Discovering innovations that matter since 2002

Most of us receive hundreds of emailed receipts each year. The team behind Shoeboxed.com, a startup based in Durham, North Carolina, promises a way to safely store them. Anyone can sign up for the free service. Once enrolled, users receive an email address which they can give to merchants when buying online. The receipts then go to their Shoeboxed mailbox, where they’re safely stored. Better yet, the service allows members to organize their receipts by creating virtual shoeboxes, for a recent vacation or a series of tax-deductible home-office purchases, for example. Result: no more hunting for receipts in shoeboxes of the cardboard variety, or in a regular email inbox. Shoeboxed recently added a feature that allows users to scan in paper receipts for storage on the site. All students from Duke University, the Shoeboxed team launched the service from a Soviet-era East Berlin apartment, during a study-abroad stint in Germany. Shoeboxed’s founders hope to eventually sign on 11 million users or 10 percent of US online shoppers. Next step: going global. As the number of users grows, so will the value of their enterprise to potential advertisers and those who wish to offer scaled-up pay versions of the service. Shoeboxed isn’t currently monetizing their product, and is operating on money from their angel investor. In the future, Shoeboxed aims to have several revenue streams (none of which involve selling personal information). They’ll likely offer a premium service at some point, but the core functionality will always be free. Organizing purchase receipts is just one example of the hassle-filled bookkeeping tasks everyone is stuck with. Creating an online application to smooth out the process is the digital age’s version of the proverbial better mousetrap. Lesson: identify a hassle, do a great job at solving it and grow rich. Immediate opportunities include partnering with Shoeboxed to launch the service in other countries, or coming up with an equally simple solution to a common administrative problem. (Related: Sharing errands online.) Spotted by: Dan Englander There’s nothing like customization to make consumers feel unique, and the mass-customization trend has brought that feeling to goods as diverse as computers, blue jeans and breakfast cereal. Now New Jersey-based Inmod is taking customization into the inner sanctum of consumers’ home lives with a service that lets them design their own duvets. There are other outlets that offer custom duvets, but most often the only choices to make are the fabric and size, and maybe the colour. Customers using the Inmod Design Studio, on the other hand, choose from a growing variety of embroidered patterns as well as colours and fabrics to design their duvet just the way they want it. Fabric choices include silk taffeta, silk dupioni and a linen blend; embroidery options include a wide variety of chic modern, retro, pop-art, geometric and nature-inspired designs, all in the customer’s choice of colours for background and each level of detail. Once satisfied with their creation, customers can preview it online in a bedroom environment. Each embroidered Inmod duvet is hand-made in India, and delivery takes 4 to 6 weeks. One rule of thumb with customization is that it’s hard to offer too much of it from a consumer’s viewpoint. How about taking a segmented approach to the same idea, with custom duvets for kids, teens, newlyweds? What about sheets, towels, drapery, or table linens? Let the customizing fun begin! Spotted by: Tina Riter There’s nothing like an old Volkswagen camper van to evoke images of footloose and fancy-free holidays during the Summer of Love. Now, modern-day flower children can relive the experience thanks to Devon-based O’Connors Campers and Bristol’s Seven Degrees West. Both companies operate small fleets of VW campers, including the 1960s splitscreen and the 1970s bay-window style vans, offering a retro taste of freedom for authentic hippies and wannabes alike. O’Connors uses rebuilt vans with new engines and new interiors that maintain the classic charm with which they were originally made. Seven Degrees West, meanwhile, has imported brand new VW campervans from Brazil, combining the classic look with new everything. Prices are around GBP 630 –700 for a summer week. The power of nostalgia is well-known to marketers. The added appeal of an outing in a VW campervan is that it goes beyond evoking memories to actually recreating an experience. O’Connors and Seven Degrees West aren’t the only outfits doing this—Cornwall-based Rent a Dub offers something similar, for example, including a classic VW Beetle for those seeking smaller transportation—and it’s easy to imagine the concept spreading to other countries. There are an estimated 450 million baby boomers worldwide, according to MIT AgeLab; those in the US alone spend almost USD 2 trillion on goods and services each year. Now that’s flower power… 😉 Much more on catering to baby boomers can be found in trendwatching.com’s booming business briefing. Websites: www.oconnorscampers.co.ukwww.sevendegreeswest.co.uk Spotted by: Penny Watson and Susanna Haynie Montreal-based Brandfame has launched itself as a product placement agency for YouTube and other online video sharing platforms, connecting makers of online videos with brands that want to be integrated into the next viral video blockbuster. Advertisers can list products they’d like to have featured in videos, and search for upcoming videos by producers to find a match for their brand. Producers indicate which productions they’re willing to integrate products into, and can search for brands or products they’d like to work with. Once a deal has been made, the advertiser pays the producer, and Brandfame