Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The 20th WebInno Packs The House

I drove the length of the Mass Pike to Cambridge yesterday to attend the latest Web Innovators Group, "an informal gathering of people interested in internet and mobile innovation in the Boston area." (Legally speaking, The People's Republic of Cambridge is part of Boston, but don't try to tell the people there that. This was not an event for the comrades, though; the host hotel just so happens to be down the street from MIT.)

David Beisel of Venrock, a venture capital firm, started the WebInno meetings in late 2005, I believe. I'm estimating that by the little post about WebInno #7 that I put in here in July '06; they're held every two or three months. The next one is scheduled for March 2009.

David was rightfully proud to greet the crowd of 600 by briefly reflecting on the event's modest start in contrast to what he saw, when, "tonight we've filled the entire grand ballroom." WebInno's long been an acknowledged hotspot for the area's technorati.

The focus is on early-stage startups, and the format's always been three "main dish" presentations to the assembled group, followed by open networking time when another number of "side dish" presentations by other hopefuls are set up in simple tabletop convention style.

With three main dishes and a half dozen sides, there's really far too much to say to do justice to any of them. So, with that caveat in mind, a quick pass through some highlights.

Trip Chill is putting into practice a widely desired service: a full-service digital travel agent and concierge. Plan and book your trip through their site, then get updates and automatic Plan B's directed to your iPhone or any mobile device. If your flight is delayed, for instance, it'll book you on another one, according to any preferences you originally entered on the website.

I was very keen on the prompts they'll send to remind you where you parked your car when you land back at your home airport. (Sign me up!)

Presentation-wise, too, these guys really had the right idea: presenters always have two people at the podium, one doing the talking and the other running the slide show. So Trip Chill's two speakers acted out their story, and with low key comedy. "How was your flight?"
"Oh, brutal. My flight was cancelled, I was stuck at O'Hare," etc.
"That's too bad -- I used Trip Chill(!), and it notified me, booked me on another flight," etc., etc. Host Beisel then conferred on them the spur-of-the-moment award for "best acting in a WebInno presentation." They had the crowd's full attention, laughing and engaged.

Don't just tell your story; whenever possible, Show it.

Next we had the exotically named Crimson Hexagon, promised a service to "make sense of the massive amount of information on the Internet." That turned out to be basically a digital clipping service for anyone who's written about more often than they can keep track of in Google Alerts; which they estimated at more than 25 a day. It's sold as an annual subscription, or, for now, by the month.

Crimson Hexagon (the name is a construct from Argentinian magical realism author, Jorge Luis Borges,) tracks, "reads" and summarizes everything that's being said about your company on the Web. They demonstrated the kind of intelligence gathering this makes possible by revealing that, in aggregate, the biggest attraction to the iPhone is the App Store, and that 14% of people who drink Gatorade do so for a hangover cure. (Note: this statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are solely the opinions of 14% of the sport-drink buying Internet population.)

Local Motors was the last and somewhat curious main dish, since the definition of "mobile innovation" was stretched perhaps beyond recognition to include a custom car company. But no, they belonged there because the design of their cars is crowdsourced. People post car designs, who the Local Motors man emphasized are paid if their design is selected (good for them! There's a practice conspicuously missing from most Web ventures).

Then the community comments, adds and critiques, and the company gets to hear "what people think of it real-time." At the point that, I suppose, that input plateaus, the company says, "this is the car we'll build here," since they'll create versions most appropriate for various locales; Boston and Hawaii were mentioned as examples. They'll build a hydrogen powered car for states that have that kind of "gas" station; they economize overall by using off-the-shelf power plants and components (although no sticker price was mentioned in the main pitch).

A very intriguing idea, especially on the umpteenth day that Washington-in-transition told us they just about had a bailout in place for the old Big Three carmakers. And they had some very sexy, European racing car designs that, together with their man's strong presentation, earned them the designation of Tastiest Dish of the.. . no, excuse me, that was "Audience Choice Award."

Web Innovators Group

Photo on Flickr by BostonDave (as of this writing, pix from WebInno 18)


When I got off the road and into the hotel where the event's usually been held, having already decided that I wanted to do a little report, I was confronted with one of pressing questions of our time. Should I "live" blog the affair, or go by the traditional, Old Media approach of taking notes and putting it up tomorrow?

(I remember at one of the earlier WebInno's, around three years back, when blogging was still the breathlessly hot new thing, there was some pride in the room that it was being reported live by at least a couple different speed typists.)

I decided to go for the latter, because I knew that today I'd cringe at what I threw up here without review; but mostly because if I get as focused as one needs to be to write and post a entry, I wouldn't have really been there. You know, the way it is with cameras: either you're documenting it, OR you're really there.

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