Founders Forum 2010: from the (swanky) edge of entrepreneurship

It's a beautiful summer Thursday in the English countryside.  I am at Founders Forum, surrounded by iPads and beautifully tanned entrepreneurs.  The Founders have spent the last two days working together on big themes and issues facing the entrepreneurial community, from major trends to where Google is going, to taxation and labour policy issues.  On the Thursday some VC's get invited, including yours truly.  Quite a change from my exhilarating evening at low-key co-working commune at BetaHaus Berlin the day before: this is entrepreneurship with a Tesla thrown in.

Never mind the Four Seasons environment, these is some serious brainpower, money, success and intent in this room.   Founders Forum is awesome because of the quality of people that it brings together.  From Peter Gabriel to Danny Rimer to Kevin Ryan, an all around great crowd (with some exceptions, self-evidently :-)).  The brainchild of Jonnie Goodwin at Jefferies, Brent Hoberman (ProFounders) and Marc Samwer, it's now firmly established as a prime occasion for top entrepreneurs, well beyond the UK and Europe.  As David Rowan at Wired puts, it feels like Europe is really coming into its own.  Thankfully, there's also some relaxed geezers around like Mike B, Sara M and Dave McC.

Let's shift gear and look at some of the content. First we go for a few high-level insights from some of the founders on the themes they discussed and then a look at the "rising stars" of this year.  Note these are not my opinions.

e-commerce insights

E-commerce penetration is currently around 5%, expected to get to north 15% – 30 to 40% for the most bullish of the group.  Serious concerns arise related to the over-reliance on amazon, apple, ebay.  Google felt to potentially be the big loser here — high proportion of revenues from shopping search are likely to go away.  Google do not capture shopping data on apps, private sales, apple network.  The Plink / Google team (who showcased their amazing visual recognition tech) may disagree. 

Monetisation of content

First one has to focus on the value as a content provider: is it in packaging, organisation, convenience, accessibility, timeliness, uniqueness, insights etc.   Free / ad supported is only at best a way to grow audience as colossal scale is required for free and that is clearly not sustainable for most media brands.  We need to find smart ways to protect "paid": smart use of rights protection whereby content owners do not replicate what music owners so disastrously did, combined with the advent of policing.  Bundling is promising (although I find this back-to-the-future thinking odd as one would argue the web is actually all about the unbundling of media, starting with classifieds).  Further, when monetization models shift, the entire sourcing / production / delivery model needs to change and focusing on the monetisation side only is clearly wrong.  So the key question is reframed: "how do you rethink the collection, aggregation and distribution of content so that the content monetisation of today become viable and sustainable ?"

Privacy: google, fb and apple are all gathering most personal information with fb gathering graph info; most people do not care but vocal fringe and politicians should create a concern for everyone. Conclusion: the industry "needs better education / self regulation to help avoid defensive action"

Rising stars 2009 : update

Shazam (andrew) announced 75M users up from 35m last year, touted shazam red as the first giving app on the apple store, as well as the first interactive tv app with us broadcast networks ("tag tv on the fly, make tv interactive").  Tweetdeck's metrics wowed too, Ian is on to something.  jollycloud (tariq) talked about the imminent launch of its new os (yes, using html5 etc.) for netbooks and tablets, completely open to break the vertical integration paradigm.  kenshoo said it was growing fast and profitably, nice !  poken (stefan) raised a new round of $2M from swisscom venture; cybersports hit 2M visits and raised £4M.    playfish (kristian) was again the most fun and for my money the most impressive: the 25M monthly actives have now become 60M monthly actives, 200 employees, the reverse takeover of EA is well under way :-) Finally wolfram alpha (stephen) was celebrating one year since launch, talked multi-platform and pushing its computational platform to a number of corporates and governments. 

