Startups On TV: TechStars Teams Up With Bloomberg To Offer An Inside Look At Building A Business

Move over American Idol, and move over Survivor? There’s a new reality show (okay, documentary-reality series) in town, but luckily no one’s getting voted off the island. In this tech TV version, it’s startups and their founders iterating, scrambling through feature sets, and competing for the affections of investors.

It’s a great premise, as the reality surrounding an early-stage startup can be a kinetic one: It may not quite be the car chase in Bullitt, granted, but it’s certainly tense, fast-paced, and, if founders play their cards right, can have significant bearing on the future success of their company (for the better).

But, by and large, the early evolutions of startups — and the role that the big technology incubators have in fostering this growth — happen behind closed doors. Or in low rent, shared office space, with lots of empty pizza boxes. Now, thanks to a partnership between TechStars and Bloomberg TV, all eyes will get a comprehensive peek at what it’s like to be on the founding team of a startup going through the gauntlet at a top technology incubator.

This “reality-documentary” miniseries, called “TechStars”, will premier on September 13th at 9 p.m., with the six episodes running through October 18th. It will air on Bloomberg TV, both on cable and the web.

As to the participants: The series will feature the eleven startups that participated in TechStars’ New York City program, which ran from January of this year through early April and includes OnSwipe, Immersive Labs, Nestio, Veri, ToVieFor, Shelby.tv, RedRover, MigrationBox, CrowdTwist, FriendList, and ThinkNear.

David Tisch, Managing Director of TechStars in NYC and David Cohen, Founder and CEO of TechStars, who are both featured in the show, tell me that viewers can expect a real glimpse into what it’s like to be a TechStars company: “Everything is 100 percent real and representative” of what it’s like to be a part of the incubator.

TechStars had been approached by several networks looking to do reality-type shows on the incubator, but ultimately chose Bloomberg TV, they said, for the reasons cited above. They wanted it to be an objective, fact-based series that captured the actual essence of what it’s like to be a founder going through an incubator, rather than something that’s over-produced and skewed in favor of dramatization. Bloomberg seemed the right fit.

Of course, that being said, both Cohen and Tisch assured me that there will be some drama — startup drama, of course. Yes, there will be a few pivots. But, not to overstate: This will hopefully be an “objective” look at what it’s like taking an idea to execution, developing a workable business model, finding users, and discovering the best way to pitch to investors.

Viewers can also expect to see cameos by many of the TechStars mentors in NYC, including Foursquare Founder Dennis Crowley, Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, Jeff Clavier of SoftTech VC, Chris Dixon (Founder Collective, Hunch), Alexandra Wilson (Gilt Groupe), Gary Vaynerchuk and “dozens more”. You can check out the TechStars mentor list here.

What’s more, it should also be interesting to watch as Bloomberg TV’s board of judges, along with Cohen and Tisch, and many of the TechStars mentors dissect business models and offer startups and their founders pointed criticism and advice as they move through the program, reality-show style.

All eleven of the startups make an appearance in the series, though some are on camera more than others. TechCrunch has covered a few of these companies, which you can check out here for OnSwipe, Nestio, Immersive Labs, Veri, and ThinkNear. Seven of the eleven TechStars Winter Program startups have also gone on to raise funding, with a few more soon to close, Tisch and Cohen said. So, there could be a good demo day finale in store. As long as it’s better than the last episode of The Sopranos, I’m in.

Applications for the Boston winter program and NYC spring program are open now, and you can apply here.

For the “TechStars” trailer, look out, video below:



Broadcaster Or Blogger, Cent2Cent Helps Anyone Charge For Video

Generally speaking, video producers have a much easier time producing content than monetizing it. This is because the monetization side of the equation has two x-factors that are hard to get right. The first being the ‘with what to monetize’ factor–that is, the mechanism that facilitates the billing aspect of the user-flow. The second, being the ‘how to monetize’ factor– this being the model(s) under which the content is charged for.

Enter Cent2Cent, an Israeli company with a video monetization solution that is versatile enough for both high-end tv broadcasters (NBC is a client), and low-end bloggers. And with over 200,000 paid transactions to date, they might be on to something, too.

One immediate benefit with Cent2Cent is that choosing its monetization solution doesn’t require the content owner to bet the entire house on it. By this I mean that monetizing via Cent2Cent doesn’t require the content to be migrated to Cent2Cent’s hosting infrastructure. Content can be encased within a JavaScript wrapper, or for those that want more programmatic control, there are also a SOAP/REST APIs. For those however that do require hosting, Cent2Cent is integrated with Kaltura, so that’s solved as well. And to round off, there are also plugins for Drupal & WordPress.

The second key benefit with Cent2Cent’s solution is that monetization options are quite varied. These include: Daily/Weekly/Monthly/Recurring Subscription plans, Pay-per-View, Bundles and Packages, and Metered plans (by number of views, or time viewed).

On the face of it, all these options can be overwhelming, but this is where Cent2Cent’s built-in diagnostic tool can assist the content owner make monetization decisions. The module collects viewing data that it segments for insights to be deduced. For example, a content owner can discover that 2% of users viewed more than ten videos, while 5% viewed more than five. Both segments fit more of a subscription model, as opposed to the rest of the users which could be offered only a pay-per-view purchase model.

Cent2Cent began its commercial activity in October 2010 and has raised $500,000 from private investors to date.



