Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Innovation in our own backyard...

...or how a market researcher ends up attending a start-up competition

Pretty bold words. Whilst you might be hard pressed to find statistics to back up this claim, it is undeniable that there is a thriving community and support network in the North East which allows those with good ideas to flourish. This community was out in force yesterday at Campus North to watch 10 start-ups pitch their ideas at the Thinking Digital Conference Start-up Competition. You can see my summary of the pitches at the bottom of this post.

So why was I there? Market Research has often been accused of being stuck in its ways, slow to innovate, and too ready to bury its head in the sand. Like the metaphorical oil tanker it is assumed it will take too long to turn, in which time all of the start-ups and tech companies in their speedboats will have zipped past and beaten us to our destination.

As you might have guessed, I don't believe this. I think research companies, start-ups, and tech companies can co-exist and actually their combined forces can sometimes present great opportunities. I'm not the only one (read this great article by Allen Fromen on why Big Data will never fully replace MR here).  My role means I have start-ups as clients, suppliers, and as partners. I think if Market Research companies avoid the tech and start-up community for fear of being marginalised, they are limiting the opportunities where they can benefit, but also where they can give back to the community. So I thought I would pop along and see what was being pitched. Here are my thoughts on their ideas (in order of appearance):

Bountiny – The Amazon for Fashion
In a nutshell – Buying fashion online is a pain*. Rather than having to open multiple tabs and browse around various different sites, what if you could find everything in one place through an aggregator and go through a single simple online checkout? Add to that social sharing and searching of looks and you have Bountiny's vision.
+ I could certainly sympathise with the idea of too many tabs even if I don't buy fashion items. The idea of the crowd-curated looks if done right could be a winning feature, as it gives more flexibility to explore looks rather than forcing the consumer to think in terms of rigid categories such as tops, blouses, dresses, shoes etc.
- I think the implementation may be difficult and cumbersome. For it to be successful there needs to be broad support from retailers as if there are a couple of key ones missing people will still have to go to their sites directly thus undermining the one platform system. I think some retailers may be wary of the system, and reluctant to relinquish so much control. After all, it's only a couple of months since M&S took control of their online store from Amazon.

*This is what we were told, as you might have guessed my personal experience of this is limited.

Rormix – The Pandora for unsigned music videos
In a nutshell – Rormix promises to be a discovery platform for music videos for unsigned artists. The aim is to help users discover new artists, help new artists get exposure, and inserting “billboards” into videos opens a potential new revenue stream.
+ The ability to discover new bands based on commercial likes will appeal to consumers. They have an existing agreement with networks of gyms which could give the product a launch platform.
- The model seemed a little unclear and confusing and given the bureaucracy of licensing issues and the blurred line between signed and unsigned artists, it could be difficult to get the momentum this needs. Artists may be unwilling to relinquish control and so the platform may struggle reaching critical mass.  Assessments of attempts to insert advertising into virtual worlds have been somewhat underwhelming and so brands may not buy into this, and artists may not like the idea.

icanmake The shapeways for educational content/iTunes for 3D printed educational content
In a nutshell – They plan to create a marketplace for educational content for 3D printers. They have been busy laser scanning museum objects and aim to sell downloads and kits for people to use with their own 3D printers (or those in schools) and produce a book with Wiley to get people engaged with 3D printing.
+ Very admirable cause, plus their presentation included a picture of a ZX81 so bonus points there. The idea is a good one and could help broaden the adoption of 3D printers.
- It is a difficult market, hard to protect from copycats and there are a lot of question marks outstanding about the implementation. Changes to the 3D printing landscape outside their control over the next few years could skyrocket the brand or cause it real trouble.

Fonesense – The vouchercloud for ringtones
In a nutshell – Brands want advocates, consumers like offers. Let brands hijack your ringtone and everytime you get a call they get exposure and you get a deal.
+ The potential appeal for big brands was pretty clear. Also consumers like offers, give them the right incentive they might bite. The potential charity donation was an interesting spin on the idea.
- The idea opens a can of worms about data privacy and trust. Whilst it works for some big brands, it wasn’t clear how the model would work for new brands or smaller brands, and I’m not sure the appeal to customers will be enough to download and use the app. Moreover my phone lives it life on silent, and it wasn’t clear how the single solution would work for people who use their phones in very different ways. Given that mobiles often go off at the most inopportune times, there is potential for the branded ringtones to become associated with annoyance, and no brand would want that.

