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An event nicely tuned to allow early-stage startups to show and tell without being under pressure to sell themselves hard – the idea being that they are looking for constructive feedback from the attendees rather than collaborators or investors, with equal time allowed for presentation and Q&A for each slot. The evening is structured to allow lots of time for networking, both before and after the presentations.

Each of the four presentations made me sit up and think, which is obviously to a large degree down to the discrimination of the organisers, the cheerful and effective Three Beards, but also suggests the incredible fertility of the startup scene, and the enormous range of smart/ingenious/useful/revelatory wrinkles that are still to be shaken from the unfolding digital fabric.

Generous supplies of great food and beer did no harm whatsoever!

There are normally 5 slots, but one team didn’t show. Here’s the run-down.

SLOT 1Mobiloud: a service that takes a WordPress blog and produces (not without significant human intervention it seemed) a native mobile app (Android/iOS) to deliver the content to smart devices. Given the ever-increasing status and ubiquity of WordPress as a platform for all sorts of sites ([1],[2]), coupled with the explosive growth in the use of smart things, this seems like an idea which could ride a wave. Apparently, there have been/are other services that do similar things, but the developers claim that their usp is the creation of a stand-alone, native app, rather than a content area accessed though a generic ‘portal’ app, coupled with push notifications. The service is live, and development is progressing to support sites with more complex features.

To be honest, although this seems to be an extremely clever service, it didn’t immediately grab me – I use a smartphone, but have used my tablet very little after a brief initial flurry of enthusiasm (I will write in future about my take on the coming paradigm change) – and a blog translated onto a ‘phone seems likely to be a crippled thing from the get-go. At a minimum of $49 per month, this also seems like a service aimed at commercial concerns – again, something outside my current ambit, either as a producer or consumer. So perhaps the use case is one that doesn’t get beyond imaginary for me.

SLOT 2 Foundbite: an intriguing app that supports attaching a short audio clip to a photo. .. .. Yep, I agree, seems like, well, an audio clip attached to a photo. So?

But then he put some examples up for us, and, immediately, we got it – several people as well as myself remarked on the experience of ‘instant atmosphere’ – so do head over to the Foundbite site and see/hear for yourself before you judge. To be honest, though, that’s sort of .. it; although instagram or vine seem equally simplistic when described.

A quick search reveals other apps with similar functionality, one dating from 2010, so this would seem as if it’s likely to be one of those things that remains a niche for a select few, unless the chance combination of a sweet implementation and a viral moment bring it to prominence. The sort of thing you need Miley Cyrus to tweet a link to …. which might not be everyone’s marketing necessity of choice.

Speaking of which, the developer has had good support from Microsoft and Nokia; the payback for which is that the app is exclusive to Windows ‘phone for 3 months.

Time will tell, but I have a feeling that there is more to come from this developer.

SLOT 3 TankTop.TV: A real prospect, this one, it seems to me (and others) – a immediately understandable, immediately useful website (no app yet) which offers to find you a streaming service for the film or TV show of your choice (from 19 possibles and rising – who knew?); right now! All sorts of possibilities and ideas were raised in the discussion, suggesting to me that many people could see themselves engaging with it.

The immediate request from the developers was for ideas for growing the user-base, as well as ideas for monetisation, and while there were many good suggestions, there was a feeling in the air, and in the conversation afterwards, that neither question had received a killer answer, despite the palpable good-will in the room.

Thinking about it afterwards, my feeling was, very strongly, that the founders had to seriously ponder this strategic question posed by Joel Spolsky. Yes the post is from 2000 (an admitted aeon ago in internet land), but the analysis seems more applicable now than ever. The question being – is your business one which needs to grow fast and get huge to make sense, or can you afford to go with organic growth? Spolsky (who founded Stack Overflow in 2008) doesn’t seem to offer value judgement either way, but I imagine that most people would be more comfortable with organic growth – less risky, less stressful, less need for outside capital – overall, less terrifying: less likely to fail, less likely to leave large monetary black-holes if/when it does fail.

Setting out to be huge, I imagine, takes enormous amounts of will-power, focus and commitment; above all, though, breath-taking chutzpah; inordinate conviction. Not the quintessence of the British way [test: read this and see if it gives you the jitters – make sure to read the counter-thrust in the coda, though].

But for something which aims to be a portal to mass-culture without itself directly providing access to content or owning any content, I can see no alternative than to be huge, so that the ‘small beer’ skimmings from a small proportion of the transactions across the site add up to be enough.

Could be a big deal.

SLOT4PandaPay: an app under development, but another one which received an immediate surge of understanding and encouragement from the crowd.