360: TeliportMe Brings Its Killer Panorama App To Android (Oh, And It Works On Over 200 Phones)

Last November, TechCrunch’s own Sarah Lacy sat down with Vineet Devaiah from “social streetview” startup, Phototour.in, which, at the time, had just received term sheets from a number of high-profile U.S. investors and had recently been awarded the “Top Emerging Technology Company of 2010″ by Nvidia. The startup was the first international, non-funded, under-20-member company to win the award, according to Devaiah.

Since then, Phototour added Academy Award certificate-winner and entrepreneur Bala S. Manian as an advisor (who was honored for “technical achievement” for his contributions to optical technologies used in films, including Star Wars) and has gained more than 47,000 users for the alpha version of its image and panorama crowdsourcing app, “360″, on Android. Users have logged more than 75,000 panoramas in a relatively short period of time, so, considering the rumors that the iPhone 5 will have a native panorama app, sources tell us that 360 might be a candidate for a potential partnership with Android, so that it can remain neck-in-neck with Apple.

What’s more, Today the startup is officially announcing that it is rebranding as TeliportMe and is bringing 360 out of alpha and into the public sphere in ready-to-wear form. For free. Granted, 360-degree panorama apps for smartphones are nothing new. There are quite a few cool apps and gadgets that have these capabilities on the market, like “You Gotta See This!”, Occipital’s 360 Panorama, and Microsoft’s Photosynth, to name a few.

In light of this competition, TeliportMe wants to distinguish itself from the field by building a high quality Android app, that works across OEMs. According to Devaiah, panoramic apps tend to be very hardware centric because of their reliance on a smartphone’s camera, accelerometer, gyroscope, RAM, and so on. Because Android relies on so many different OEMs, it becomes a tricky proposition to build a good 360-degree app for Android and is the reason why most panorama apps are built on iOS (thanks to the vertical integration it has with its hardware).

Another obstacle for Android is that only about 20 percent of its smartphones have the processing capability of the iPhone, and as panoramic apps require a lot of image processing during photo stitching, many Android phones don’t have enough RAM to make this possible (at least at speed). Devaiah cited the example of a phone like the HTC wildfire, which has the processing capability lesser than that of an iPhone 2G.

This is where the technology that won the startup the “best emerging tech” award comes into play. TeliportMe brought its photo stitching technology to the Android phone, which to a large extent negates the issues caused due to multiple hardware configurations, allowing it to function smoothly over 200 models of android phones. (The startup has also built a version of its photostitching app that works on the browser, which it will be launching soon.)

So, 360 allows its users to quickly take high quality panoramas, which they can then view on the apps 3D viewer. Users can share panoramas via Facebook and Twitter, as well as view, comment, and “like” photos taken by people all over the world on 360′s public realtime feed. The app also taps into the phone’s location to allow users to discover other people using 360 in close proximity, using its “Around Me” option.

Check out 360 in the Android Marketplace here, and for the 360′s humorous take on “the Google+ guy” dissing other photo apps, check out this video. For more on 360, look out, video below:



PressOK’s PlacePlay Lets Developers Integrate Location Features And Local Advertising Into Games

Seattle-based PressOK Entertainment, a game development company, launched an interesting new service this week in public beta called PlacePlay, which the startup describes as a “location enablement platform” for games. Location is something that hasn’t really been explored much in gaming as of yet, so simply put, PlacePlay aims to tackle the obstacles that prevent location from becoming a relevant facet of the games we play every day.

For starters, the platform is focused on giving game developers the ability to quickly add local tournaments into gameplay, so that a user can, for example, play a virtual game of Battleship with other players that live on the same block. Though tournaments are the primary feature of the platform at this point, PlacePlay also supports location-based virtual goods, objects, achievements, and more.

PlacePlay is targeting Apple iOS as its main platform, but it just so happens that Apple prevents mobile developers from displaying location-based advertising in apps if they don’t include location based features. Happily for developers, because PlacePlay gives them easy access to location-based features for gameplay, developers also have the ability to take advantage of integrated local advertising networks to not only drive more engagement via in-game activities like tournaments, but also gives them access to higher ad revenue from targeted local advertising.

PressOK CEO and Co-founder Ryan Morel says that the simple truth is that it’s much easier to drive consumer action as part of gameplay than to drive action outside of gameplay, i.e. implicit user behavior versus explicit. In other words, if game developers were to add no reward for a user to join, say, a game’s leaderboard (other than it being free), but added incentive for users to play in certain locations (like free level packs for completing location-based challenges) — engagement is still going to be much higher in leaderboards, which are implicitly part of gameplay, rather than actions that are not.

There’s less friction for a consumer to participate in a local tournament than there is to get them to take some specific action at a specific place or time. When it comes to appeal for advertisers, it’s hard to find location-based games that overcome these challenges and still have a large enough user base to be relevant, he says.

In allowing third party developers access to PlacePlay’s SDK, the startup hopes that it will be able to collect data from a large number of users, across a wide set of games, by integrating features gamers love (like leaderboards, tournaments, virtual goods, etc.) around location. In the short term, Morel says, PlacePlay will monetize through integrated local ad networks, and longterm the startup plans to monetize through direct deals with brands and sponsors. Widespread distribution of its SDK among game developers will obviously be key if this is to happen.

Thus, the value proposition for PlacePlay is that it allows developers to drive both engagement and revenue; based on early testing, PlacePlay increases end-user engagement by 1.6-times and offers eCPMs of up to $20 — which should be music to the ears of game developers.

The startup is bootstrapped at this point, but it has already begun working with developers like Joybits and Brisk Mobile, and is in the process of converting more.

For another gaming startup making some cool strides in location-based features, especially in regard to gaming check-ins, check out our recent coverage of Heyzap.

