Discovering innovations that matter since 2002

YouTube regularly spawns flash-in-the-pan celebrities, but few have managed to build a profitable business out of their exposure. Lauren Luke is a rare exception—the British self-taught make-up guru built such a loyal following with her chatty tips on how to imitate celebrity looks, that she just launched her own line of cosmetics: By Lauren Luke. In contrast to high-profile make-up artists like Bobbi Brown, Luke has true girl-next-door appeal. The former taxi dispatcher started experimenting with brightly coloured make-up in high school. While selling cosmetics on eBay as a 26-year-old single mom, Luke started making simple, unedited YouTube tutorials for her customers, which have been viewed over 40 million times since she started posting them 18 months ago. The By Lauren Luke line, sold exclusively through Luke’s website to customers in the US, Canada and Europe, features kits of hand-picked shades. Naturally, each kit comes with a video tutorial on how best to apply ‘Fierce Violets’, ‘Vintage Glams’, ‘Sultry Blues’ and ‘Luscious Greens’. Luke hopes her customers will do what she does whenever she receives new cosmetics in the mail: “chew the postman’s hand off with excitement”. From her deft use of social media, to how she generously shares her skills to attract a loyal following, most seasoned entrepreneurs could learn a thing or two from Lauren Luke. Back in 2006 we wrote about Belgian tour operator Wasteels’ Club Tour program enabling amateurs to plan trips for customers and then earn a commission. Now taking the customer-made theme a step further comes YourTour—which also happens to be Belgian—which lets consumers do it all themselves. YourTour is a free, personal tour planner that uses a mathematical algorithm to automatically generate fully customized trip plans. Currently focusing on self-drive tours of France, the technology was originally developed for tourism professionals by deciZium, a spinoff company from the Faculté Polytechnique de Mons. Users begin by entering their initial criteria, including the region they’d like to visit, the dates, the type of tour, and the starting and ending points. YourTour then generates a proposed tour including hotels, activities and budget, allowing the user to choose at each step along the way whether to keep or delete any suggestion. deciZium has partnered with Lonely Planet for the suggested activities while Booking.com handles the online hotel reservations once the user is satisfied with their plan. For professional use, YourTour is accessible as a web service in ASP or in XML. More countries will soon be added to its trip-planning capabilities, the company says. While YourTour undoubtedly offers myriad benefits for DIY consumers, there are clearly also intriguing opportunities for related businesses. A hotel chain, for example, could use the technology to suggest tours built around its own hotels, as the site suggests itself; similarly, a tour operator could let clients create customized tours around its own offerings. Hospitality professionals: time to do some brainstorming! (Related: Trip planner suggests travelling musicRoute planner with a wiki twist.) In this era of crowdsourcing and customisation, consumers are accustomed to having their say on matters large and small. Demonstrating that customer input can be applied to just about everything, a car park is giving its customers a say in how its stairwells smell. UK parking provider NCP recently adopted new technology that helps it combat the “special” smell so commonly found in parking stairwells. Gone will be the olfactory suggestion of recent unsavoury activities, replaced instead by the aroma of roses, freshly baked bread, roast chicken or some other pleasant smell. All that remains is for consumers to choose which delectable odour they’d prefer, because rather than pick one in autonomous fashion, the company is asking its customers to vote instead. So, users of four trial NCP garages—in London, Birmingham, Cardiff and Leeds—are now invited to chime in with their preferences on the company’s site. The smells with the most votes will be implemented, and if the program is really successful, NCP will roll it out nationwide. Need we say more? Let the crowds have their say whenever possible, and you’ll rarely go wrong; fail to do so, and you may not like what you hear! 