There seems no limit to the business ideas the Internet can spawn.
More than 400 tech startups, most of them dot-coms and 75% New York-based, exhibited at NY Tech Day on April 25. Some presented pre-launch concepts; others, more established, were there seeking investors, recruiting employees, and hatching partnerships.
Concepts included the countercultural (InkedMatch.com, online matchmaking for tattoo lovers), the controversial (Parlor, enabling phone conversations between like-minded strangers), and the socially purposeful (Audicus.com, high-quality hearing aids sold at steep discounts to a market that includes earbud-damaged 20-somethings).
Nearly 11,000 visitors spent the day at Pier 92 taking in an astounding number of clever, useful, possibly quite valuable ideas. Many were of the “I wish I had thought of that” variety. Others had yet to nail down an elevator pitch or spellcheck marketing collateral (“confounders” with 15 years experience or a mission to “accelarate” your life).
The crowded floor featured a dozen advertising applications, almost as many dating services, and 15 education sites, including General Assembly, which offered classes, workshops, and 16-week courses in tech startup management.
The Bain Capital- and Kleiner Perkins-funded Rent the Runway was on the roster, along with nearly 20 fashion e-commerce sites hoping to compete with that roaring business. Two startups proposed to enable busy urbanites to book housecleaning services online, and several others offered ways for the same demographic to avoid cooking. Health and fitness was addressed by companies including Sherpaa (remote medical advice to augment employee benefit plans), DietBet (weight loss gaming), and JuggleFit (portable workout resources).
Social entrepreneurship was also well represented. Soko is a sort of Etsy for African jewelry artisans; enterprising Danish journalist Kirsten Hasberg described how crowdpublished stories on her Energy Democracy TV will inspire a global transition to 100 percent renewable energy; and Hipcycle promotes sustainability with a marketplace of stylish upcycled home decor and fashion accessories.
Nor was there any shortage of companies that cater to the percolating tech industry. Heather Alcott Sparano’s business, Sound Advice Consulting Services, recruits IT staff for startups. “There’s a talent war on in New York with the explosion of tech businesses here,” she said. “You used to be able to go to Monster.com to recruit. You can’t do that anymore.”
Paul Choi, CEO at the self-funded Worry Free Labs, has designed cross-device user experiences and mobile apps for Disney, Fitbit, Knewton, and American Express, but says a third of his clients are startups. He was at Tech Day hawking “StartupKit,” a fixed-price package that provides startups with a custom-designed identity, brand, and interactive prototype “without breaking the bank.”
Why all the creativity? One theory comes from Silicon Alley veteran Miles Rose, who says social breakdown and a failed education system is spawning entrepreneurship. He’s “been waiting for this moment” since he got into tech startup consulting in 1996, he says. “Money’s not worth anything, there are no jobs, and there’s no government support for the unemployed.” Those conditions, he said, have brought on a “triple-witching hour” to catalyze the tech startup boom on display at Tech Day. “Schools, the government, and corporate America have let young people down, so they have nothing to lose by starting up a company.” In his opinion, failing at a startup is like finishing school for college graduates. Rose’s consultancy, Silicon Alley, offers to help them “make mistakes small and fast.”
Perhaps most inspiring were the legions of first-time founders whose businesses were borne of personal need.
Traci Whitney is a young divorced mom in Woodstock, Conn., who built Two Happy Homes to handle the complicated logistics of co-parenting—coordinating soccer and gymnastics schedules, tracking kids’ medical information, scheduling vacations, and managing joint finances with her ex-husband. With only word-of-mouth and social media references, Two Happy Homes has signed up 2,500 members in a year. Whitney was at Tech Day seeking investment to do more aggressive marketing.
Husband and wife team Frank Panko and Missy Wedig are Philadelphia Phillies fans who came up with the idea for A View From My Seat while deliberating their season tickets purchase. Both quit their jobs to crowdsource images from stadiums around the country and say they now have 200,000 users per month. Their goal: “bring sports fans photos from every seat in every sports venue.”
Silver Living‘s co-founder was living in Hawaii when it came time to help his grandmother in Florida choose a retirement home. Now, with backing from 500Startups and others, Silver Living offers video tours, price comparisons, and a rating system for assisted living communities.
Bitponics was one of the few Tech Day exhibitors actually selling a physical technology device. Set to launch this year, the Brooklyn-based company, founded by three engineers and an educator, proposes to automate hydroponic farming. It will offer a $499 base station that leverages sensors, wifi, and the cloud to let growers monitor crops remotely.
One can only imagine the innovative ideas yet to come. Perhaps next year at NY Tech Day a service enabling phone conversations among hearing-impaired tattoo lovers?