Join the Crowd

No man is an island, especially with the myriad networking sites out there today. Find out what's next in the social revolution.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the May 2007 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

If you aren't connected, you soon will be--or at least you'll get enough networking invitations to make you feel like you should be. The web is exploding with service providers on a mission to help us manage our increasingly undifferentiated business/social lives. All we have to do is join.

Of course, as an entrepreneur, you're probably less interested in signing up than cashing in. It's not easy, but it is doable, and it's becoming more common every day.

Step one: Come up with a service that will scale into a massive community of users--not just a large group of transitory link-clickers, but a real community of engaged participants. The more the merrier because, with the right concept, your members will provide most of your site's content, attract other users, police themselves and provide the reams of demographic and behavioral data needed for your mostly ad-based revenue model. Get it right and membership will explode--hopefully taking revenue with it., Craigslist, eBay, Google and Skype figured it out. So did Facebook, Flickr, MySpace and YouTube--to name only the most obvious. There's a new virtual business model in there somewhere, but it's camouflaged by differences both real and cosmetic. A good idea is so obvious after the fact, while the next one is so hard to spot--and often hard to sell to we of lesser vision.

I wouldn't know the next big thing if it fell off a shelf and bopped me on the head. But at least I know where to find the shelf: on the website of the DEMO conferences. DEMO is a twice-annual debutante ball for high-tech entrepreneurs--three days of elevator pitches and elbow-rubbing between the smart money and those who need it. DEMO is by invitation only, and its website is flush with text and video thumbnails of prescreened presenters--sort of a YouTube for entrepreneurship.

Generations Agape
There are hundreds of new ideas up there--most predicated on community, which turns out to be a phenomenon from the playground up. Even if you aren't that connected, you can bet your kids are. So many new web services aim to spoon-feed messaging appetites not only among the highly prized Gen Xers, but also their Gen Y siblings as young as 14. Here are just a few.

  • CircleUp lets event organizers query large groups and get a single, coherent response.
  • Ejamming allows garage bands to jam online even when band members are in different garages.
  • Me.dium shows web rubberneckers where online crowds are.
  • PairUp helps travelers know who else will be there when they get there.
  • Share2Me makes for quick swapping of vids and pix with buddies on any IM platform.

Today's web innovations stand on the shoulders of AOL Instant Messenger, whose buddy list interface added the dimension of presence to messaging and encouraged short-but-frequent contact. It's a high-touch medium where the touch is sometimes the message. For example, Twitter's simple mission is to let friends ask friends, "Whaddya doin'?"

I have to admit, I didn't grok the streaming contact thing when AIM first introduced it--and I still don't, by crackey. Pity boomer business execs who have to rise above their own communication preferences to figure out the needs of their far-younger customers. Execs at Iqzone bridge the gap by listening very carefully to staffers who are still young enough to move among Iqzone's target demographic: mobile, internet-savvy consumers, particularly college kids. Vice president Brad Holcomb can't explain why the average college kid sends 100 text messages a day or has a 2,000-name buddy list. But the more texting the better for Iqzone: It offers a cell phone version of Craigslist classified ads.

So Whaddya Know?
Well, everybody knows something about local restaurants, concerts or contractors. Now if only there was a way to distill the life experiences of a whole crowd--not just a few pundits--into easily digestible nuggets. Plenty of companies are trying.

  • Attendio shares news and reviews of plays, concerts and other artsy stuff among those with similar tastes.
  • MyDesignIn lets you build and furnish your dream home online with the help of professionals and amateurs who've been there, done that.
  • gives home shoppers the 411 on neighborhoods, realtors and individual properties from residents.

Managing that much qualitative content is a big job that takes a big database. It also takes smart algorithms and other parsing mechanisms to crunch the data into short, logical advisories.

  • Aggregate Knowledge bubbles up content relevant to each surfer by analyzing the browsing patterns of the crowd.
  • Trailfire lets surfers leave bread crumbs for each other, helping everyone quickly find a path to exactly what they want.
  • TextDigger doesn't take your search terms literally; it infers what you really want.

Net entrepreneurship 2.0 isn't just a cheaper version of business in the real world. New ideas, technologies and revenue models let hordes of individuals self-select highly personalized services for free. Well, nothing's free: The price is sharing your information, content and personal data, and being exposed to marketing messages barely distinguishable from the service you're using.

The mass market is dead; long live the bunch of individuals.

Heed The Call
What do today's dotcommers have that yesterday's dotbusters didn't? A cell phone in every palm and broadband in half of American homes. Webpreneurs are PC/cell phone mash-upping like it's 1999.

Boorah your way to the best naan in San Fran or pastrami in Poughkeepsie

Create a BUZ by mixing a phone greeting with your favorite tune at BUZ Interactive

Build a web portal/message center browsable by phone with GoWare DoMo templates

Teleflip your e-mail to any standard cell phone without special server or client software.

Record your own video ring tone on Vringo

Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.
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