hungry for some pizza? Searching for some great anti-virus software? Looking to buy some Penis Pills? Just tweet it, and the NModes robot will find you. In a way, it's very similar to how Google AdWords works. By monitoring the content of your Gmail conversations or the websites that you browse, AdWords serves up relevant advertising to you.

There's just one problem with NModes, and it's a doozy. When it comes to Twitter, 'bots just don't cut it. They're just not authentic. Unlike a Google Search, where you're expecting an algorithm to deliver ads to you, social media is all about connecting with real people, in real time. When a real person responds to a tweeted question or complaint (as some airlines and hotel chains have done), it feels good. When a 'bot does, it does not. Bottom-line: if I want information, I'll Google it. If I want to talk to a human being, I'll tweet it.

Trends Around Me: Checking-in to the Future

This is where things start to get interesting. Trends Around Me was more of an idea than a fully-baked app - all that was presented was a concept (which needed funding, by the way - wink, wink), but it was an insightful, thought-provoking one at that. The idea is for an app that resembles an app like the Heat Tracker, which tracks which restaurants and venues are "trending" around you based on the number of check-ins on Foursquare.

But Trends Around Me goes further than just venues. It would allow restaurant go-ers to actually check-in to individual menu-items at each restaurant. Not only does it let people know what you're eating (which many people tweet about anyways), but it allows others in the restaurant to see which menu-items are "trending" as well - helping them make a decision about what to order. Say good-bye to peering at the plates around you. Brilliant!

Just one problem, though. Like most new social media platforms - especially those of the "check-in" variety - there's a chicken-and-egg scenario with trending menu-items, perhaps even more so than trending venues. Trending menu items will only work right if there is a critical mass of people at the restaurant using the app and checking-in to what they've ordered. Without that, users would only see the few people who checked-in, and not necessarily which items on the menu are popular. There is one solution to this: the restaurants themselves can take the lead, and automatically check-in menu items when they are ordered. Imagine a real-time leaderboard on the restaurant wall, informing patrons of which menu items are currently "hot"? Very cool.

InGamer Sports - Not Just "Watching" the Game

The final start-up idea/app that I'll comment on was the most fully-baked of the bunch. In fact, not only is the app fully-developed, it has been in-market for some time, and has already garnered both sponsors and media attention. InGamer was pitched as "the future of event consumption", an application that turns watching the game into a competitive social experience. Consider it a mix between Pro-Line and a Fantasy League, except every game presents a new opportunity to win.

InGamer is all about using the 3rd screen - either a Smartphone or a Tablet - as a catalyst for competition among a group of friends watching a live sports game (at the event or on TV). Before each match, everyone in the group selects the players from either team who they think will perform best during the game, and forms their fantasy team. As the game progresses, players gain points as their picks do well. During the intermissions, players can even take on the role of the coach - swapping players in and out of their fantasy team based on their performance.

Not only is this platform a great way to keep viewers engaged throughout the duration of a sports game or broadcast, it has a very clear avenue for monetization: sponsorships. Brands can sponsor games and offer prizes for the top fantasy teams, getting in the good books of InGamers all across the continent. It will be very interesting to see how fast InGamer can pick up steam and become a permanent part of the way we watch live sports.

Overall, it was an interesting night with interesting ideas. A few pitches were lame, a few pitches were game, but no matter what, each of the presenters put on a good show for the audience, and certainly gave me something to write about. Unfortunately, the Dragons on the panel were not as pleased - none of the pitches ended up winning the coveted "investment cheque" from the panel. All I can say is... better luck next time!

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