😉 Spotted by: Susanna Haynie The pro photography scene might be in for a revival, thanks to a Yorkshire-based studio with a razor-sharp focus and web-based approach. Their name says it all: We Shoot Bottles. The studio takes photos of everything from gin to fabric softener. As long as it’s a bottle, they’ll take a professional shot of it for GBP 30 or less. It’s all done remotely: clients send bottles to We Shoot Bottles’ office, where they’re shot at high resolution by a professional photographer. After a bit of re-touching to get rid of scrapes and scratches, a cut-out path is created for the client to either use in print or web design, allowing for professional-looking white or coloured backgrounds. Finally, the images are uploaded to the Bottle Bank, where clients or their designers can access them. Or, if preferred, a cd-rom can be sent through the post. Everything on offer is straightforward and to-the-point, from the studio’s process and copy–a single-page site says everything in around 150 words—to pricing. In contrast to most traditional studios, prices are disclosed upfront—appealing to time- and money-strapped solopreneurs who need professional services at start-up prices, and saving the studio the hassle of preparing individual quotes. We Shoot Bottles was launched earlier this year as a side project for Red Photography Ltd. One to expand on in other regions, and for other product categories? Spotted by: Marty Webster Consumers in the market for a new children’s playhouse have a wide variety to choose from, with pint-sized properties ranging from thirty-dollar cardboard versions to uber-premium, custom-built chalets. A new product from the Netherlands takes the market one step further, allowing kids to become designers by creating their own one-of-a-kind playhouses. The qb playhouse is completely customisable, giving children the option to pick their own colours and patterns for doors, windows and siding. Those seeking to be entirely unique can upload a pattern, drawing or text of their own design. qb playhouses are available in three unorthodox shapes—Original, Tree and City—and are constructed using sustainable wood. Not targeting the low end of the market, the houses are priced from EUR 699 to 999. Enrolling children as co-designers is a sure way to draw attention amidst an avalanche of toys. One to expand to other children’s products and services? (Related: Bedding designed by (and for) kids.) Spotted by: Judy McRae Earlier this month, we wrote about Everyday Models, the company that lets consumers rent out various aspects of their lives for advertising purposes. Zeroing in more narrowly on the online profile is Bomeiti, a service from Catalist Group that lets social media users choose the ads that appear on their pages—and then earn rewards for their selections. Through partnerships with social media providers, Bomeiti gives users of social networks and other such sites the ability to customize the online advertising that gets served on their personal pages. Users begin by specifying their preferences and interests; advertisers and agencies, meanwhile, specify the corresponding characteristics of the consumers they’d like to target with their ads. Bomeiti then matches ads to user tastes and displays the relevant ads on the appropriate users’ pages. Users are rewarded with points for the ads that are shown on their pages and can donate those rewards to the social causes of their choice. Bomeiti’s service provider partners are currently all Chinese, and include Cityne, Mipang, ShanghaiNing, Yobo and Neocha. As with the ad-sponsored snailmail provider we featured this week, there are benefits to advertisers in letting users select the ads that their friends will see. With more control for social media users and better targeting for advertisers and service providers, Bomeiti offers a potential new model for advertising in the world of social media. Only time will tell if it will take hold; in the meantime, one to watch! (Related: Paying consumers for promoting products they love.) Much the way parents love to show off their children, so dog owners tend to enjoy flaunting their canine companions. Tapping into that universal desire, a new contest from the Virginia Lottery promises to spotlight select players’ dogs on upcoming versions of its tickets. Virginia’s new Lucky Dog contest, which runs through May 26, is offering 20 dog owners the chance not only to win prizes of up to USD 10,000, but—perhaps even more motivating—the opportunity to have their dog’s photo featured on the Fall 2009 release of the Virginia’s Lucky Dog II Scratcher ticket. Players begin by uploading their dog’s photo—head-and-shoulders shots against a plain background are recommended—along with the dog’s name. They then enter a special 14-digit Dog Park Entry number from the back of any non-winning Lucky Dog ticket, the current versions of which feature photos of Virginia Lottery employees’ own dogs. Contestants will be judged by “a distinguished panel of dog lovers at the Virginia Lottery,” who will subjectively determine the 20 winning photographs based on image quality and compatibility with ticket artwork. All types of dogs are eligible, including those who live outside Virginia. An online gallery displays some of the photos that have been submitted so far. Winners will be announced June 30. Whether jet-sized or bite-sized, there’s no denying gravanity‘s power. If it can motivate consumers to stop smoking or to play the lottery more often, it can very likely motivate them to buy… the product of *your* choice?! 