For more on PlacePlay, check out the video below:



Stocial Launches In Beta To Blend StockTwits With Yahoo Finance (Invites Herein)

With the recent success of StockTwits, the market seems to be showing that there’s ample demand for a social micro-blogging service that targets stocks, trading, and financial information. Or at least that’s what Stocial is hoping. The Seattle-based startup, which is launching today in public beta, wants to be, in conception, the love child of StockTwits and Yahoo! Finance — or, said another way, Bloomberg for the people, by the people.

Essentially, Stocial wants to give its users access to realtime market data and trending stock sentiment in a virtual and “game-ified” venue. Of course, most tickers are capable of the those first two, and StockTwits has certainly shown that Twitter can be a great resource for realtime financial information. But Stocial Founder and CEO Fahad Kamr says that, with its 140-character limit, Twitter doesn’t embody the full potential for sharing stock information.

Stocial wants to incorporate the Twitter feed, but go a couple of steps further, by giving users access to the top stories from Business Insider, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Bloomberg, etc., all curated in a live feed. So users not only have their Twitter feed but a social feed, where they can see information coming in from friends and followers, as well as a “Stock Pick” feed that tracks, you guessed it, which stocks people are picking and sharing on Stocial. More feeds equals more engagement.

Users can also customize their Stocial stock platform to view news and trends for the overall market, or for specific stocks, keep watch on those stocks, or create circles of experts and follow top investors on Twitter and Stocial, as well as experience news and tweets in realtime or by top items. And much of its infrastructure is powered by Echo, so it’s all scalable and realtime.

But, perhaps the best part is that Stocial offers “contests” in which its users can win cash and, eventually, even land a job. In these contests, users get to pick stocks, go long or short, and pick their price. Contests generally last for two days or a week, at which point the winner receives $50 in cash. And, eventually, $100 and more.

Stocial is thus incentivizing its users by offering a carrot at the end of the string. The startup is currently working with investment firms and banks to source top trading jobs. So, as the startup allows its users to collect badges and lift their reputation score on the platform by picking stocks, interacting, and sharing, when one reaches a high enough level of engagement, the user becomes eligible for a nifty prize: An interview at one of those top firms.

While startups like Zecco are taking new approaches to social stock trading by offering users the ability to trade in real markets — on Facebook in the Zecco’s case — Stocial is instead focusing on virtual trading. Rather than be a site where users can trade in real markets (and there are plenty of these), the Seattle startup wants to be a resource for personalized content, a training ground for users looking to jump into real markets.

To make trading stocks less scary, Stocial created a simple virtual stock trading platform. Stocial only focuses on making stock picks, or, in other words, make forecasts over where the stock may be headed, taking portfolios and the risk-laden aspect of speculation out of the equation. At its core, stock trading can really feel like a game, but of course, when you’re playing with real money, it’s anything but. Thus, with its virtual stock market, Stocial seems positioned to take advantage of the inherent game-ification in trading, yet without the risk and plus the rewards.

The Stocial value proposition, at least in comparison to StockTwits, is that the startup offers realtime, personalized financial news curation, and allows users not only participate in stock conversation via Twitter, but also via the platform in threaded comments (that look a lot like Facebook comments). Like StockTwits, Stocial is also going after social discovery, by allowing users to discover new friends and experts based on the stocks they’ve selected. It also incorporates your existing social circles, so that when a friend on Facebook joins Stocial, users will immediately be alerted.

Currently, Stocial’s team of four is in the process of testing the viability of its business in the space, and is fully bootstrapped at this point, though it is looking to begin raising its first round of investment in the coming months.

TechCrunch readers can grab early access to Stocial’s beta here.



Crowdtap Raises $7 Million To Help Brands Connect With Their Influential Customers

Crowdtap, a service that allows marketers to easily collaborate with and mobilize targeted crowds of influential consumers, announced today that it has raised $7 million in series A funding. The round was led by Foundry Group, with participation from GSA Venture Partners and social media agency Mr. Youth.

Mr. Youth invested $3 million of seed funding in Crowdtap back in 2009 (and served as an incubator for the company during its early stages), which brings the startup’s total current investment to $10 million. Crowdtap said that it will use its infusion of capital to ramp up hiring in both its sales and engineering teams.

With an ever-widening gulf between consumers and brands, Crowdtap is attempting to retool marketing to make it a more collaborative and participatory process. It’s certainly an ambitious goal, which the startup hopes to catalyze by allowing brands and marketing agencies to access its growing member base of 150,000 Crowdtappers. The startup wants to become a network “for Brand Influencer Communities”, or, in other words, a resource that aggregates groups of influential consumers that can be tapped for realtime research, collaboration, or word-of-mouth marketing.

Leveraging existing customer bases, along with locating potential new customers, is no easy feat for brands. Crowdtap hopes to enable brands to identify, centralize, and activate key consumers by more easily tapping into their Facebook, Twitter, and CRM channels. Crowdtap offers brands the ability to poll their top customers, view profiles of these customers, and receive breakdowns and analysis of the polls, which can then be retargeted based on answers provided. Brands can also form panels of consumer to quickly start discussions, posing questions to which consumers can then respond, comment on, and vote.

For its community of Crowdtappers, the startup attempts to increase brand engagement by offering a game-ified experience, allowing these members to level-up, gaining status among their favorite brands, earn perks, get access to the latest products, and make donations to charities of their choice.

