Reporter's notebook: Navigating a sea of 200 start-ups, here's what stood out at the 2012 showcase of burgeoning tech companies.
SEA OF START-UPS: 200 small companies networked and showed off their new products and services at the Lexington Armory at Thursday's inaugural New York Tech Day.
Camoflage fatigues aren't exactly typical start-up couture, but this year's New York Tech Day, the showcase of burgeoning tech companies was curiously held in New York City's 69th Regiment Armory. So, as entrepreneurs sat behind foldout tables and pitched their business ideas to potential investors, military personnel casually paced the perimeter of the building's crowded gymnasium.
More than 200 companies of all sizes showed off their latest products and services at Tech Day. Some of the more well-established companies like Tumblr hoped to network and discover any potentially game-changing business models. Most of the booths, however, were manned by eager start-up employees vying for the attention of the venture capitalists maneuvering the de facto walkways.
I met Norman Aynbinder, CEO of travel website Excursionist.com. He said that while working for American Express's consumer travel department, he noticed disintermediation in the industry; travel agents only offered stock travel packages, but travelers wanted an experience personalized around interests. So he created an online hub where locals can list unique tourist experiences. Excursionist makes money by taking 35% of every transaction conducted through the platform. Recently, the company partnered with Equinox gyms, recruiting one of its yoga instructors to accompany a group of yoga-fanatic travelers to the Galapagos Islands. Peer-to-peer services catering to tourists are abounding, but this six-month-old company is growing strong, with 6,000 members and projects $1 million in revenue for its first fiscal year.
The women recruiting visitors for Little Borrowed Dress booth also stood out. While most of the crowd wore jeans and jackets or hoodies, young women in groups of three maneuvered through the crowd in heels and the company's frocks. Little Borrowed Dress aims to drastically reduce dress costs for brides and bridesmaids. A typical bridesmaid dress costs about $230 and is only worn once, founder Corie Hardee said. Hardee's service allows bridesmaids to submit their measurements online, receive their dresses in the mail, and return them after the wedding for a $75 rental fee. The company has more than 1,000 information requests for the upcoming wedding season.
Whether or not the Winklevoss twins originally intended to create an elitist online networking platform will never be known. But two more recent Harvard Business School graduates I met are bringing the allure of exclusivity to online dating. The aptly titled IvyDate was launched in the summer of 2011 by Philipp Triebel and Beri Meric to cater to smart, driven, accomplished singles. IvyDate's membership committee screens all wannabe users in a "college application-like process," approving about 70%, Triebel said. A person can sign up for free, but must pay to see his or her matches.
One of the last companies I scoped out was Songza, which is looking to bring back ... radio? The idea may seem arcane, but by operating under a radio license, Songza has unlimited access to more than 18 million songs. (That's more than Spotify's library of 12 million—and obviously beats Pandora's roughly one million.) Users can't listen to a single track on demand, but they can access playlists curated by "experts" (professional DJs, Rolling Stone reporters, celebrities, etc.) based upon their mood, the time of day, and a variety. The service is also free and has no commercial interruptions. As Songza employee Elias Roman put it, having a commercial interruption while you're listening to, say, a "Making Out" playlist would be unacceptable.
As Tech Day progressed, the gymnasium became filled with business sharks in suits and tech junkies in plaid. Whether the businesses theses early adopters saw will be successful remains to be seen. But at the very least, they can meet a fellow Ivy League single, book a personalized with him or her to Italy, listen to an expertly curated playlist, and, if everything goes well, come home and save money on bridesmaids dresses. All because of New York Tech Day.
JOHN MCDERMOTT is a business and culture reporter whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune and Playboy and on AOL.com. He recently moved from Chicago to Brooklyn, New York, to work for Inc.com. @J_M_McDermott