Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What's the Problem? It's the filter...

There's a big problem today online. What is this big problem you might ask? How can I find recommendations that are tailored to my preferences? Like if you want to find a new sushi restaurant tonight or a hotel to stay in while visiting Bangkok, how would you do it? There are a lot of options out there right now and many more gaining speed, but I'm still not sold that any of these (other than Vyoo of course) can solve this problem eloquently.

Here's a look at what's out there and what's wrong with these options:
1) Social Networks - circle of friends (facebook, myspace, etc). These websites are great for getting people together and sharing media and pretty much telling people what you're up to. But they are not great at compelling people to make purchases (for advertisers) or for finding recommendations or reviews (for consumers). I'm including them in this discussion because we're adding a bit of a social network to our solution - but in a much different way.

2) Recommendation engines - you all know these, TripAdviser, Amazon, Hotels.com, Netflix, whatever it is that tries to advise you on a purchase. They are great at giving you lots of options, but they are terrible with accuracy. Netflix has had a competition going on for a few years to improve their recommendation engine by 10%. The prize, a million bucks, hasn't been given yet and there has been a lull in activity since the 8.5% improvement rate was reached last year. I personally think it's incredibly difficult to trust the ratings I receive. Other people may feel differently, but I think there's no doubt that there is a lot of room for improvement.

3) Collaborative filtering - as discussed last post, involves large amounts of data and multiple inputs to use as much information as possible to make decisions. The place I could see this working is when people go crazy over a product - like an iPod. I could see them recommending one of those to you for an mp3 player. But that doesn't exactly give me what I want - it gives me what's popular. Collaborative micro-filtering was covered below, so I won't go into that.

4) Search engines. Great for delivering large quantities of information left up to the user to consume. Not great for purchasing behaviors or tailoring different results to different people.

So there seems to be a void that we can fill or that someone can fill if they can figure out a way to give people what they really want.

Collaborative Micro-Filtering

I know I haven't been entirely forthcoming with what Vyoo is up to, but today's post will start to paint the picture. I came across a great blog posting today talking about a phrase for something I've been trying to explain about what we're doing. It was written by another San Franciscan, Sarah Cooper, and she calls the idea "Collaborative Micro-filtering". As you may, or may not know, collaborative filtering is the idea of using either a large set of data or many inputs of data to help filter information for users. What makes micro-filtering even more useful is that it uses your specific preferences of likes and dislikes to determine what types of data to present to the user.

Collaborative micro-filtering would take four steps (according to Sarah):
1. Identify people I know
2. Allow me to judge my similarity to each person, for a variety of topics
3. Make recommendations based on first and second order relationships between me and the people I know
4. Continually refine this similarity index for each person I know, based on our rating patterns over time

We're taking an approach that is somewhat similar to this by determining individual tastes and preferences for things. They are some vivid differences with what we're doing, but this is the best example, without writing a tell all of what we're up to.

Another interesting blog posting was written by Josh Porter, a social networking designer who discusses Ben Schneider's "Circle of Relationships".

We're attacking a very common problem on the internet today: How do you improve recommendation engines and really give people what they want.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

B Plan Presentation

On Friday we had our first presentation for the business plan competition. It gave us a chance to share our ideas and practice our pitch. Essentially, it was a mixer with all of the teams in the semi-final round. We had a chance to see what our competition was up to.

We actually were a bit surprised and excited to meet another team that was doing something similar to us. They were focusing on the video game industry, but it validated our idea. We spent quite a bit of time talking strategy with these guys and will probably see more of them again in the future.

There were a handful of mentors there, people from all different areas of the startup industry - successful entrepreneurs, VC's, angels, etc. It provided us with some great face time with some of these big players and regardless of the competition, will benefit from getting to know these people.

One of the least impressive parts of the mixer a few of the other entrepreneurs. Most were great. In fact, I'd say 95% of them were great. Unfortunately there were a few who were incredibly self righteous, who basically thought their shit didn't stink. It's totally cool to be psyched about your idea and to have confidence in what you're doing - but when you're a "me, me, me" person, it's really a turn-off. Regardless of how good these guys ideas were (or how bad they were in some cases), I won't be going out of my way to provide these guys with anything. It's a small world in Silicon Valley - there's no point in cutting yourself off from that.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

10th Annual Berkeley Business Plan Competition

Last night we got word that we made it to the semi-final round at the 10th Annual Berkeley Business Plan Competition. I want to congratulate everyone that played a part in this effort! We're very excited!

I'm not sure about the details, but in past years, there have been 70 or so entrants and they expected more this year. There are 25 teams in the semi-final round and they include: Culinary Talent Management; Noca, Inc.; Fanatix; ActionPact; Steel & Canvas; Kebima; Implicit Interfaces; Stakkit; Carsala; MyCatalogSpace; LReady; Reportis, Inc.; Dataspora; Saas Accelerator; Tixonomy; World Hearing Organization, Inc.; IQ Engines; Glycometrix; IMMUTELL; Omniox, Inc.; Parco Homes; Virtual Mindset; SiMoney; Titan Medical; and us, Vyoo, Inc.

We have been assigned a mentor, Mark Garman, to work on the next step of the process. Fortunately for us, he is a well renowned finance professor from Berkeley. This should really help us solidify our financial model, which is always a difficult piece of a business plan.

We need to submit a formal business plan and present our business to a group of VC's in March. We'll be spending the next month preparing for that.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

Wow. Sorry for the hiatus. A lot has been going on and I was also a bit lazy on the blog front. My apologies. Things will get going again. So, as I last left off, we were facing a few more contract disputes. This got us to really ensure that we got our contracts signed up front - or at least pushed for those already on board to get them signed. With that said and done, we couldn't come to terms with a figure we thought was going to be an important component in the project. In fact, it was a bit shocking and incredibly disappointing. It left us with the feeling that we were going to have to start from scratch in terms of hiring someone to fill his shoes. After a few days of thought, I decided to approach a good friend of mine, who is also an expert in the field. I hadn't approached him before because his expertise wasn't entirely the same. But he is incredibly bright and I figured that he could certainly lend his expertise. He agreed to help.

Two weeks after he signed on, the project feels like it has been reborn. He's done a great job of getting things going and helping to develop our first survey. This survey is designed to begin collecting data to help us with the evolution of our idea.

So why does every cloud have a silver lining? When the previous expert was working on this project, he was doing so in a very controlling manner. He rarely gave us updates and didn't include us in any discussions in terms of product development. He knew what I wanted, but I felt like he was operating in a vacuum and doing things his way. Attempts on my part to improve the transparency were met with contempt - and I walked on eggshells because I felt that having someone with his name and his credentials would be ever so important. Especially when we raised money. I've changed my mind. The team has been so much more engaging since he left and the project feels like what I had intended it to be. You live and learn along the way - and this was another lesson. Hiring the best and brightest or most well known has obvious upsides, but bringing in a team member that isn't playing with the team is a recipe for disaster. Fortunately for us, this story had a bright, silver lining.