Wibbu – The personalised Duolingo
In a nutshell – Everyone is different, and people from different countries learn other languages in distinct ways because of the discrepancies between their native tongue and the dialect they are trying to learn. Rather than a generic offering like Duolingo, Wibbu offers content which is tailored to the individual the mistakes they are likely to make based on their mother tongue.
+ As someone who has learnt a few languages the more tailored approach is very appealing. Correcting the most common mistakes for leaners from your country is a good starting point, coupling this with personalised practice based on your mistakes gives a much better feedback system that should help you learn faster. They had a clear plan in terms of which markets to go after and why, and a unique selling point (content style) that is hard to replicate.
- The vast amount of content needed for a tailored approach becomes a huge burden, which is one of the reasons why currently Wibbu is focusing on Spanish speakers learning English. The difficulty of scaling the approach could limit the success of the idea. Convincing consumers to go for this approach when there are already so many options out there, could be difficult. – The soundcloud commenter for video
In a nutshell – Reframed allows commenting on videos in situ ensuring all comments are linked to the video timestamp, offering a social experience of video whenever you are watching it. The platform also provides you with a catalogue of your favourite moments in time from the videos you have watched.
+ The ability for third parties to utilise the system for their content increases platform use and could be very useful for content creators. The vast amounts of data the system could generate would be really useful to publishers if handled correctly. Also Reframed already have an agreement with Channel 4 News which will help them road test and refine the platform. If the favouriting of timestamps is implemented correctly this will give a compelling reason for people to use it.
- I don’t think the platform is going to replace generic video consumption via YouTube etc. and am uncertain if there are compelling enough reasons for the general audience to adopt the platform. I can however see how it would be useful for longer form videos and specific types of content (conference videos). I’m also not convinced that this solves the problem of “spoilers” and the experience far from being uniform people coming to video at different times will see very different comments and there is a danger of the videos being overwhelmed by spammy comments. Whilst I think it will be successful, I doubt it will become pervasive, but I would love to be proved wrong.

Audiowings – The Google glass for your ears
In a nutshell – Wearables are big, headphones are the most worn bit of tech, let's make headphones smart.
+ Love the name and branding. This was one of the most confident and polished presentations. I can see how something like this would have broad appeal if done right at the right price.
- Despite the confidence, I wasn't quite convinced. Perhaps rather unfortunately the headset was rather reminiscent of those awful cheap mp3 player headphones of yesteryear and so they didn't quite look the part. There were also question marks over how easy it would be to protect the idea. I also wasn’t convinced that the user experience would be a vast improvement over readily available alternatives. Finally it may be silly but smartheadphones isn't catchy and smartphones is already taken.

All 4 coaches - The Excel/Tableau for football coaches
In a nutshell – A personal assistant for football coaches, that allows them to instantly collect, store and analyse match data in a way that makes sense
+ Makes data instantly accessible, simplifies the collection and analysis process. The system is structured specifically for match data making it very useful for this one purpose and it looked very slick.
- Not sure as of yet how broad the market is and what the revenue potential is. The app would clearly be desirable but given the (relatively) niche market pricing could be an issue. Expanding to other sports will take significant investment given the specialist nature of the tool.

Formisimo – The Google Analytics for forms
In a nutshell – Their platform makes forms smart so that you can understand failure to convert, where the pain points are for users, and even potential intercept them in real-time
+ A simple solution that has a very broad potential audience. Sounded simple to implement so priced right the adoption could be rapid.
- The idea is hard to protect and open to competition from copycats. One of the judges asked the obvious “what’s to stop Google from doing this”. Whilst Formisimo are confident they can fend off the competition, it could be a fiercely competitive market in years to come.

Zipcube – The airbnb/ for meeting rooms and event spaces
In a nutshell – A one-stop shop for finding meeting rooms or event spaces, checking their availability and booking them instantly online.
+ Simple idea, simple interface, and a very flexible timesaver. It is probably the right time for an idea like this to take off. Also the potential for the system to be used by companies internally was an interesting idea and could be a good revenue stream if pitched right.
- Needs to have wide support and a good selection of venues before it can reach critical mass and be truly useful. There is the threat of competitors entering the space.

Judge's choice – Zipcube
Audience's choice –

Both of these will go on to pitch at the Thinking Digital conference today

Whilst the winners weren't surprising, both were in my top 4, honourable mentions I think should go to Wibbu and Formismo.

As someone who has previously learnt French and Spanish academically and is currently trying to learn German via Duolingo, I can see how Wibbu's highly tailored and individualised approach could leave them miles ahead of the competition and the tailored content means they are putting up barriers for competitors to challenges on their own terms (although this resource drain is also one of the big drawbacks).  Formismo's idea was simple, but I could see how it would benefit a lot of companies and how it might be readily adopted. Their biggest threat was copycats but they seem confident they can stand their ground.

Overall the calibre of ideas and pitches was very high and I'm looking forward to seeing who is crowned champion.

Update - Zipcube were announced as champions at the TDC conference

Dan Siddle 
Research Innovation Specialist

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