Since launching its beta platform in August of 2010, Crowdtappers have completed 4.6 million brand actions, which include polling, online panels, social sampling, etc., and the startup’s communities are now averaging nearly 400,000 actions per week. Crowdtap launched officially at SxSW in March and has since added another 100,000 members in the U.S.

Brands currently working with Crowdtap include Old Navy, AMEX, Pinkberry, MSN, Diageo and Bing, and the startup has also forged partnerships with PR, creative, and digital agencies like Weber Shandwick, GolinHarris, Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal, and Mullen.

For more on Crowdtap, check out the video below:

Company:
CROWDTAP
Launch Date:
1/10/2009

Crowdtap is the network for Brand Influencer Communities. Crowdtap allows marketers to easily collaborate, mobilize and market with their targeted brand crowd of influential consumers. Crowdtap makes...

Learn more


Solve Media Is CAPTCHA-ing 620K Type-In Ads A Day

Ads are everywhere: They’re in our content, they’re online and offline, they’re on buses, billboards, and more. I’ve been told just to “get used to it” — that the advertising proliferation is only going to continue — so I’m thinking of selling some space on my forehead. Might as well take advantage. Of course, those who are successful in digital advertising are generally those who can find these to non-traditional areas to use as advertising space, especially if they prove more effective than typical display (or banner) advertising. Late last year, a young startup called Solve Media began taking ads into a new niche digital territory by reformulating … CAPTCHAs.

Yep. You heard that right. “Captcha” boxes, for those unfamiliar, are those prompts that require users to input an odd array of letters and numbers so that the ticket vendor from which they’re buying tickets (for example), can be sure that the user is not some kind of evil spam robot. Thus, Solve Media’s unique approach is to use its “TYPE-IN” platform to replace those fuzzy words and numbers often used in puzzle-based CAPTCHA systems with a simple logo, or a brand message in quotes — along with a simple input box. Users type in what brand they see, or answer the given question, for example, and then proceed on their merry way.

It’s an interesting approach and has actually tested quite well. For the most part, consumers are far less likely to struggle with Solve Media’s CAPTCHAs than they are with those annoying fuzzy puzzle CAPTCHAs. On the other hand, publishers get to employ a security buffer (when needed), and advertisers get guaranteed views and impressions for their brands. In fact, according to Solve Media CEO Ari Jacoby, consumers who saw a Solve Media type-in ad engaged 29 percent of the time during June of this year — far higher than traditional engagement in other forms of advertising.

Compared to banner ads, in particular, which are nearly universally disliked and rarely clicked on, Solve Media’s type-in model is seeing a much higher level of engagement. And, for the consumer, at least interacting with a Solve Media ad gets them somewhere.

Of course, the fact that a user is basically forced to interact with Solve’s ads would seem a deterrent, but according to Jacoby, so far there have been few complaints. Because, in short, typical CAPTCHAs really are a pain in the ass, and Solve’s type-ins save the user time in comparison. It’s much faster to type in Pepsi than it is to figure out what kind of devil-speak a traditional CAPTCHA is asking you to regurgitate.

Furthermore, in regard to its new approach testing well: Since launching in September of last year, Solve Media has attracted more than 2,000 publishers and more than 75 advertisers. Advertisers, including names like Toyota, Microsoft, Universal Pictures, AOL, and Tribune are now using the platform.

Solve Media saw nearly 15 million successful type-ins across its platform in June, which, according to Jacoby, would be the equivalent of serving 15 billion banner ads — assuming the industry average CTR of 0.1 percent. And considering the average for rich media is about 3 percent, that’s still a significant lift.

What’s more, Solve is also averaging 620,000 type-ins per day in July (up from just over 500K in June), and is growing 15 percent month-over-month, according to Jacoby. And the network has grown over 460 percent since launch. It seems they may be onto something.

In fact, IHG, which owns Holiday Inn, ran an advertising campaign in May and June on Solve’s platform (for its so-called “Vacation Pay”) that delivered a 122 percent lift in brand awareness and 15-times the average CTR, according to comScore.

Solve is growing like gangbusters, and the startup really seems to have hit on a valuable niche space that supports advertising and guarantees brand interaction in ways other solutions (and forms of advertising) can’t. For more, check out Solve’s video below, and tell us what you think.



Gary Vaynerchuk, ‘The Sommelier of Social Media’, Partners With Consmr

If you’re anything like me, this scenario may be somewhat familiar: You’re standing in the aisle of your local supermarket, or Walgreens, and you’re looking to buy a particular type of product, be it peanut butter or shaving cream or shampoo, yet you don’t have any particular allegiance to one brand over another.

Confronted with the often overwhelming abundance of choice, you may hold the product up to the light or quickly read the back label, hoping some divine intervention will guide you to the right choice. In the end, you probably make a choice based on appearance, brand familiarity, or something you read somewhere once. (When, really, you have no idea what the difference is between Scope and Listerine, other than minty-ness.)

Now, in spite of feeling fortunate to have surfeit options baked into my shopping experience, I often find myself asking, “do we really need 40 different brands of deodorant to choose from?” The market might respond by saying something annoying like, “competition is good, bro”, but I ask, if we’re going to have this level of choice, is there a better way to be making product decisions other than by oft-times arbitrary selection criteria?

A young New York City-based startup is trying to answer that question in the affirmative. Consmr, besides not liking all of its vowels, is attempting to build the Yelp, or Rotten Tomatoes, of consumer packaged goods (CPGs). While at this point Consmr may not be able to offer you a thoroughly detailed treatise on the value of Scope over Listerine, that’s the bent of its long-term goal.

