Discovering innovations that matter since 2002

While a simple Google search will present you with expert and amateur views on almost any subject, those opinions are generally scattered across thousands of websites, blogs and forums. Online polling sites like Ask500People and BuzzDash offer a centralized alternative, allowing you to gauge popular opinion on almost any topic and see the results within hours. Ask500People (“World opinion while you watch”) gathers votes on its own website and through widgets on thousands of other sites. Registered users suggest new questions and those that receive the most votes from other members are moved to the homepage. While in beta mode, Ask500People is limiting itself to 100 people. Each question is open until 100 votes are in, which generally takes less than 15 minutes. Incoming votes are displayed on a map in real time, with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ markers indicating where respondents are based and what they voted. (The voter’s location is retrieved from the IP address of the computer he or she is using. IP tracking also allows the website to limit votes to one per computer.) Recent questions range from “Is America ready for a female president” to “Does honey help to heal a wound?” Although sophisticated formal survey tools offer organizations a more in-depth look into their audiences’ minds, they’re also expensive and take weeks to prepare and execute. No surprise then, that Ask500People is offering premium services. For USD 100-500, a company can poll 500 internet users on any topic, and have the results within hours. Survey results for corporate polls are private, and the company’s identity isn’t visible to the respondent. BuzzDash, meanwhile, takes a more elaborate approach to online polling. While Ask500People’s strength lies in its simplicity (one question at a time, open for a very limited time span), BuzzDash offers an entire dashboard of questions, which can run for months. Visitors and voters can choose from categories like Entertainment and Business & Finance, and can also create ‘buzzbites’ to publish on their own websites, asking their own visitors the questions they want answers to. BuzzDash lets users suggest questions, but editors decide which question will make it to the homepage, “looking for those most likely to reflect the interests and breadth of opinions of users in the given topic areas.” BuzzDash isn’t currently offering premium services. Business opportunities? While global polls are fascinating, there’s definitely value in local versions of Ask500People or BuzzDash, addressing topics that matter in your part of the world, asking questions in your native tongue. And, of course, allowing corporate clients to poll local markets. Websites: www.ask500people.comwww.buzzdash.com Earlier this month we wrote about RedesignMe, a Dutch site that offers a place for consumers to share complaints, offer suggestions and try their hand at redesigning the products that are part of their lives. San Francisco-based Satisfaction, which just recently entered beta, takes the concept one better by giving the marketers behind those products a chance to be explicitly involved. Working on a notion it calls “people-powered customer service,” Satisfaction lets consumers participate in conversations about customer service issues specific to particular companies or products. A recent post in the Twitter section, for example, describes a problem one consumer had getting a Twitter application to update in Facebook. In the Timbuk2 section, another contributor asks for advice about laptop messenger bags. Participants in the conversations can include both customers and company employees (clearly labelled as such), and the posts ranked as most useful get propelled to the top of the list. Discussions are controlled by the community, free of impersonal contact forms or company censorship. Marketers who choose to join in, meanwhile, are freed from repetitive support tasks and able to engage their customers in a more collaborative way. The service is currently free for those on both sides of the equation. “Customer service is the new marketing,” the people behind Satisfaction like to say. And it’s true: customers who are motivated enough to spend time talking about you are almost certainly worth getting to know—if you don’t interact with them, your competitors will. Next, how about bringing this model down to the local or niche level, focusing on regional offerings or products in a particular category? Couture gets personal with StyleShake—a new online venture that lets creative customers design their own duds, picking from a selection of quality fabrics and putting together dresses from virtual pattern pieces to create truly personal pieces that can be delivered to their doors (in Europe or the United States) in as little as 10 days, with prices starting at GBP 139. What’s more, the garments are produced in London, so customers need not worry about sweatshop labour. Winning points for user-friendliness, the StyleShake website is so intuitive that 95% of visitors start designing dresses. Virtual mannequins allow them to see their designs come to life as they choose the colour, bodice cut, neckline, sleeves, waist panel, lower bodice and sleeves—a process that can be downright addictive for those with a flair for fashion. Lucky for them, the site allows users to store their designs as part of their profiles. Members are encouraged to rate and comment on one another’s designs or simply browse through other users’ collections for inspiration. While would-be Stella McCartneys may go a long way before they run out of dress design ideas, an obvious next step would be to expand clothing options to include pants, suits, swimsuits and more—including men’s and children’s wear. Fashion forward entrepreneurs eager to get on board with this or other DIY concepts might take a hint from Crushpad and consider offering e-commerce marketing solutions to facilitate customers who would like to start selling and branding their designs. Concepts like StyleShake appeal to consumers who love unique, handmade goods, and eagerly buy them from ‘pro-am’ creators through online marketplaces like Etsy and Supermarket, but lack the technical know-how to construct their own clothing or other products. Business opportunities? Provide an outlet for the average person’s creativity and enable them to wear or use one-of-a-kind