7 entrepreneurs pick their digital winners for 2011

Entrepreneurs tell GB about the trends and businesses set to revolutionise the digital space


What characterises the new breed of UK digital start-ups? GB takes a look and asks digital veterans to tell us who they’ve got their eye on for 2011 and beyond

The debate surrounding the UK environment for tech start-ups, as compared to the US, is a heated one. True, London’s Silicon Roundabout has not yet produced a Google, Facebook or Twitter. But the number of UK tech success stories is rising all the time and 2011 looks set to be a big year for the growing east London hub of digital businesses.

“Recent political interest in fostering this hotbed of digital talent will fuel interest through and beyond the Olympics,” adds Oli Barrett, entrepreneur and organiser of Web Mission. We’ve seen the rise of home-grown talent such as ASOS, Wonga, Betfair and LOVEFiLM; now GB has asked some of those most connected with the digital start-up scene for their thoughts on who the new trailblazers will be – both the start-ups launching with a bang, and the businesses for whom 2011 is going to be pivotal.

Growing Business is also watching with anticipation to see what the digital entrepreneurs among our latest crop of Young Guns will achieve this year. They are already an impressive bunch and include Jason Trost of Smarkets, David Langer of GroupSpaces, Tim Morgan of Picklive, Sam Barnett of Struq, Ning Li of Made.com and Alicia Navarro of Skimlinks.

The new digital start-ups distinguish themselves by their priorities and ways of doing things. Here, we take a look at the principles behind the new digital and some of the businesses – as recommended by experts in the digital start-up field – leading the charge.

Keeping it simple

One trend, or counter-trend, that is emerging in the new digital is that of simplicity. Consumers overwhelmed by choice are becoming increasingly attracted to services and products which only fulfil their primary purpose, from phones designed to do no more than make and receive calls (www.johnsphone.com), to the concept, undeniably simple, behind Twitter. Doodle.com, billed as one to watch by Blinkx founder Suranga Chandratillake on page 41, embraces this concept with its stripped back interface and singular functionality. The same trend has driven review site Revoo to implement its ‘Just buy this one’ feature, which simply offers an image of the best-rated product in each of its nine categories (including TVs, laptops and vacuum cleaners), a brief description of its features, the price and a link to buy it.

Making services and products as user-friendly and accessible as possible can also open up your business to a new customer base: children – tablets for children are already on the shelves. Meanwhile, advertising giant JWT’s latest annual list of ‘things to watch out for in 2011’ says some interesting stuff about counter-trends, also predicting a backlash against ‘radical transparency,’ and reminding us that ‘innocence is bliss’.

Making it pay

There’s no shortage of tech companies whose success isn’t hampered by a lack of obvious routes to monetisation. The new digital though has shifted towards the basic principles behind any business, digital or bricks-and-mortar: will people pay for it? Doodle.com has successfully introduced the elusive premium model for its online services, which are essentially free to individuals but incur a cost for companies, something also being successfully rolled out by GroupSpaces.

Floxx, a mobile-based social network backed by veteran investor and former Dragon Doug Richard has got numerous revenue-producing ideas driving its progress. Graze  is following a more traditional e-commerce model, as is Made.com.

Consulting the masses

Granted, crowdsourcing is hardly a new concept, but digital start-ups are finding new ways to make the most of the wisdom of crowds, not least by using it to fund the realisation of their or others’ ideas. “We will be hearing more about crowdfunding,” insists Oli Barrett. “From Kiva to KickStarter, individuals are funding each other to do a range of projects. BuzzBnk is a recent entry into this space, for social ventures.”

Slicethepie, founded in 2007, uses crowdfunding to let new bands record albums, while its recent spin-out, SoundOut (advocated on the right by serial entrepreneur and investor Julie Meyer) uses the crowdsourcing principle to help radio stations choose playlists.

Made.com uses the concept particularly well to choose its range. And SkillPages, formerly Weedle (lauded by Colette Ballou on page 41) helps skilled professionals to be found by the employers who need them on a freelance basis; it was referred to by Springwise as  “one more testament to the power of the ‘labour as a service’ crowdsourcing trend”.

Going mobile

“Experts have been predicting ‘the year of mobile’ for the last 10 years, as far as I can see,” says Barrett. “But the success of the iPhone and its incredible number of applications is rocket fuel for the imagination of digital entrepreneurs.”

Apps remain, obviously, a huge opportunity. JWT’s list of things to watch in 2011 forecasts that we’ll be seeing more and more developers creating apps for desktop computers and laptops this year.