Rising stars 2010

secondmarket: wall street 3.0, liquidity in private assets (US)

70% of trading is done by high frequency traders, the four top bulge brackets banks made money every trading day in Q1.  Wow.  Now we need liquidity in private assets, which is why secondmarket has developed private markets in 7 asset classes, running over $3bn in transactions, including private company stock, LP interests, bankrupt assets.  The key here is to craft the market around the company / client and not the other way around — allowing participatns to define their own market rules.  Companies traded include fb, eHarmony, linkedin, tesla, secondlife, zynga or twitter.

masabi: mobile train ticketing (UK)

Believe from a guy who lives and breathes this market: "Don't believe the hype: adoption of new mobile apps is overhyped — change of behaviour has to be driven by real needs or analog experience has to be really painful".  His case study: mobile ticketing, with a simple promise:  "never queue again".  "Hitting the user right at the paint point and servicing them in the simplest way is the only way to get serious adoption".  No requirement for user names, registration etc.  but just a simple transaction and consumer promise: "buy a ticket with your credit card on your mobile". 

fwix: organise the information by what is happening nearby (darian shirazi) (SFO)

Their mission: "to cure, filter and index information by location", in the process building the largest local content index in the world.  Indexing news, status updates, reviews, local content types … moving well-beyond news.  The promise: embeddable local content.  The widget network is off to a great start, Darian shared impressive numbers with us.  Also signed a deal with the NY Times.  Monetization through local search, relevancy means 10% CTR's.

oblong (LA)

This was definitely technogeek heaven: presenting the "g-speak spatial operating environment"- effectively the tech used in Minority Report.  Now expanding on this with, on top of the 3d gen natural user interface (MR): real-world pixels + recombinant networking (huh, a "lego-like data architecture" ).   In practical terms you use gloves to do gesture commands and navigate and organise data on the fly.  They also developped wands because "generals don't wear gloves".  Applications are primarily in the military and oil and gas sectors.

g-speak overview 1828121108 from john underkoffler on Vimeo.

boxee (avner ronen)

We all know and love boxee ("free software that helps users watch and discover stuff on their tv") and Avner rocked.  Lots of users, lots of money raised (from USV, spark, GC).  30 employees, 3 years old.  launching boxee box by d-link in november, $200 with HDMI and wifi.    His focus on early monetization, the box and the European launch. "We have been doing zero revenues for the last three quarters, meeting budget consistently" jokes Avner.


Simply awesome visual search engine company, acquired by google in april.  Can recognise just about any pattern or physical objects.  Launched on art vertical on android.  "Image recognition is ready for prime time" we're told.  Ah, the lure of the mighty G…

light blue optics

this comoany was founded in 2004 and is focused on holographic laser projection, having now raised $30M in VC funding,  The "first" product turns any flat surface into a touch screen.   A ton of applications are touted, including car controls, projecting restaurant menus onto tables, enhancing a shopper's experience.  The ipad without the screen, basically.  I hope they can break into the car vertical, but I am a bit of a skeptic on that one, I must admit.

The joojoo: tablet devices

Simple promise: "the internet in nine seconds.  This company has brought us a browser operating system meant to power a new class of consumer electronic devices, "couch friendly, affordable web devices".  Motto: "The internet is the application".  Now shipping 12inch devices that boots in 9 seconds.  Merge app store goodness with the openness of the web.  Multi-touch, multi-task, high res, flash support :-) , full html5 compliant, $399.  Oh, and a 3g version coming soon.  Whilst some thought this was mission impossible, all agreed that getting this out there in 2 years with 14 employees was simply amazing. 

Marcel Gashi

He was clearly  busy doing some real business, as Marcel Gashi, the 18 year old repeat entrepreneneur who raised £7M for timmp, was MIA.  Shame, he sounds like a juggernaut and I would have liked to see him.

And now for something completely different…

Human robotics by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, Osaka Uiversity

Premise : think of Androids and geminoids as new information media.  "We are looking at a robotics enhanced society soon".  Pr Ishiguro is working on the development of interactive robots enabled by sensor networks, remote control and autonomous intelligence.   Specifically, working on "human like robots" with complex facial expressions.  Next steps: the Geminoid = a tele-operated android of an existing person. "I don't need to go to Kyoto anymore, my robot is there for me".  It was interesting to think of human likeness which turns many people off:  "Human likeness serves a clear purpose: the human brain is extremely tuned to process and understand human expressions".   Practical application: use robots to provide companionship to elderly people or long-time hospital patients.  A weird release came next: the mobile phone as a tiny human robot.

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