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Ideas From SXSW: What You Missed This Weekend

The buspreneurs pitch investors, plus everyone's talking games, incentives, and influencers. Here's the latest from Austin.
Buspreneurs: Young programmers head out on Day One of the StartupBus's two-day trip to SXSW.
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Two more days of wall-to-wall sessions and keynotes on innovation, gamification, and online influence; two more evenings of networking with Shiner Bock in hand. Here are a few highlights. 

1. Five days is enough to start a company. At least that's the StartupBus philosophy. Jam enough talented people together in close quarters, generate hundreds of ideas, develop a handful of them in days, and—boom—ready to present to investors. Sunday afternoon, the "buspreneurs," young programmers, mostly, who had rolled in to Austin on busses from five cities late last week, packed into Dogpatch Labs' sweaty, temporary space at 6th Street's Treehouse Pub to pitch—Shark Tank style—five judges and four investors. The standouts? New York's bus had the benefit of hype ("I really think New York had the best bus, and that's not a bias," investor Peter Flint of Polaris told the New York Observer), due to local-listing pitch LemonadeStand, the early media favorite. But it was taken down in Round One by the "the Yelp for medical tourism," TripMedi. Yes, that entails user-reviews of Singapore's tummy-tucks. The hacker-to-idea-guy ratio was quite different on the Miami bus, and it produced a subversive twist on social networking: MyNewman, the "anti-social network," on which users can list "frenemies," a "nemesis" and dole out terrible gifts. Both have to watch for competition from the Bay Area's nomination: Bouncr, which generates anonymous short e-mail links (it's already processed more than 500 addresses, proving instant utility). We'll cover the competition Monday, so check back.

2. Gamification will blanket the earth. Why are location-based check-in apps so darn popular? And why are the apps you're most likely to hear about this week (come on, you've already been group texting on Beluga and GroupMe, right?) all incorporating location-based people-finding? According to Zach Saul, co-founder of app-design company Retronyms and co-creator of the much-buzzed-about app game Dokobots, "The world is full of venues. They present you with an existing game grid, so developers don't have to worry about populating the world with some kind of content." That's fortunate for start-ups incorporating location services simply due to scale. Consider that the entire lush original World of Warcraft map is only one-third the size of Austin, and that the on-land world is 196 million square miles. Saul says a virtual check-in is "sort of a brick-and-mortar Like button," but also can augment an existing map, creating a node on the social graph, and creating a data point that's both searchable and scalable. Get the crowds involved, and data's easily created or built upon. But incentives—in other words, some simple game mechanics that motivate users—are key to that. Bonus point: Just ask Aaron Batalion, CEO of LivingSocial. His company recently launched an instant-deal service that merchants can use to target nearby potential customers by notifying them as they approach of an independent deal. If that sounds familiar to any Foursquare users, it should: Those worlds are migrating closer and closer together. 

3. Gamification doesn't matter. Seth Priebatsch, the 22-year-old founder of mobile check-in game SCVNGR, has been of late the most significant advocate of "building a game-layer over the world. Only, now that SCVNGR is piloting LevelUp, a group-deal program focused on encouraging customer loyalty, he seems to be thinking beyond "gamification." "The gamelayer is powerful, but it can't solve everything," Priebatsch said in his Saturday keynote. Rather, utilizing individual game mechanics to reform systems like education and charitable giving can be a larger focus, he says. And those are fields ripe for start-ups. In addition, Jane McGonigal, whose books and TED talk made her something of the public face of gaming advocacy, is also veering away from some of the ways companies can augment user-experience through games. Instead, her talk was squarely based on gaming-makes-us-happier-and-more-productive research. While she says Foursquare is a notable early example of giving people points for check-ins, she looked away from that "good gamification" when designing a game for the New York Public Library, instead opting to create a collaborative search and writing project for kids. Bonus point: McGonigal said in her Saturday talk that research shows playing a game using a "hot" avatar, you will flirt with more people in real life and be more confident in the next 24 hours. "Thank you Stanford for doing this important research," McGonigal joked.

4. Influencers will inherit the earth. That's what Joe Fernandez, CEO of online-influence indicator Klout, said Sunday: "Our belief from the beginning of Klout is that every person who creates content online has influence." When asked whether targeting influencers was the key to social marketing, Fernandez said: "I've certainly put a big bet on that." Bonus point: "I love the idea that a 15-year-old kid who's never touched a Rolls Royce can be the most influential person on Rolls Royce, if he's reaching out and answering questions," Fernandez said.

5. Ignore the influencers. Mike Yavonditte, CEO of Hashable, didn't seem to directly refute Fernandez, but might just be making a different bet entirely. "Don't forget about the regular people sitting in the middle of the country," he said. Also: "It's a risk to market to influencers. They might not like your product or service, and they might be vocal about not liking your product or service, which can build a negative feedback loop. Don't go after them unless you are completely ready for it." Bonus point: Targeting a general audience is tricky, especially when you're in the deal-site realm. Focusing on a specific demographic and really knowing that audience can yield unexpected opportunities. For example, deals for make-your-own terrariums, blindfolded manicures, and sex toys all were wildly successful on DailyCandy DailyDeals, said Tricia Han, the division's general manager.

IMAGE: Keith Axline/Wired.com
Last updated: Mar 14, 2011

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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