How to win People’s Choice from the Cambridge tech community
It was a three-person Internet advertising startup — apocryphally operated out of the founder’s bedroom — that took the audience choice award at the July 15 Web Innovators Group gathering. The 800 or so high-tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists attending at Cambridge’s Royal Sonesta Hotel heard from three start-ups, including an online gathering place for tweens and teens; a tool for businesses to find and interact with customers and critics via Twitter; and the winning buysellads.com, which serves as a dead-simple conduit for Web businesses and their advertisers.
(Thunder Thimble may have won points when, during its demonstration of finding real-time buzz via Twitter, it turned up someone tweeting seconds earlier that they wished the chatterers behind the seated audience would shut the hell up so the presentations could be heard.)
But what does the bragging-rights-only award — voted on by mobile phone after each of the three “main dish” presentations got five minutes on stage and two audience questions — mean for the winners? How does a company seize it?
The predictable answer to the first question, based on discussion with the principals from the July 15 event: Not much. It doesn’t guarantee, any better than does second or third place, venture capital funding, business success or even superior networking for the rest of the night.
But if you want to win anyway, read on.
“First of all, I was really surprised and very honored that we got the people’s choice award,” said the founder of buysellads.com, Todd Garland, reached this week by telephone. He suspects the vote comes down to whether audience members can easily answer “How are they going to make money?”
“The child social virtual world that went before us, they seem to be a pretty good business as is, but it might have been hard for a lot of people to really relate to it. Thunder Thimble, a lot of people definitely thought it was really cool and innovative,” Garland said. “But … it was very clear to people in the audience how we make money.”
Buysellads.com isn’t even looking for venture capital at the moment, Garland said. He just thought it would be fun to present and get some exposure and feedback on the idea.
“See if I was crazy, you know?” he said. (Clearly not.)
Chad Bytel, of Thunder Thimble, agreed Planet Cazmo “just missed the mark with the audience.”
As an attendee of several meetings over the years, and for whom this past event served as an effective way to get the word out about his company, he senses that for the tech-oriented, mostly younger crowd, Planet Cazmo “doesn’t really come across as the Web.”
(Bytel also created a buzz by announcing that social networking was now Twitter, casting Facebook and its ilk into the past like Apple casting off technology, such as disk drives, before users are comfortable without them. Much of the debate, of course, was via Twitter.)
Michael Levine, the presenter for Planet Cazmo, was an event “virgin” and didn’t even realize there would be a vote, he said Thursday by phone from his Western Massachusetts base. Nor was he totally comfortable guessing what determines the People’s Choice Award without knowing how many people voted, a figure host company Venrock, of Cambridge, didn’t have.
If a large number voted, though, he also suspected their decision was driven by their own familiarity with areas of Web entrepreneurship — that Cazmo was simply too far outside their experience to grab them.
Surely as a business, Cazmo is on fairly solid ground. On Wednesday Levine signed a deal with music industry bigwig Tommy Mottola to bring more online concerts to the site’s estimated 3 million members, helping boost Cazmo over Disney and others in the online music market for kids. Using an estimated number of users and the minimum amount spent to go online — $5.95 for a month — Cazmo should be raking in somewhere short of $53 million a quarter. (How big is the market? Habbo.com, one of many Cazmo competitors, is reputed to have 135 million users.)
David Beisel, the organizer and host for the event since founding it in the fall of 2005, said Wednesday that he gets at least two dozen companies hoping to be a “main dish” at each event, a figure that hasn’t been altered by the recent economic downturn, and doesn’t have a defined process to weed out those he declines. He merely looks for diversity in main dishes for a particular event, and since no company can know what they’re up against, it’s impossible for a firm to ensure it gets its five minutes on stage.
But when getting a presentation, the winning formula to Beisel “seems to be the venture that exceeds expectations from its basic description.” Recent winners have included adroitinteractive.com, an ad customizer, and Cambridge-based spotscout.com, which helps drivers find parking spaces and compare their costs.
Sure, buysellads.com is, at the end of the day, just another ad network, Beisel said, but its simplicity and story — “the founder’s been able to create this, a real business, on very limited resources” — becomes truly compelling. “Oh yada yada, another ad network,” he said. “and you hear their story and that’s pretty amazing.”
“It’s not always the sexiest service or even a consumer-facing one or even applicable to the entire audience,” he said.
And it turns out buysellads.com really is run out of the founder’s bedroom. “I’m moving it out once I get tired of working in my bedroom,” Garland said Tuesday, “but I’m trying to not spend money on anything I don’t desperately need to be spending money on.”