😉 Spotted by: Judy McRae Both ShortTask and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk enable Internet-connected computer users to earn money performing quick tasks for organizations far and wide. Now, a new project aims to bring similar income opportunities to those in the developing world using the ubiquitous mobile phone. Targeting the more than 2 billion literate mobile phone subscribers in the developing world, txteagle aims to help alleviate high unemployment levels in many rural areas of countries like Kenya with a crowdsourcing approach that offers new ways to earn extra money. The service connects corporations with small tasks to be completed—currently, the most common ones include software localization and translation into local dialects for companies like Nokia—and native people who can complete them in minutes by cell phone. Tasks are sent to multiple phone users by text message—”translate the phrase, ‘address book’ into Giriama,” for example—and answers are accepted as accurate when the majority of users provide the same response. Compensation is determined by the number of times an individual’s response agrees with the consensus; penalties are imposed for wrong answers, while “don’t know” responses make no contribution. Over time the system learns a particular user’s expertise, and can actively select the most appropriate tasks for them. It can also weight answers from long-term and historically accurate users higher than others, making it necessary to involve fewer other individuals when those users respond. Payment is made either to a bank account connected with an individual’s phone number—accessible at any post office or local kiosk—or via airtime credit transfers. The txteagle service is currently deployed in Kenya via Mobile Planet and Safaricom, and will soon be launching in Rwanda through MTN Rwanda and in the Dominican Republic through Viva. Additional partnerships in Africa and South America will be announced later this year, txteagle says. Also in the works is a version of the service that uses the commonly found Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) protocol instead of SMS. One to partner with, try out or otherwise get involved in…? Spotted by: Susanna Haynie An iPhone application developed for 7-Eleven Sweden combines a store locator with coupons for a free coffee and biscotti. After downloading the app, users plug in their phone number and receive a unique coupon code on their iPhone. To claim their coffee, they just show the code to a 7-Eleven clerk; no purchase necessary. The coupon is only valid once, and free coffee in April will be followed by free ice cream in May. The application, developed by Stockholm-based digital agency Lonely Duck, was downloaded 2,500 times in the week it launched—a considerable number given the size of the Swedish iPhone community, and enough to place it in the top 10 of free app downloads. 7-Eleven hasn’t launched the app in other markets yet, but it’s a smart example for other iPhone-loving retailers to follow: don’t just help (a relatively affluent group of) consumers find your store, but give them a good reason to visit and spend money while they take you up on your generous offer. Spotted by: Robert Olzon A new lightweight electric bicycle with eco-iconic looks is firmly targeting would-be bicycle commuters who are put off by the thought of turning up to work in need of a shower. Gocycle, set to launch this month, was designed by former F1 design engineer Richard Thorpe, using an injection-molded, lightweight magnesium alloy that’s stronger than plastic, at a fraction of the price of carbon fiber. The bike’s chain is completely encased—so no grease on trousers—and side-mounted wheels allow a flat to be changed in a matter of minutes. Gocycle also disassembles into a soft bag or white hard case for portability and easy storage in small apartments. For a bike of its size and weight, Gocycle’s most innovative feature is the micro-sized electric motor in its front wheel hub, which switches on with the push of a button. An in-frame battery pack holds 20 minutes worth of power; more than enough to help cyclists up a hill without breaking into a sweat. Supporting its drive to get people to switch from four wheels to two, the company offers a Gocyle-to-Work scheme for companies who wish to provide their employees with a healthier and greener commute. One to bring to urban cyclists—and their employers—across the globe? (Related: Full-service bike station for commuting cyclists.)