Consmr Founder and CEO Ryan Charles left his full-time job at Zagat (where he was the head of mobile and was responsible for its partnerships with Foodspotting and Foursquare) at the end of March to pursue his new startup. Why?

The genesis dates back to the height of the recession, he says, when a lot of we consumers became more discerning (and price conscious) in regard to their daily product decisions. While there’s been tremendous growth in web research on CPGs, the sources for this information are fragmented. There’s no Yelp or LibraryThing, or sites taking advantage of crowdsourced data or social integration to help you choose which product is right for you. And he has a good point; all-in-one sources for movie, TV, book, and restaurant recommendations (to name a few) are alive and well, so why not for CPGs?

While the idea is an appealing one, the question is, of course, why one should spend time writing reviews of toothpaste? What incentive is there? Consmr isn’t going to bribe you to write reviews, but it will give you badges. Whether an average day-to-day user is browsing for the answer to a question like “what’s the best green-friendly laundry detergent?” or a micro-expert (like an ice cream blogger) wants to share their particular experience, the initial incentive is a game-ified user experience: Anyone can compete to earn badges that Consmr calls “flair” (a la Office Space), or “level-up” in reputation, or become a category expert.

The appeal of being a category expert, Charles says, is that category experts are featured prominently on the site, including being recommended as someone to “follow”. Thus, users are incentivized to write longer reviews, to take time with their descriptions, in the effort to become a product expert — a veritable lord or lady of the detergents.

Consmr has been in the process, like every other data-based recommendation engine before it, of gathering user reviews and building a sizable dataset. In the next few weeks, it plans to add recommendations based on products a user has rated highly and trends it picks up in your Consmr activity. (Similar in conceit to Netflix’s recommendation engine.) Consmr is also hard at work on its mobile apps — an equally important piece of the in-store recommendations puzzle.

And, today, the startup added to its feature set by forging a partnership with Gary Vaynerchuk, the popular author, business guru, and “sommelier of social media”. Beginning today, all of Veynerchuk’s Daily Grape and Wine Library TV reviews will be added to the site, which those who follow the wine guy will be able to see daily in their personal feed.

“I get thrown a lot of stuff on a daily basis and sometimes my intuition just tells me a platform is worth trying out”, Veynerchuk told TechCrunch. “I’m thrilled to speculate at times with new platforms and Consmr hit my radar as something that was worth trying”.

Consmr launched officially to the world back in June and is in the process of raising funding. The site still has some work to do on bits and pieces of its design and will require some serious adoption before product recommendations become flawless, but the idea could have legs. Rating different types of peanut butter is surprisingly addicting.

Let us know what you think.



Nearbuy Nabs A Cool Million From Motorola Ventures, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, And More

Nearbuy Systems, the maker of indoor positioning solutions, announced today that it has raised $1 million in seed funding. The seed round was led by Motorola Ventures, Innovation Endeavors, and Metamorphic Ventures. The funding will be used to bring Nearbuy’s technology to retail stores across the U.S.

Just as startups like ZuluTime and Shopkick are finding different ways to innovate in the in-store loyalty and advertising space, Nearbuy, too is going after the “holy grail” of in-store marketing: In-store consumer location. Because GPS tends not to be able to locate you indoors — and the indoor systems that do exist tend not to be precise — Nearbuy has developed a refined WiFi technology that can locate a customer in the store within 3 feet.

With advanced positioning, retailers can offer consumers discounts, coupons, and deals in realtime as they wander through the aisles, making those tricky purchasing decisions. If a consumer is standing in the sporting goods section, the business can use Nearbuy’s technological conduit to serve them with a discount on kayaks, and so on. But, beyond targeted marketing, solutions like Nearbuy’s can offer consumers in-store navigation (which will be great for places like Ikea and Home Depot), a concierge “Help” button, etc. all through a simple opt-in WiFi setup.

And, for businesses, Nearbuy’s LocalEyes solution can integrate with existing infrastructures already in place, create enhanced mobile commerce apps, and using its micro-location data, can glean valuable shopping trends and behavior, and optimize time-consuming stuff like warehouse management and store set-ups.

While it may be slightly off-putting, the fact is that humans spend 87 percent of their time indoors, and, as mobile technology evolves, the devices in our pockets (along with complementary solutions) are becoming more and more adept at tracking our movements. It makes the security and privacy-conscious a little nervous, which is why it’s great to hear that these technologies are opt-in and come with advanced security mechanisms. That being said, these precise positioning systems have the potential to be a goldmine for retailers and advertisers, and can offer some nifty enhancements to the consumer’s shopping experience.

“We just want to make the shopping experience better for everyone”, says Nearbuy Founder and CEO Bryan Wargo. As long as they don’t sell my location data to the highest bidder, I’m buying.

For more on Nearbuy Systems, check out the video below:



With A Half Billion Pages Signed, DocuSign Launches Free Edition

Docusign, the cloud-based electronic signature platform, today announced that is has processed more than a half billion pages of “contracts, agreements and other legally binding documents”, all as part of its effort to enable businesses to go paperless in the document sharing and signing process. According to the company, this effort has saved more than 60,000 trees, and what would equate to $10 million in shipping costs. To commemorate the milestone, DocuSign has made a donation to the Arbor Day Foundation to preserve one million square feet of rain forest.

DocuSign also announced today the release of the latest edition of its eSignature solution, including the first appearance of a free version. This update to platform will bring DocuSign users the ability to “tag documents, auto-save, and make use of HTML5 enhancements”, the team said, like the ability to drag and drop files into DocuSign’s envelope to send, as well as pull documents from Box.net, Dropbox, Google Docs and Salesforce.