pieces that they have ‘made’ themselves. Think of it as ADIY (almost do it yourself). (Related: Customized lingerie.) We first wrote about Zipcar in 2003, applauding the company’s innovative approach to the staid car rental industry. Catering to urban dwellers in North America and the UK, Zipcar’s car sharing fleet is rentable by the hour, gas and insurance included. Which allows customers to use the vehicles whenever they need them. Zipcar’s culture of innovation didn’t stop there. In April 2007, we noted that it had partnered with ParkAtMyHouse.com. The UK company acts as a clearing house, allowing people with parking spaces for rent to link up with those looking for a place to stow their cars. The savvy alliance meant Zipcar’s fleet could now be stashed in more locations, hopefully within walking distance of its customers. To make finding those cars easier, this fall Zipcar unveiled a mobile tracking system. How it works? Suppose a Zipcar member buys an expensive antique chair at a shop in Soho (be it New York or London). To find a car to haul it home in, they simply access Zipcar with a GPS-enabled cell phone to find the nearest vehicle and make an instant reservation, unlock the car by pressing the company’s membership card to the windshield. Customer takes home the chair. Returns the car to a designated parking space. Presto! An urban logistics problem that would have caused severe headaches just a few years ago is made simple thanks to the mobile web and an innovative business idea. Entrepreneurs take heart: plenty of similar everyday hassles remain, crying out for solutions. Spotted by: RK Following our coverage of Bizzyboard, a whiteboard calendar for coordinating family schedules, one of our spotters came across Cozi—one of those solutions the web was born to provide. Launched about a year ago, Cozi Central is an online service that helps busy families manage schedules, appointments, shopping and communications from wherever they are—the kitchen, car, office or even the grocery store. Available both as a software download and in a online version, the service gives the entire family access to shared calendars, shopping lists and reminders from any computer or mobile phone. Cozi’s colour-coded calendar module tracks appointments for everyone in the family, while the message function helps family members coordinate via phone or e-mail. A downloadable Cozi Outlook toolbar helps parents stay connected while at work. Centralized shopping lists are available for access remotely, and a photo collage screensaver lets family members enjoy and share their digital photos. Best of all, the service is free for users, funded by Cozi’s relationships with co-branding, advertising and affiliate partners. “The American family has never been busier,” explains Mari Baker, former president of BabyCenter and a board member for Seattle-based Cozi. “In the majority of households, both parents are working and kids are involved in so many extracurricular activities that moms spend much of their time coordinating, chauffeuring and juggling. Cozi Central is family-ready—it can handle the hectic nature of family life and provides an easy method for managing the day-to-day madness.” Cozi families have an average of 2.8 computers in the home and a median household income of USD 91,375; their moms are part of a group (women 25-44) that controls USD 2.1 trillion in annual US household spending, the company says. While Cozi Central can be used anywhere in the world, functionality is limited outside the United States. How long before this gets fully rolled out elsewhere, catering to the specific needs and wants (and media opportunities) of families in other parts of the world? Spotted by: Margaret Czeisler Launched yesterday, Martinair‘s mobile travel guides combine several not-so-new elements to create a helpful tool for their holiday-bound customers. The Dutch charter company is the first airline to offer its passengers a travel guide they can install on their web-enabled mobile phones. Customers can buy a destination guide for EUR 6.50, and they’re free for anyone booking in December. A link is sent to the user’s phone by text message, and they can download the entire guide—approximately 400 KB—within minutes. Since all of the information is copied to their phone’s memory, travellers are able to avoid expensive roaming charges when they want to look up a local hotspot. The travel guides are based on content provided by Leads2Travel‘s travel editors and include local tips from Martinair crew members. Current destinations on offer are Curaçao, Miami and Havana, with two dozen other cities to follow over the next few months. While Dutch people won’t have much trouble getting by on the primarily Dutch speaking island of Curaçao, the guides for Miami and Havana offer an extra tool—a talking vocabulary. This service, built by Steape and accessible from within the travel guide, offers a host of useful phrases shown in Dutch and English or Spanish. Users who have trouble communicating with the locals can let their phones do the talking. Click on a button, and a friendly voice speaks the selected phrase. Mind you, talking translation devices and applications aren’t new. The Lingo Voyager 3, for example, is a dedicated talking translation device that looks like an old-fashioned BlackBerry, and can translate and utter over 400,000 words and 46,000 phrases in twenty languages. LonelyPlanet teamed up with Sony to offer PSP Passport guides, which also include audio phrasebooks, and Sony’s TalkMan for PSP is a voice-activated translation app that operates in a range of languages. On the mobile front, British travel business lastminute.com offers a Talking Translator—a free service that provides text and audio translations of holiday phrases from English into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German. Still—we like Martinair’s integrated approach, bundling tailor-made travel information with a talking translator, and offering it to customers when they book their tickets. Other airlines to follow? (Related status skills concept: In-flight education.) There are more than 50 million adults with disabilities in the United States alone, but so far, as a specific market, they’ve been largely unrecognized and underserved. Disaboom, which just launched last month, aims to change all that with a social network aimed specifically at consumers whose lives have been touched by