takes a cut. The startup is also working on an auction system for advertisers to bid on product placement in new videos by hot producers. Brandfame is just getting started, and has only signed up a handful of producers and advertisers. But its aim is to become a premier marketplace for product placement in video-sharing websites. As online video’s share of the entertainment market expands, opportunities for advertisers, producers and facilitators like Brandfame are taking off. Watch this space! (Related: Agency for customer-made ads.) Spotted by: Susanna Haynie When it comes to software development, history has shown that niche products can often lead to profitable new markets. The challenge, of course, is discovering that the niche is there. microPledge uses the power of crowdfunding to uncover untapped demand and, in the words of its founders, “get software made.” The idea is simple. Anyone with an idea for useful software can submit it on the site. Others who like it can then pledge money to help see the vision realized. Developers browsing the site can submit quotes for creating the software; the one with the best quote after two weeks is chosen for the job. Those who pledged, meanwhile, get to have a say in how the product takes form. The New Zealand-based site was launched in August by three business-minded brothers. They explain: “Being people with plenty of ideas, we kept wanting to start projects—the kind we knew people would find interesting. If we could only get people to pledge to support them … Then one day it dawned on us that we had to run the service ourselves.” microPledge currently focuses on open source projects, for which it receives no payment, but ultimately it plans to diversify to include a variety of commercial projects and to charge a portion of the funds pledged. The site also offers a USD 20 “incubator” service to help protect innovators’ ideas. About 160 users and 75 projects have populated the site so far, and its founders are interested in mutually beneficial partnerships to help it grow. In addition to a marketplace for software development, microPledge reckons its site will come to be viewed as a free market-testing service to gauge the reception for new software products and features. Interesting example of the intention economy at work: when consumers have to put their money where their mouth is, it’s a pretty good bet you can believe what they say. Time to consider how micro-pledging could be applied to your industry. If not to raise funds, then at least to find out what your customers really want. Spotted by: Adrian Scott Blyk, the mobile virtual network operator we covered earlier this year, launched in the UK yesterday. The company, which bills itself as a pan-European free mobile operator for young people, offers 16 to 24-year-olds 217 texts and 43 minutes every month, for free. As can be expected, the free part is made possible by advertisers keen to reach the age group up close and personal on their cell phones. Advertisers (“brands you like”) can send the youthful eyeballs up to 6 messages a day. Once they’ve run out of free minutes, users can top up their account and pay as they go. Blyk is currently limiting membership to users in mainland Britain who have a Blyk invite and a mobile phone with picture messaging—the better to see those colourful ads with. Ads are served via software built by First Hop, which enables targeted and personalised ad insertion, with an emphasis on consumers interacting with branded messages. Pekka Ala-Pietilä, Blyk’s CEO, explains: “We have spent the last year developing a unique, robust advertising content engine, and whilst the technology we are using is incredibly advanced, the main premise of Blyk is driven by three basic principles–ease of use, interaction, and relevance of communication.” Sounds like a free love mantra 😉 Now that social networks have become a regular part of the fabric of modern life, segmentation is well under way, with communities popping up all over focused on specific groups and interests. Case in point: OURthreads.com, a social marketplace designed specifically for users interested in fashion, clothing and accessories. Launched earlier this month, OURthreads facilitates the buying, selling and trading of clothes. Registered users begin by setting up a virtual “closet,” which serves as their home page. From there, they can proceed to display items for sale or look through other users’ closets for something to buy or trade. Users can link to their favourite closets, and they can also advertise on the site to bring more visitors to their own Creating a closet, buying, trading and listing items for sale are all free; sellers pay OURthreads a fee of 3.5 percent of the total selling price for anything they sell. Ads, meanwhile, are available in variably priced packages. Cofounder Pete Yonkman explains: “When we designed the concept we tried to create a community that would allow people to easily create value for the items they have, whether they designed them or they just don’t want to wear them any more.” Though it’s just barely out of the starting gates, the Indiana-based site already has a few hundred registered users—an eclectic mix of “boutiques, stay-at-home moms, a retired teacher who knits clothes, some college students and a few independent designers,” Yonkman says. Buying and selling on OURthreads is currently limited to US residents, but the company is open to partnership and ideas from those who want to make the site better. OURthreads is also gearing up to launch a new program next month, Yonkman says—stay tuned for more! Spotted by: Bill McMahon Vending machines can be found just about everywhere, except, maybe, where they’re needed most—tucked away on a remote beach or at the end of a gruelling