DocuSign’s new solution will also include interactive dashboards and reporting to let users know where documents stand in the review and signing process, and browser-aware localization, which will put documents in the user’s native language based on the user’s browser.

Most notably, DocuSign now includes integration with social networks, allowing users to sign in with Facebook, LinkedIn, Paypal, and Salesforce.

Lastly, DocuSign will be offering its users a free edition of its platform, in which they can sign up for a free account and receive 5-free “sends” (documents sent and signed) per month, with no credit card required.

Because the electronic signatures company now has over 8 million DocuSigners, when Adobe entered the eSignature space last year, DocuSign welcomed the addition “as market validation”. But, yesterday, Adobe announced the acquisition of EchoSign, an eSignature solution with over 3 million users, which it plans to integrate into its document software. This could symbolize some serious future competition for DocuSign, and it’s interesting to see DocuSign’s announcements today follow so closely on the heels of Adobe’s announcement.

However, Tim Gonser, DocuSign’s CEO, told TechFlash that the company still leads as a solution for enterprise customers, with “80 percent SaaS market share”. It also benefits from significant adoption resulting from a partnership and investment from the National Association of Realtors, according to TechFlash.

It also helps that DocuSign raised $27 million from Scale Venture Partners, Salesforce.com, Sigma Partners, Ignition Partners and Frazier Technology in December of last year, bringing total capital raised to just over $56 million.

Check out the additions here.



Inbox Overload Begone: Taskforce Exits Beta, Goes Pro With Paid Version

Email is an essential part of our daily communication, but it can also be a real pain in the ass. Or, going one step further, as my colleague MG Siegler recently put it, “email is the absolute devil”. This fact even prompted him to channel Peter Gibbons and quit email altogether. I, personally, applaud this bold move but, instead of taking a vow of abstinence, am turning to other tools to help find a way to funnel the fire hose. Of course, this problem is not new, and many startups and products have tried to climb Mount Email, many with little success.

While it will take a near-divine intervention for me to declare a winner in this fight, Taskforce, a member of the Y Combinator Winter Class of 2011, is taking a better shot than most other tools I’ve used. (You can check out our February profile of the startup here.)

Taskforce offers an extension that integrates with Gmail to convert your emails into task lists and makes it simple to create reminders. Appearing out of your inbox like a tall Google toolbar, Taskforce, perhaps more importantly comes with collaboration and calendar tools, enabling you to add collaborators, set due dates, and comment on and hide tasks that don’t need to be completed immediately.

When you add a collaborator to a task, Taskforce alerts them to the shared task and if you make updates to the collaborated tasks, it sends further alerts — and your collaborators don’t have to be using Taskforce. (These collaborative functions are what sets it apart from GTasks.) And even though it adds buttons to your emails allowing you to convert them to tasks, Taskforce doesn’t actually access your inbox. Everything happens through the extension.

Since going into beta in February, Taskforce Founders Niccolo Pantucci and Courtland Allen have been poring over feedback from users and are today officially stepping out of beta to launch publicly. They’ve added a few more features to flesh out the extension’s usability.

Taskforce has introduced a mobile app and are now unveiling a paid version of the service, called Taskforce Pro, which includes a number of additions, including collaborative lists that enable light-weight project management to be carried out in teams, GTasks sync to enable tasks to be pushed from Taskforce into GTasks as well as GCal.

Pro will also allow users to reprioritize tasks that they can choose the order in which they work on their to-do lists, take advantage of keyboard shortcuts, as well as (and importantly) the ability to maximize and minimize the size and presentation of the Taskforce in-email app — a much requested feature according to Pantucci, including by yours truly.

Pantucci also told me that Taskforce has seen great early user adoption, with numbers in the “tens of thousands” of signups, including some by “some very well known tech companies”. Although the founders declined to share specific notable users this early in the game, we were able to find out that a particular company that just recently launched its music service in the U.S. has become an active Taskforce user.

In terms of funding, as part of YC’s class of 2011, Taskforce was included in Yuri Milner’s no-strings-attached convertible debt investment offer of $150K, which the startup accepted. And thanks to Taskforce’s incubation at Y Combinator, the founders were advised by Paul Buchheit, who is a Partner at YC and also happens to be the creator of Gmail.

Taskforce Pro provides the startup with a great opportunity to begin monetizing, and Pantucci said that, when the founders bounced the idea off of early adopters, many said that they would welcome a paid option. Pro will initially be priced at $5 a month, and all Taskforce users will have access to Pro’s features for the first 30 days of using the service, whereafter users will be asked to pay. Those who continue with the free version still have access to Taskforce’s core features — on Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.

Next stop: Taking Taskforce beyond task management, pushing integration with other tools, like Dropbox, for example. Document management is a possibility as well. To learn more, visit Taskforce at home here.



Applifier Hits 100 Million Installs, Brings Social Game Discovery Bar To Mobile

Applifier, the cross-promotional network of social game publishers, announced today that it has delivered over 100 million game installs for free on Facebook. Launched in 2010, Applifier set out on a mission to help game publishers find new users and get their games discovered on the social network, and has since grown like a weed. Now connecting over 800 games, Applifier gives publishers the tools to promote their games across their network of over 150 million monthly active users, via bookmarks and retargeting, and “featured spots”.

Of course, the best part about Applifier is that developers don’t pay anything to use the service, they can take advantage of the startup’s paid user acquisition campaigns simply by adding 5 lines of HTML to their Facebook pages or browser game.

