Eight Not-Bad Tech Ideas From a Day of Foster.ly
So, the city is really excited about the tech sector these days. And it's not just the elephantine LivingSocial: Mayor Vince Gray is after the small fry too, hoping they'll eventually add up to something that can counter the District's economic dependence on the federal government. The head count now stands at about 2,000 businesses. It's a logical growth area for D.C., since these webby entrepreneurs tend to like urban areas, and benefit from proximity to each other. (And for Gray, who doesn't exactly have the disruptive, Gov 2.0 reputation of his predecessor Adrian Fenty, aligning with the techies has a definite image upside.)
But here's the big question: How much potential do they actually have? And can D.C. attract the investment capital necessary to keep them from fleeing to New York or the Valley? Startups in general fail more often than they succeed, and sifting through the alphabet soup of made-up names, it's easy to get the impression that a good chunk of them are variations upon Twitter and Facebook that don't add much value to anyone's life.
Are these really the jobs of D.C.'s future?
Well, maybe. I'm working on a bigger story about the new tech ecology in D.C.—built around this guy, if you know anything and want to get in touch—and stopped by the Day of Foster.ly this Saturday at Rosslyn's Artisphere for a dose of immersion therapy (Foster.ly is a group that usually just brings techies together in study halls, but wanted to hold a one-day bash). In a kind of startup speed dating session, the entrepreneurs had the option of facing a battery of reporters, delivering their elevator pitches in two minutes or less. When it ended, I had a stack of business cards, and a better idea of what this sector looks like.
One big takeaway: Not every startup is a "tech" businesses. Some of them are just regular businesses that happen to leverage technology in smart ways, solving problems that businesses and individuals didn't even know they had. Here are a few I thought might actually have potential (not all based in D.C., sadly):
- Artnest showcases the work of unrepresented artists. CEO Tara Coles, who's keeping her day job as an emergency room physician for now, graduated from Founder Institute last year and says the to-be-launched website will help corporate art buyers find the kind of stuff that might fit on a hotel lobby wall (for example).
- CardSwapp creates free business cards with QR codes that will upload all your social networking identities to an app, like a super-Rolodex. In the best unrelated day job I came across, founder Minh Tran is a dentist.
- Lauryn Sargent from Stories Inherited chronicles your relatives' personal histories, putting together a mini-biography either in a hard copy or e-book, which embeds audio and video as well. She does around 10 hours of interviews and will charge you $3,000 a pop.
- In the next step towards the seamless integration of our psyche and consumption habits, SeQRPay puts QR codes on products that you can pick up, scan, and purchase instantly. I joked that the most useful application would be scanning someone's collar if you really liked their shirt. "Chief Visionist" Bryan Colligan replied, completely seriously, that it wasn't far away.
- Fitness competitions are all the rage in big companies and government agencies these days—obese employees really tend to run up your healthcare costs—and FitFeud has a standardized system for mounting them.
- There are way too many nerdy events to keep track of in this town. D.C. Linktank aggregates and organizes them, so you never miss the next panel on multilateral AfPak security negotiations ever again. It's free—they're hoping to eventually make money on an associated jobs site.
- Because some people think they're too good for online dating sites, Hin.ge just hooks you up on Facebook. You can find the founders hanging out at the Fort, D.C.'s $100,ooo business accelerator.
- Forget asking the concierge for restaurant suggestions or browsing through a wall of brochures—Crossmine lets local businesses submit their own menus and specials to hotels electronically, letting guests scroll through and figure out what they want to eat.
Well, that was as much free advertising as I've ever given away at one time, or plan to. Whether they'll be around in two years—and actually hire anybody—is an open question.