Recapping NWEN’s First Look Forum 2011

I always enjoy attending business plan events such as NWEN’s First Look Forum, the UW Biz Plan Competition, Startup Riot, etc… I tend not to call them competitions, and lean towards words like “showcases.” Sure the teams may be competing for a prize, but what they are really doing is showing the public the amount of work they’ve done on taking an idea from imagination to execution.

The real inspiring part of days like this is to see people striving to reach or exceed what is generally concluded as their “potential.” For every 100 people sitting in Westlake Park complaining that the world is unfair and out to get them, there was 1 person in the NWEN First Look Forum pitching an idea that they believed would create jobs and money. If I had my way, that would be the 1% / 99% ratio we should be trying to change.

This was the first year I was involved with a team (Relaborate) that made it through the process, even succeeding down to the final 5 companies. And now I’l use the term “competitor” because from the team’s viewpoint, making it from 37 to 20 to 12 to 5 really is a gauntlet, and you do feel a measure of success each time your name is called to advance.

But when you look at the other 11 companies, you can’t call it a competition, because I don’t know how any consumer would ever be making a choice between any of our products.

  • BAM Testing, What’s your athletic potential.
  • FanZappy, “Social-to-Store” service attracts social fans to local businesses and further converts fans to repeat in-store customer via our mobile app.
  • Glacier Peak, Nature does nothing uselessly.
  • Green Simian, Renewable Mobile Power.
  • Grid Mobility, Connecting Power to People.
  • Lacuna Systems, Expert Web Performance Management.
  • MotoVolta, Inc., High Performance Electric Motorcycles.
  • Mountain Logic, Halves heating and cooling costs for 100 million homeowners with central forced air by only conditioning occupied rooms.
  • Phytelligence, Smarter plants.
  • ProtoSec, Creating the next wave of Internet and Web vulnerability detection giving enterprise customers novel and low-cost vulnerability information about their applications, helping them meet compliance and security requirements.
  • Radiate, The Future of Internet Radio.
  • Relaborate, Blogging Made Easy.
But no matter what, here are 12 people – from an original list of 37 – who are attempting to build and create jobs, not protest that no one is creating jobs for them.  Maybe not all of these will turn a “profit” some day, but if you are looking for ways to stimulate an economy, I think these are the kinds of events and people you should be investing in.  They may not all show a return, but at least there’s a chance.

A Small Business Owner’s Thoughts on the Economy

There’s no question that we are in some ridiculously bad economic times. And when you look at the system as a whole, the problem certainly seems unfixable. Now there is a lot of rhetoric on each side of the political aisle but here are the few humble thoughts from a small business owner.

1) There are actually jobs out there – This may seem like an inflammatory comment to my unemployed readers. But when we spun off our new company, Relaborate, a little while ago, one of the first things we needed was a developer to help us flesh out the prototype. And let me tell you – that developer was really hard to find. You may not want to code. But if you want a job, learn to code. You won’t be the best coder in the world but the economy needs more coders.

2) The Unemployment system is horrendous – I’d like to hire more people to full-time, full benefit roles. However, our clients aren’t always signing 12 month deals. So often that means contract/project work. And too many times, I hear the following positively ridiculous statement: “How long is the gig? I’m not sure I can do any work or get paid for doing project work, because it will mess up my unemployment benefits.” That’s insane. The entitlement system provides incentive to not do part time projects, which could lead to a full time role. The system actually discourages productivity. Sure, someone could argue that I should just give the person a full-time job. But that’s not always an option. If I have a specific time-bounded project that I need someone with a specialized skill set to help me with, I’d like to pay a fair market wage to someone to help me with it. The system shouldn’t be stopping that person from being able to say yes. Someone should be able to fix this.

3) The labor “Supply and Demand” Curve is out of whack – This goes back to the point about developers. The Universities need to do a better job of controlling how many degrees are given out in each field of study. If the country only has jobs for 10,000 Art History majors, the Universities shouldn’t pump out 20,000 new Art History majors a year, paying $40k a year in college tuition. I know it would take a little foresight and research to make these projections, but I kind of assume the Universities should have the collective intellect to pull this off.

4) It takes a little effort – A friend of mine recently offered to help someone with some connections. The job seeker sent a Facebook Wall post asking for those connections. No resume, no personal email, no phone call…just a Facebook Wall post. The entitlement generation needs to figure out a few things about professional behavior.