Just as it is on the Web, the mobile game space is becoming crowded with games, and gamers are always looking for new games to whet their appetite, so today Applifier launched a cross-promotion solution for iOS. Android is set drop later this summer. Like its web version, Applifier Mobile is free. The mobile version will display recommended games on its bar, where users can click to get more information on the game or scroll to view other games.

It’s a great way for gamers to find new games and for publishers to have a way for their games to be discovered in the crowded sea of social games. It’s a similar model to the App Store’s “Featured Apps”, which is really one of the few options app developers have in the attempt to get their apps discovered on iOS, besides spending tons of cash on marketing and publicity. Smaller game makers don’t have access to those kinds of funds, and so Applifier’s free-to-use platform offers a great alternative.

As Apple recently banned the pay-per-install incentivized apps from the App Store, the fact that Applifier doesn’t pay its users to try out a new game is another leg up. While that may be disappointing for some gamers, it keeps things honest. After all, the company just wants gamers to have another way to find new games that they would enjoy playing. And help the people who make those games find them. “Our value proposition for the players is simple: Hey, you like games. How about some more?” said Applifier CEO Jussi Laakkonen.

Back in January, Applifier raised $2 million for its cross-promotional platform, which it has used to help launch its new mobile outfit and help independent game makers compete against Zynga and its cross-promotional tools. It’s been an uphill battle, but with over 150 million monthly active users, 100 million installs, and 800 games, it seems to be working.

For more, check out Dean Takahashi’s early review of the service.



Fighting Ticketmaster, The Edge Invests In Ticketing Startup

Ticket Text, the makers of Ticket ABC, a white label mobile ticketing solution, announced today that they have raised $350,000 in seed funding from The Edge, a.k.a. David Evans, or the guy who plays guitar for U2. Several other Dublin and London-based angels participated in the round, with Ticket Text’s total investment now at just over $1 million. The Irish startup will use this infusion of capital to expanding its service in Europe and eventually to the U.S.

Ticketmaster has long been a source of grief for consumers, with its high fees and charges, especially considering the ticket company has long had a nearly monopolistic grip on music ticketing. Today, venues, promoters, and artists are looking to bring their ticketing solutions back in-house — out of the reach of the ticket agencies that control pricing, customer data, etc. But existing choices really just consist of outsourcing to an agency or using a licensed ticketing solution.

Ticket Text wants to change all that by providing a low cost white label ticketing and venue management solution that attempts to put the control over ticketing back in the hands of the little guy. For starters, there are no upfront, annual or customization costs, and all the data is owned by the client.

The solution also offers an automated refund process, and Ticket ABC users can reissue their tickets, both pain points for a number of ticket solutions. Ticket ABC also offers an integrated wireless solution that enables clients to scan mobile and eTickets at multiple places within a venue.

Founder and CEO of Ticket Text Mark McLaughlin said that the team has made a point to architect mobile into the core of the Ticket ABC solution, because they believe that ticketing will become commoditized, so the key for venues and ticketing companies in the future will be to know where their customers are at the venue when they scan their ticket, so that they can communicate with them there and up-sell.

Ticket ABC has also been optimized for mobile so that consumers can purchase tickets from mobile browsers and apps.

Other great features include the ability to create seat maps, set zone prices, seat statuses, and seat rankings — and for the consumer the ability to choose seats when buying tickets — all baked into the solution’s UI. And because Ticket ABC recently added support for another payment service provider, if there are outages or problems, the solution has the ability to switch providers. Always good to have a “Plan B”.

Lastly, Ticket ABC comes with social features that allow its clients to promote their events on Twitter and Facebook, so that users can share what events they’re attending and when they plan to purchase their tickets. The solution also adds a “Buy Tickets” button to a venue or business’ Facebook page, which is a nifty little feature.

And because venues may not want to create a whole new separate site for ticketing, the solution provides an embeddable widgets to that ticket providers can add the solution to their own site.

As to the cost of the solution, there is a flat fee of 5 percent, plus a 99-cents per transaction, which includes payment service provider costs, credit card and hosting fees. Ticket Tex hopes that by charging transactional fees rather than charging upfront, annual or customization fees, the pricing will allow client revenue to be generated proportionally to the costs of using the solution.

Ticket ABC’s current clients include fabric, Pacha, and Bird On The Wire.

For an example of a Ticket ABC solution, check one out here.



Can Rdio Withstand The Spotify Assault? A Feature-By-Feature Look

Spotify is finally here in the US. It offers on-demand music for a relatively low price — just like Rdio. There’s several service levels including mobile listening and offline support — just like Rdio. There’s even support for third-party hardware and platforms — just like Rdio.

Rdio has a head start in this race but it might not matter. Rdio left private beta last August and has since gained a good deal of traction here in the States. It’s our hometown hero, if you will. Even though it wasn’t available until today, Spotify’s hype built the service up to near legandary status. The two services are remarkably similar on the outside, but when you dive in, there are some distinct and fun differences.


Quick specs:

Spotify

  • Free account, limited playback, ad-supported
  • $5 for desktop streaming
  • $10 desktop, mobile and offline support
  • Launched in the US on July 14, 2011
  • Features the catalog of the 4 major record companies
  • “Over 15 million tracks”
  • Bitrate Quality: 160 kbps with some tracks at 320 kbps for premium users

Rdio

  • $5 for desktop streaming
  • $10 desktop, mobile and offline support
  • Launched in the US on August 3, 2010
  • Features the catalog of the 4 major record companies
  • “Over 8 million songs”
  • Bitrate Quality: 256kbps

Desktop apps

Both companies take a different approach to their desktop application. Spotify’s desktop app is designed to be a catch-all, a one stop solution for all your media needs. It allows users to steam music and playback local media. It can sync songs with connected media players (including iPods) and cache streaming songs for offline playback. It’s truly meant to be the only media player you need on your computer.