At the same time, we’re also seeing increasing numbers of businesses being accessed by users almost exclusively from their mobile phones. ipadio, for example, recommended by Jos White, allows users without access to the internet to make telephone calls through their mobile which can be broadcast on the web. And Floxx, Doug Richard’s latest investment, plays cleverly on the fact that its users are constantly mobile – with the location of its users being paramount to the experience.making life easier.

Administration might not be the sexiest of topics, but digital entrepreneurs looking at what users really want are finding new ways of using the web to organise people’s lives. GroupSpaces makes managing a group incredibly easy. Doodle.com takes much of the effort out of organising meetings; Brightpearl, tipped by Jos White, allows small firms to manage many administrative functions from one place, while Huddle, rated by Joe Cohen, is collaboration software making life easier for many businesses.

Along with these rising tech stars, there are dozens of other young digital firms doing startlingly original and impressive things. Let us know who you’ve got your eye on in 2011 at Growingbusiness.co.uk.

Doug Richard is an entrepreneur, investor and founder of School for Startups
Floxx

Doug Richard’s latest investment began life as FitFinder, a site created by Rich Martell while a student at UCL. The university told him to take the site down, thereby creating a news story that captured the attention of the ex-Dragon. It has now re-launched as Floxx, a mobile social network designed to let 18-21 year olds flirt online. Sophisticated it ain’t, but it is proving popular.

“What caught my attention was the millions of page views and hundreds of thousands of people it was being used by,” says Richard. “I look at a lot of young companies, and ask myself not whether there’s any innovation but whether anyone will want to use it.”

Richard concedes the site may be somewhat shallow, but points out that “it’s no more or less shallow than Facebook’s origins. In fact, it’s eerily similar in some ways. The people are just tied to a place rather than each other”.

The business model is based on the fact it’s location based, as Richard explains: “If you’ve got a bar and 150 people there on Floxx, you’ve got a fantastic ability to draw more people to that bar, to provide promotions and to reward them for their loyalty.” Added to this is a user base of interest to countless brands. “Floxx has stumbled on what people want to do,” he adds. “I’m hoping to help them capitalise it.”

Thirdyearabroad.com

Unlike Floxx, Thirdyearabroad.com is not invested in by Richard. In fact its founder Lizzie Fane essentially created the site and business model on her own. All university students studying languages across Europe are expected to spend a year abroad to hone their skills. The amount of resources provided by the universities to assist students in this endeavour however isn’t great. Enter Fane.

“She’s got some extraordinarily good ideas and services coming out,” says Richard. “The great thing about the site is that every year she gets a new crop of clients – across Europe you’re talking about hundreds of thousands. I think we’ll see that site become very high revenue-generating, very successful, very quickly. I wish she’d let me invest in it!”

www.floxx.com www.thirdyearabroad.com

Julie Meyer is the founder of investment and advisory firm Ariadne Capital
SoundOut

SoundOut is a sister site of crowdsourcing start-up Slicethepie (which allows artists to raise money from fans to release records), describes itself as a research and audience insight tool for new music. It allows artists, labels and radio stations to gain audience insight into new releases, all gathered from feedback from music consumers.

Julie Meyer believes that “the music revolution on the internet has not empowered artists, it has swamped the consumer with average content. As a result the consumer has retreated to the trusted taste-makers. Radio today is more popular than ever before.”

This means, she argues, that radio airplay is still the only reliable way to break an artist. “SoundOut is now being used by radio groups representing over 50% of the UK radio market to identify which tracks to playlist,” she says. Not bad for a concept launched in October last year. Following its parent company’s crowdsourcing model, SoundOut has become the first predictive technology for the radio industry.

www.soundout.com

Jos White is an entrepreneur turned investor and founding partner at Notion Capital, a venture fund that invests in growth firms in the web-based services sector
Brightpearl

Bristol-based Brightpearl was launched by Chris Tanner and Andrew Mulvenna in 2007 as a provider of cloud-based business software. It has developed a system that provides businesses with CRM, accounting, e-commerice and inventory management capabilities all in one place.

White says: “Its software is all web-based so just requires an internet connection to access. The service requires no upfront investment and is easy to set up, reducing the time and costs – not to mention the stress – of managing multiple business processes.

“The fact that it addresses an actual challenge – particularly for smaller firms – means that Brightpearl is proving to be a completely disruptive force in the business software market, growing at more than 300% per year. During 2011, we’ll see Brightpearl take its service to an increasingly global audience, and in a traditionally risk-averse UK it should be held up as a positive example of go-getting ambition.”

www.brightpearl.co.uk

Ipadio

ipadio, a subsidiary of creative and digital agency Nemisys (founded in 2001 by Mark K Smith) allows for the live broadcasting of a telephone call on the web.