Now the point of this post is not to be a rant. It’s actually optimistic. Every day I work with people who are hungry to work more. I see entrepreneurs trying to build companies that will enable them to hire people. I see people who are under-employed wanting to work. But I call upon the high schools and universities to push students towards careers where there is demand, I urge the politicians to fix the arcane unemployment rules that make it hard for people to take short-term project work, and I strongly encourage the under-employed to think about what kind of roles people are desperate to hire. I want to be Commissioner of Baseball. But there’s already a line of people more qualified than me for that role, so I’ll have to keep doing these Marketing jobs. It’s just the way it is.

In a lot of ways, we are all our own small businesses, and we are all selling a set of services to someone. We all need to have something that people are willing to pay for.

Two Fun New Projects Enter Alpha

As we enter Q4, the team over at Social3i is happy to release two new products into a private alpha stage.

Relaborate is a tool for helping professionals with Blogging. We’ll debut publicly at NWEN’s First Look Forum.
Animakast is a project we’re doing with our friends at FlyingSpot. It’s the simplest, easiest and cheapest way to turn new or existing audio content into compelling animated video.

We love the prospects of both these little start-ups. Let me know if you would like to join our private alpha program for either.

Looking Forward to NWEN’s First Look Forum

I’ve been a fan of the Northwest Entrepreneur Network’s First Look Forum for a few years now – and not just because I’m on the NWEN Board. The Seattle entrepreneur community has a lot to offer, and while you probably aren’t going to see the next Google or Amazon pop out of it, First Look Forum could be a spot to watch for your next Gist or Tippr.

Now, I’ve been in and around a number of startups over the years, including partner roles (Spring Creek Group, Social3i) and marketing consulting roles (Imagekind, GotVoice, Savester, Movaya, Golazo, Lilipip). I’ve also worked on wild and fun side projects with no revenue model to speak of (MyElectionChoices) and non-profit philanthropic efforts with even less of a revenue model (EvigSeattle). On every company, there’s a little something to learn.

But this is the first year I worked on a team taking a startup through the First Look Forum process. For the last 6 months at Social3i, we’ve been building and testing a number of social media related products, and are now in the alpha stage of two separate ones. One of them will make it’s debut to the NWEN investment community on Oct. 18, thanks to FLF. (The other you’ll have to keep an eye out for – it’s coming soon.)

So what’s the point of this post? Well, First Look Forum has been a great experience for us, serving as a forcing function to hit deadlines and milestones. Plus, throughout the process, we’ve been able to meet with investors and entrepreneurs who’ve provided excellent feedback on a wide array of topics relevant to launching a new product. Being on one side of the First Look Forum process for a few years had given me one perspective. But now being on the receiving end of the help, I really think FLF should be on the top of the list for anyone thinking about launching a new venture.

Anyway, if you’re an investor or angel, go beg Daniel and Caitlin to let you have a ticket to the event in October. If you’re a would-be entrepreneur in corporate clothing, get your team together and make a run at FLF in Spring 2012. It’s definitely worth the time you’ll put into it.

McDonald’s “I Spy” Interactive Video Campaign

Another nice find by DigitalBuzzBlog.

This McDonald’s campaign asks you to watch a :50 YouTube video and look for a certain character hiding in the scene. If you click on the character, you move on to the next level.

It’s actually a little hard at first, so don’t lose your patience the first time to get to the end without spotting Grimace. It’s a neat gimmick for a campaign, and definitely something you could replicate if you have the creativity and motivation.

In the Battle of Sports Leagues, Here’s Why the NFL Wins

I don’t really have a good opening paragraph for this post. I think I have a good point, but I don’t quite have the narrative to kick it off.

Now if I was the NFL, I’d have the perfect opening. I’d have crafted the perfect phrase, and delivered a genius punchline.

The NFL started today. And honestly, besides making sure no one on my Fantasy team was having neck surgery, I really didn’t think too much about it as the game kicked off.

Now throughout the evening, as I pounded out some work, handled some wedding stuff, and ran through some old emails, I had a Yahoo page open to keep track of the score.

What started as a blowout, slowly got better. And by the end of the game, I headed upstairs to catch the thrilling last minutes.

And as soon as the game was over, I felt regret. My brain yelled at me “Hell the Saints were on! Why weren’t we watching that??!!?? They were playing Green Bay for criminy sake!!”

The other half of my brain, the calm and rational part (fine, the other 25%), then replied, “Seriously, Andy. We can’t bring the laptop to the living room? That was a good game.”

And so we had both the emotional and practical sides of my brain lamenting about my overall error in judgement. (I find it interesting that my brain never seems to find fault in itself in these matters. It’s much easier to simply cast fault at me.)