disabilities. Disaboom was founded by J. Glen House, who graduated from medical school after a skiing accident left him quadriplegic at the age of 20. Its mission is to develop the first interactive online community dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities or functional limitations. In so doing, it aims to serve not just those who have disabilities themselves but also caregivers and families. The Denver-based site brings together content and tools ranging from specialized health information to social networking to daily living resources, including medical news, career advice, dating resources and travel tips. Ford, Netflix and Johnson & Johnson are among the advertisers that have enthusiastically flocked to the site, which also features video, chat and city-by-city accessibility reviews. Disaboom recently acquired Lovebyrd—a dating site for disabled singles—and just before launch it raised more than USD 5 million in a common stock offering. The site already boasts a network of more than 180 million people. As populations age throughout the industrialized world, the number of people with disabilities of one sort or another will only increase—and so, too, will their collective spending power. Marketers, take note! Spotted by: Susanna Haynie Earlier this year, we wrote about a small start-up that had found an interesting niche: buying broken iPods from consumers. BuyMyBrokeniPod.com offers people a very simple way to sell their broken or unused iPods: after indicating which model they’d like to sell and what condition it’s in, the website gives an instant price-quote. Send it in, and payment is transferred via PayPal within 24 hours after the iPod has been received. Now, six months later, the company’s founder is expanding the concept to offer the same easy sales service for game consoles. Again, users indicate which item they’d like to sell and what condition it’s in, and are instantly given a quote and sent shipping instructions. For example, a good condition Nintendo DS Lite will net its seller USD 61.50 (new DS Lites are currently retailing at USD 129). Other electronics, including cell phones and laptops, will follow within the next few months at BuyMyTronics.com. Offering consumers a simple alternative to selling broken or unused gadgets on eBay? Still a smart concept, in our book. The challenge now is for the company to retain its ease of use while expanding to other products. We’ve written about social commerce before, with such sites as Fundable and ChipIn tapping people’s collective buying power to raise funds for a variety of purposes. In case you weren’t convinced this trend is taking hold, now there’s CrowdFunder, a Colorado-based site that picks up on the same basic idea but adds a local twist. CrowdFunder recently launched a beta site focusing on the Boulder area that aims to make it easy to collectively fund many kinds of community projects, charitable and otherwise. Fundable endeavours can range from giving to local nonprofits to refurbishing a playground to hosting a big party—only investment and business uses are prohibited. Current examples on CrowdFunder include establishing a scholarship for a local Boulder school, helping an artist finish recording her CD, installing bus-stop benches and supporting a 7-year-old local gymnast. People posting projects indicate a financial goal and deadline, and the site tracks how much is raised over time. As with Fundable, if the goal amount is not met by the deadline, all contributors get their money back. The entire process is free during the startup phase, but eventually CrowdFunder will charge a transaction fee of 7.5 percent of the funds raised for each project that succeeds in meeting its goal. CrowdFunder’s founders are banking on the site’s local focus to set it apart. They explain: “CrowdFunder is a platform that we believe works best locally, where people who know each other and can vouch for each other and see and enjoy each other’s works will have more confidence to make financial contributions to members of the community.” Though its pilot version is focused on Boulder, CrowdFunder ultimately aims to expand both geographically and topically in other directions. One to bring to a community near you? (Related: Crowdfunding software projects and Crowdfunding a cultural hub in Liverpool.) Spotted by: Theresa Duffy Websites like Monster and Craigslist handle a large share of recruitment for skilled workers. But most jobs that need to be filled require very little training at all. And finding good store clerks, housecleaners, dishwashers and other menial workers can be as hard as a finding a good lab technician or XML programmer, even in developing nations. That’s because those seeking work frequently have no means of connecting with those wanting to hire. It’s a problem Babajob, based in Bangalore, hopes to solve. The site helps the city’s legions of unskilled workers find work using an online social network. Historically, giving India’s poor a means to log onto the web has been especially tough, since people of low social status are often barred from even touching someone else’s computer, and may not be able to read or write (adult literacy in India is estimated to be 61.3%). Babajob uses intermediaries like charities and owners of internet case to help job seekers post their online profiles. The go-between helps create a resume, typing up details as dictated by the jobseeker, and takes his or her picture to add to the profile. To gain the attention of potential employers, Babajob utilizes a system where those who connect job seekers with employers receive a small fee based on their success. The site mimics the intricate social networks that already exist in India. Traditionally, the head of a family in need of a cook might ask the cooks currently working in the household for a referral. The cooks in turn will send word out through their extended families. The time-proven system of close connections helps insure that job applicants are trustworthy. Babajob was launched by a former Microsoft employee who was transferred from the company’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters to India. The website resulted in part from the software company’s efforts to encourage India’s high tech workers to explore ways to use technology to help the poor, and has plans to expand throughout India. (Related: Referral community for domestic help.) Spotted by: Susanna Haynie