Through calling ipadio, you can have your voice broadcast through your website, intranet or even social media sites. “More than just meeting the requirements of a typical exec who travels a lot, its innovative technology means it can offer a range of applications for broadcasting from remote places with limited internet access,” says White.

“This is particularly useful for journalism, as well as enabling field workers to easily and securely report back via communications integrated with internal systems – be they nurses, electricians or aid workers. It also taps into the demand for social media elements, with its ‘phlogging’ community – phone blogging with audio content.

“I believe 2011 will be the year smartphones and tablets become truly mainstream and, at the same time, an increasingly important means of accessing the internet which rivals the PC. ipadio is an exciting company that has real potential to take advantage of this move.”

www.ipadio.com

Joe Cohen is founder and CEO of ticket exchange site Seatwave, which won the Guardian’s Tech Media 100 list in 2009. He was previously a senior staff member at Match.com and Ticketmaster
Huddle

Huddle, launched in 2007 by Alastair Mitchell and Andy McLoughlin, was ranked number 1 in the Startups 100 list, published by GB’s sister publication Startups.co.uk last year – and with good reason. The business’ packages of project management and online collaboration software have been making waves and have attracted an impressive client base both in the UK and US.

Joe Cohen says the company “has created a platform that allows companies to work together across geographies, time zones and skillsets in a way they’ve not been able to before. In creating an intuitive, cloud-based project management suite this company has delivered in an area where previous products had always under-served.”

www.huddle.com

Suranga Chandratillake is a technology entrepreneur and the founder of video search engine Blinkx
Doodle.com

“This business encapsulates what can be great about 2.0,” says Chandratillake. The online scheduling service is designed to make it easy to organise gatherings of groups of people by taking the pain out of finding a suitable date and time. “It sounds really simple, but it’s kind of genius. It’s about connectivity. It allows us to do things in a much quicker way. It’s completely virally driven: if a friend of yours uses it to organise something, you’ve heard of it, so the next time you try and organise something you use it.” 

The business has been going for just over two years, is the market leader in scheduling and has tens of millions of unique users every month. More importantly perhaps, it’s become profitable through its freemium model. “You could see this company being bought,” says Chandratillake.

“If you think about Google Calendar or MS Outlook, they don’t solve this problem and arguably Doodle could be a great added feature to something like that. But because it’s profitable, it could actually be its own thing. They’ve found a product that you or I would never pay for, but companies definitely would. That’s something a lot of people are looking to do and not that many find a model that works.”

www.doodle.com

Colette Ballou is the founder and president of Ballou PR and has worked with Facebook, Amazon, and Groupon among others. she plays an active part in European and US investment communities and has been a judge for Seedcamp
SkillPages

SkillPages was founded as Weedle in 2009 by Iain McDonald. It’s not dissimilar to LinkedIn in that’s it’s a social network used for professional purposes. People can leverage their connections to find people with the skills they need, or those who need their skills. The site now has users in 150 countries. Ballou describes it as “one of the companies delivering on the promised networked economy, which makes it a crucial business to watch”. 

“People in any industry, with any set of skills, can create a SkillPage where they can demonstrate their expertise through text, video, photos and more. They can integrate their social graph, show whom they have worked with and what they know. This creates the most accurate representation of a person’s skills and credibility that’s ever existed on the web.”

She predicts 2011 will be just the start for SkillPages, which before long will be a crucial part of daily business.

www.skillpages.com

Michael Murphy, the man who turned Friends Reunited into britain’s largest membership organisation, is now the executive chairman of deals website Quidco
graze

Snacking is big business, but these days health-conscious office workers are more likely to be swapping the biscuits for the Brazil nuts. Graze, launched in 2009 by a team including Graeme Bosher – one of the founders behind LoveFilm – has seized this opportunity with both hands, and now delivers bespoke, healthy boxes of fruit, nuts and seeds to thousands of desks. It has focused on being as accessible and easy-to-use as possible, and users can sign up for the service, and create their boxes, at a simple website.

“What’s more,” says Murphy, “its marketing strategy has been incredibly effective: offering free trials through partner sites, voucher code discounts as well as referral tokens for friends or colleagues.  Each snack box includes a leaflet addressed to the customer with nutritional information on the items they ordered so despite growing so quickly, it still delivers the personal touch very well.” 

www.graze.com

 

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