Simply, the app sets out to allow you to pay your restaurant bill without having to wait for the wait-person (see how I am prepared to sacrifice all hope of readability in the service of properness? We urgently need more decent gender-neutral nouns) to bring the bill. Cleverly (astonishingly, to my naive mind), the app can interface directly with the epos systems used by most restaurants, and, given the right table identity, can show you everything that has been ordered, offering simple and sensible tools to choose how much you ought to pay for each – debited from your card of choice, naturally.

In theory, you can then saunter casually from the place, without let or hindrance, and carry on with your evening.

An attractive proposition on many counts, and another app that got genuine goodwill from an audience that looked forward to being able to use the service for real. But a few issues worry me.

The first is crooks. I have no sort of a criminal mind – I am utterly hopeless at any underhand activity. So while I have no real ideas about how such a service could be hacked for gain, I somehow smell the possibility of something clever and crooked (something about using the wrong table ID? how about using the service as a trojan horse to hack into the epos? How many card numbers could a black hat hoover up in the space of an evening?). OK, so there isn’t much in not paying for the odd dinner, but it wouldn’t take many cases for the restaurant owners to develop a chillier attitude about opening up their systems.

I suggested consulting with a few criminal masterminds, to see what they would come up with, in the hope of closing any obvious loopholes early.

The second is connected with the messy, complicated nature of the whole eating-out setup. I remember going to Wagamama when it was quite new, when they had a deliberately futuristic (for the mid ’90s) system where the waiters (just couldn’t face it a second time), the kitchen and the till-person never spoke to each other. Orders were recorded on an Apple Newton (the latest thing, don’t you know…) and wirelessly transmitted to kitchen and till. It was all very clever and slick, until one of our party changed her mind – after the order had been dispatched – at which point everything collapsed into farce, with people rushing backwards and forwards and looking for bits of paper and pens on which to write special notes to each other (reminiscent of the scene in Terry Gilliam’s fantastic Jabberwocky where Michael Palin attempts some time-and-motion improvements in a mediaeval armoury with tragi-comic results [youtube, dubbed into polish{?}, 43min50s – brilliant film, not available streamed online according to tanktop.tv]). It took us an age to pay. Somehow one fears that the capacity of humans for acting capriciously around mealtimes might produce some painful fubars.

The last one is monetisation. The world is full of annoying wrinkles, and paying the bill can certainly be one of them. Common advice to wannabee startups is to look for these and solve them elegantly. But surely one reason that no-one has resolved them before now might be that there is, quite simply, nothing in it – the problem is either not annoying enough that anyone would pay anything to solve it (perhaps not even the most fleeting attention to an advert), or maybe that there is just no way to hook into a revenue stream from the situation.

In the case of PandaPay, they do seem to have cracked this issue, with interest from American Express and some of the larger restaurant chains. My worry is about the income per transaction / size of the market.

The developers mentioned something about 50p a cover (catering speak for a single party served at a single table) being the amount – to be honest I wasn’t sure if this was what they could hope for, or that they might only take a share of this – we’ll assume it is the former (the putative deal is with Amex, who I think take 4% on card payment transactions – £4 from a typical £100 bill, making 50p not unimaginable, although it does seem high). According to this answer, there are 5570 restaurants in London. Heaven knows if this is correct, but let’s go with it. Assume that PandaPay can penetrate 20% of them. Assume that each restaurant does an average of 100 covers a night. Assume that 20% of the covers use the PandaPay service (all assumptions totally off-the-cuff, of course, but I like to have some idea of the size of the ball-park; even an order-of-magnitude error is better than no idea at all. Once you have an idea, then even small amounts of research can improve accuracy. This is the lean approach, right?).

What do we get? 50p x .2 x 5570 x .2 x 100= £11,140 / night. £400K appx per annum. Make-a-living money for a small team, but not spectacular. If the figures are optimistic, it begins to look like a hiding to nothing. Even if you double them, it’s hard to see it as truly viable (can’t imagine doing without some sort of back-office to handle the questions from TGIF in Ipswich on a Saturday night). Again, this idea needs to go large to be worthwhile, to my mind. Which seems to imply a need to go international, as London is 10 times bigger than any other UK city. Which brings us back to restaurant culture, multiplied by national characteristics.

On a more hopeful note, if they can develop a large enough user-base among the public to have some brand recognition (PandaPay? bit too flippant an attitude towards my hard-earned cash? – discuss), and perhaps more importantly, a trusted reputation with retailers, could this turn into an end-run for the instant checkout holy grail?

EVENT RATING: Good – go again.