And this is why the NFL wins. This is why the NFL will always win.

Yes, the league was on strike because the owners and players needed to figure out a better way to split ALL THE FREAKING PROFITS they are making. And all the fans cared about was how it was going to affect their Fantasy Football draft.

Over in the NBA, you have a different story. You legitimately have owners losing money because they have to pay out the remaining 4 years and 40 million dollars on contracts to guys who get too fat to run up and down the floor and would rather collect their paychecks from a villa at The Palms.

The NFL is the only sport around with this kind of marketing.
1) I sign up for a Fantasy Football League out of habit and as an excuse to to stay in touch with my old friends.
2) On a random Thursday night, while working, I keep the score on in the background, to follow how my opponent’s players are doing.
3) As the score of the actual game gets close, I go upstairs to watch.
4) As the game ends, I think, “Damn, I should have watched that whole thing, and all the commercials.”
5) I go write a blog post about why the NFL is so smart.

Now, you could say, “They got lucky. It could have been 42-7 and you wouldn’t have cared.”

And I would reply – “But that doesn’t happen in the NFL. The NBA would have made sure it was LA vs New York in the opening game, and it might have been 120-80. But the NFL took the 52nd largest market vs the 71st biggest market and put them out there. Which they can do since the 71st market has the reigning Super Bowl champs and both teams have QB’s that you wish you had as brothers in law.”

A conspiracy theorist would say it’s rigged. And maybe it all is. But if it is, somehow the guys writing the NFL scripts cut their chops on Lost, Weeds and Entourage, while the NBA guys were banging out Alf, Brothers and Melrose Place (the new one, not the old one).

Now this may seem like a rant against the NBA, but it’s not. Major League Baseball has almost worked their way into the irrelevance once relished by the NHL. And each now is able to claim a rabid, but niche, fan base that can’t compete head to head. And while soccer is growing, it’s TV viewership still only appeals to people who “get” why 0-0 can be exciting.

So I’d say you have the NFL leading the way, with NCAA football doing everything it can to screw up the halo the NFL provides it. Then the NBA who is arrogant enough to deny it has a problem. Then the other 3 leagues begging for attention.

But at the end of the day, for the forseeable future, the NFL is going to dominate the mind of the rabid, casual and indifferent sports fan. From revenue channels, to marketing, to PR, to labor, to organizational structure, it’s an absolute study in how to build a successful business.

I Suddenly Understand Home Depot

I’ll admit it. For years, I’ve felt pity on guys who have told me they need to go to Home Depot to get some stuff for the house. I was confused when they talked about how they were actually looking forward to it. I’ve never understood it. Why would anyone WANT to go shopping fo ranythign, much less home repair stuff?

And in the last 2 months, the light bulb has come on. I get it.

If you’re not living with your girlfriend/fiance, you may occasionally get asked to do some work on her place, just to fix something dumb like a picture frame. Otherwise, it’s her landlord’s problem. And if something breaks at your house, it usually can be solved with duct tape and by moving a dresser in front of it.

But when you have a “domestic partner” things change. (This is where I’ll lose the single guys.) Especially if you own your place. Suddenly, if something is wrong with the house, it’s something that is wrong with you.

But there;s a huge difference. If you are fat, it will take you months to get in shape. If you are losing your hair, you’re going to lose your hair. If you have a lousy job, there’s a whole career issue you have to tackle. What I’m saying is, these are things that could be “wrong” with you that take a long time to fix.

But when your pipe starts leaking, you have Home Depot. One day, and you are fixed. It’s a miracle.

Plus, you realize that when you are a guy in Home Depot, you are among friends. The help is helpful. The customers are friendly. And the rows and rows and rows and rows of toys. Exquisite. You want one of everything, but you realize you don’t need it. Because when you do need it, you can just run down to Home Depot and get one.

And another side effect – women are scared of Home Depot. They won’t admit it. But watch the wives in the building. They’ll slowly gravitate to the sections they feel most comfortable in. While we start exploring the intricacies of the different types of screws available, the women want to get the task done and flee.

Thus, you often get to hit Home Depot on your own. And there’s no Home Depot in your neighborhood. So you have to get in your car, turn the football game on the radio, and take a nice long drive. You can easily get in a 1/2 quarter one way and a 1/2 quarter back. It’s beautiful.

So in a nutshell – I apologize to the guys I’ve questioned before. I get it now. The only thing I don’t get is why they don’t have a chicken wing bar behind the lumber section…