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Another thought provoking evening out.

Two in-depth presentations, followed by a dizzying parade of 30 second pitches. Event details here.

Mobify

First presentation up was from one of the founders of Canadian tech outfit Mobify, Peter McLachlan. I didn’t know them, but it seems they have provided tools and support for many major brands to translate their web offering to mobile formats. We were treated to a compressed history of the outfit, a classic tech startup of three Computer Science graduates having some insight and then plugging away making clever things happen one after another – by their own admission, many of them blind alleys.

All of their work has been focused on mobile devices, after deciding pre iPhone that this was an area that would see explosive growth. Having started building apps that would address problems they saw in their own daily lives (location specific bus times delivered by SMS), they then kept experimenting with enough success to keep them growing, until focusing on the web to mobile translation as the thing that would really fly.

Peter had three ‘takeaways’ for us:

  • Employ your friends – you know these people’s capacities, and can count on their loyalty.
  • Pick a market sector that is growing fast – this way you will be able to make many mistakes and still survive.
  • Look to the US market- their experience is that US companies are much more willing to take a punt on new technology than Canadian or (he suggested), UK companies.

Hold onto his first point- I’ll come back to it later.

MyDogBuddy

Our second presentation was from Richard Setterwall of MyDogBuddy, a startup of a radically different character than Mobify. Before getting specific, Richard talked us through aspects of what he called the ‘new sharing economy’ – all kinds of distributed consumption that allows people to defray their own capital costs by micro-rentals or avoid capital expenditure altogether by micro-renting from others. He showed us infographics on the size and diversity of the space (including some outfits that, for me, didn’t really fit, like Hailo – but perhaps his definition is wider than I gathered).

It was interesting to see that zipcar, a service I’ve used, has been bought out by Avis, the old-school car-hire firm. Whether this is to nobble a potentially powerful competitor or to sidestep into a new business model only time will tell, but I experienced a little dismay; I originally joined Streetcar, a UK startup that did a great job, had a fantastic website and great service. They sold out to Zipcar, who did everything worse. Will it get better now that they are part of Avis? Somehow, one doubts that the laser-focus on UX that disruptive startups have will persist.

The point was well made, though, that sharing economy services have jumped from the initial ‘cool idea’ phase to the point where it is an accepted business model, attracting serious investment. The ideas behind the services are not new, but it’s clear that it is the ubiquity of smart devices that have enabled them to prosper – I was a member of a service that organised ridesharing in the mid ’90s, but despite national media coverage and smart management, it never achieved critical mass; now there are several aspiring startups in this area (1,2,3,4).

Richard went on to describe the way that MyDogBuddy works, acting as a marketplace for dog owners needing care for their pets to find reliable local dog sitters. It’s fair to say that there were a number of sceptical questions from the audience, but these only served Richard, as it became clear that all of the awkward points in the experience had been considered and carefully addressed – even transformed into service benefits. As a non-dog person, I feel fairly objective in my judgement that this business has a strong future, with very obvious possibilities for expansion into related areas and selling through of appropriate goods and services.

These possibilities for growth will be on the back of the real currency of the sharing economy – trust. Trust – both in the service provider, and in the individuals you end up dealing with – is the sine-qua-non of sharing. I’ve written a separate post about this, as it got quite long.

WHAT I THOUGHT

Going back to the last sentence of the Mobify section, where the advice was to recruit your friends, Richard, as a non-coder (I believe), was there specifically to recruit technical staff. These hires would obviously be strangers; his friend network (and I’m assuming here) doesn’t include a wide enough range of developers/coders for him to ‘recruit his friends’.

The difference is suggestive to me. That one of Peter McLachlan’s three key points should be inapplicable to an obviously well thought-through and ably managed startup like MyDogBuddy makes it clear that there are many types of startup (No, really! My dear Sir, you astound me!). Despite the banality of that last statement, I am groping my way towards a sort of taxonomy of tech startups, which I hope will be useful to me at least in deciding where to direct my efforts and which bits of advice are relevant. If it ever approaches coherence, I’ll try to write about it. [UPDATE: I’ve now started to develop this idea].

WHO I SPOKE TO

My first conversation related to the distributed trust metrics thought mentioned above, and is covered in this separate post.

I then had a great conversation with Laurie Reynolds of aquamatix.co.uk, an internet-of-things (IOT) startup allowing retrofitting of Internet enabled reporting modules to a wide range of installed equipment throughout the water supply and treatment infrastructure. This is a deep and important area, and of interest to me for a number of reasons, not least the obvious advantages of increasing efficiency of resource usage.

When I think of the IOT, I think of devices than are wholly new, like the Nest thermostat. A moment’s thought, though, reveals that this is ridiculous.

Why? Well, consider a simple thought experiment. Imagine two ways to move towards all buildings in the UK being insulated to modern standards – something that is necessary if we are to meet even the modest climate change goals set by government.

  • Approach one: knock every old building down and build new replacements.
  • Approach two: add insulation to all the old buildings.

Okay, so I hope that this makes it clear that the IOT is in reality going to proceed by adding on Internet enabled data reporting and control devices to existing installations, and not by expecting that all the boring old stand-alone analogue stuff is going to be ditched and replaced in the next five years.

This is what aquamatix are doing – adding smart devices that, crucially, understand the (analogue, non algorithmic) operational characteristics of things like sewage pumps and pressure vessels, and can report those via the Internet to monitoring and control systems, enabling much more intelligent and efficient management of expensive resources.

This is clever stuff – this makes the IOT real for me in a way that the proverbial internet enabled fridge was never going to. It also makes me hope that they have got really, really good security built in…

Lastly, I was graciously listened to by two of the event organisers, Rob and Calypso, as I blathered on incoherently about an idea that has been bouncing around in my head since I attended the first event I reported on here. But that’s for another day. Thanks to them both for their attention and advice.