golf-course hole. An Anglo-Spanish firm has come up with a solution: an off-the-grid, solar-powered vending machine that can be placed anywhere there’s adequate sunlight. In the process, Solar Energy Vending has greatly expanded the locations that can be served by an industry that matured decades ago. A big challenge for SEV was developing a refrigeration system strong enough to keep the machine’s food and drinks cool, while powered solely by the sun. Solar panels on top keep the machine’s refrigerator running, and a rechargeable battery provides power at night or during prolonged cloudy periods. A wind turbine can substitute for solar cells in less sunny climes, where hot beverages could make the vending dispensers a popular stop-off along ski runs. The company has been working on the concept since 2004. At last word machines have been placed at locations throughout Spain and on at least one golf course in the UK, and SEV is currently seeking inquiries from potential distribution partners in other countries. Besides revenue from sales of food and drinks, the machines are also equipped to display advertising. SEV’s website touts what could be another major enticement for machine purchasers, at least in Europe, saying EEC regulations waive income taxes on profits from the machines since they rely on renewable energy. SEV’s vending machines join a growing number of devices that can be placed just about anywhere, thanks to their reliance on solar energy. Lighted road signs and emergency phones are two other examples. For entrepreneurs and inventors the vending machines illustrate how any common device can be retrofitted for solar and placed in out-of-the-way locations. (Related: Vending goes organic & Solar-roasted coffee.) Spotted by: Bjarke Svendsen Seniors are among those most likely to move, as they downsize or head off to sunny retirement digs. Yet moves can be especially hard on them, with heavy lifting and countless details to deal with, from emptying an attic to reconnecting an entertainment system. Adrienne Simpson, founder of Smooth Mooove, has staked her claim in what could become an attractive new industry. Like so many entrepreneurs, she recognized a business opportunity after personally discovering a need. While moving her parents from Georgia to Michigan, she searched without success for a specialized company that would be able to help. Thanks to Simpson’s hard-knocks lessons, Smooth Mooove’s clients can now choose from a lengthy menu of services within three basic moving plans. Services range from cleaning up vacated homes once all household items have been loaded on a truck, to hanging drapes and shopping for new items for a client’s new home. Although any move is costly, Simpson says Smooth Mooove can actually save time and money. Since family members often have to take time from work to help a parent move, the company isn’t just marketing its program to seniors, but also to corporate clients, as an employee benefit for children of aging boomers. Smooth Mooove, based in Stone Mountain, Georgia, joins a growing list of concierge-like services focused on seniors, including other moving companies that are starting to serve this market. As populations age throughout the industrialized world, the need for similar services will expand, creating plenty of room for new competitors to differentiate themselves through innovative services or by segmenting the senior market in any number of ways. Plush retirement communities, for example, might contract with a moving service as an added inducement to buyers. In the end, the success or failure of moving companies for seniors—as with any high-touch service enterprise—will hinge on how well they manage the details. And, equally important, on the respect, consideration and care given to their clients in the process. Spotted by: Susanna Haynie A new marketing venture in Australia promises to capture the attention of consumers—and hold onto it for more than 15 minutes—when they’re out and about and in the mood to shop. NapkinAd features advertising promotions printed on napkins and napkin dispensers in high-traffic shopping mall food courts, where there’s a constant flow of traffic during business hours, with consumers stopping to chat, rest, grab a cup of coffee or bite to eat—and may even shove a few free napkins in their pockets before heading off to their next destinations. Similar to tissue pack advertising in Japan, the idea is to get an advertisement directly into consumers’ hands—and for longer than one might look at a leaflet before tossing it into the nearest trash can. Like other free love ventures, it works because it offers customers something useful and relevant at no charge—not only do most people not mind the ads, but many feel a fleeting sense of gratitude towards whoever offered them the freebie. Obviously, anyone can print ads on napkins, and many (food) brands already do. What sets NapkinAd apart, is the network of shopping centres they partner with, and their integrated approach: printing, displays and distribution. NapkinAd offers a variety of advertising packages, starting at just AUD 85 per week. Based on budgets and branding needs, clients can select from a number of eye-catching options. Counter-top units dispense napkins at food counters and can reach more than 1,000 people each day per counter for more than 18 minutes (while standing in line and while consuming their purchase) for under AUD 10. Even more eye-catching are display stands, which feature either printed images or LCD screens that run video commercials. NapkinAd will be launching in the UK soon. Time to bring the concept to other regions, too? (Related: Free snail mail, Free photocopies for students and Free phone calls for teenagers.) Spotted by: Bill McMahon