That’s not the case with Rdio, whose desktop app is really just a portal to its web service. Nearly everything is the same, including the navigation paths and user interface. Rdio’s app lacks any local media playback functions, which may be just fine for some users. The desktop app does play friendly with keyboard media functions (like the pause/play key you may have) where Rdio’s web service does not.

The different approaches result in a slightly different feel. Both services are designed around music discovery, but Rdio’s desktop application, since it’s really just a skinned web app, outclasses Spotify in this area. Nearly everything is a hyperlink to more content. The album cover, the song, the artist, every user element has a link that takes you to music. Spotify goes about it in a traditional desktop way by have simple navigation paths, but they’re not as easily identifiable.

Still, Spotify’s desktop app is far more versatile than Rdio’s. It seamlessly mixes online and offline content with social sharing tools. The music discovery paths could use some work but the other functions combine to beat Rdio’s.

Winner: Spotify

Web apps

Spotify doesn’t have a web app. This is a key difference between the two services. Rdio will work in nearly any browser on any computer and maintain user settings. At work? Just log in and all your music, friends and listening history is there. This isn’t available on Spotify.

In fact, Rdio was originally just a web service. The OS X desktop app came a few months after the service launched, and the Windows flavor just dropped a few weeks back. The whole service is designed to operate from within a browser and does so wonderfully.

I’ve found that Rdio’s web app allows it to work on web-connected devices such as the Boxee Box or Google TV. Rdio doesn’t have a dedicated app on either of these Internet appliances but the device’s web browser allows you to use the service anyway. You can’t do that with Spotify although the service is available on several hardware platforms (more on this farther down.)

Winner: Rdio (by default)

Mobile apps

Neither of these services would be as popular if they didn’t support mobile listening. Both Rdio and Spotify have functional mobile apps that ports most of the service’s functions to your smartphone. Once again, on the surface, the two sound very similar and feature the same functions including offline modes.

The two apps are very similar and there really isn’t a standout. It’s more a personal preference. Rdio’s UI is a bit more simple, but still maintains a lot of the elements found in the web app. Spotify’s on the other hand is sort of busy, but nicely integrates the socal media sharing functions. Both play music and that’s the most important function anyway.

One standout in this area is MOG’s app. Not only does it flow better than Spotify’s or Rdio’s, MOG’s smartphone app is simply beautiful. It feels like a smartphone media app rather than a web app crammed into a smartphone.

Winner: MOG

Social features

Everything has to be social now and so both media services are built tightly around this thought. Both make it easy enough to share playlists, albums and songs through Facebook and Twitter. However, Spotify takes it one step farther and gives users the ability to quickly share songs and albums through a sort of internal mail system. Glee bombing is quickly becoming a favorite pastime of mine.

However, while I’m of the opinion that none of this sharing nonsense is necessary, Spotify does, once again, outperform Rdio mainly as it allows subscribers to share songs with anyone; all that’s required to listen is a free Spotify account. Rdio allows for embedding of songs, but you have to a paying subscriber pay to listen.

Winner: Spotify

Music discovery

It has never been easier to discover new music and trends. Rdio and Spotify, along with several other streaming sites like MOG, Grooveshark, and Rhapsody, built their service around this core idea. With the exception of Grooveshark, these services tend to take the album approach by presenting users with a grid of album covers. Spotify uses the What’s New section as its homescreen where Rdio’s Heavy Rotation section (the service’s most popular music) is the first page displayed.

This is where Rdio tops Spotify. Nearly everything on Rdio, either on the web app or desktop app, guides you to music. The designers placed a hyperlink where ever someone might want to click. Best of all, following the rabbit down the hole of music discovery doesn’t interrupt the music playback — even on the website. A sidebar is off to the right on nearly every page with relative songs, artists, and info. Want to hear music of the same sort? Each page has a Play Radio Station button that cues up similar songs and artists.

Both services have similar sections in new releases, most popular, and top charts. Rdio also features a recommendations section that displays new artists based on your listening habits. This section alone allows Rdio to topple Spotify in the music discovery category.

Winner: Rdio


In the end, though, I doubt these differences will really matter. Rdio is an amazing tool to discovery new music and Spotify is the media player from the future. There’s more than enough space in this huge market for several major players. Spotify might quickly outpace Rdio simply because of advertising and its slightly more recognizable brand. But the real winner are us consumers. As Louis C.K. wisely put, “The shittiest cell phone in the world is a miracle.” This also applies to streaming music services.



Here’s Spotify! The Music Streaming Service Officially Lands In The US

The wait is finally over! Spotify, Euroland’s prized music service, just launched here in the States. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise as the company warned sent over pre-announcements yesterday. But here it is, complete with offline modes, mobile listening, exclusive content and, yes, even a limited, but still free user mode.

As expected, there are three levels of service including the free service plan that’s clearly designed to whet your appetite. $5 a month gets users unlimited, ad-free listening hours on the PC where the $10 plan adds in the mobile service, exclusive content and offline modes. But don’t feel like you need to hand over your credit card right away. There’s an ad-supported but free service to get you started.

Spotify previously stated that they weren’t going to launch in the US without this free service; it’s that important. Free accounts are limited to only 10 hours a month and feature advertisements. Plus free accounts are invite only right now, which seem sort of hard to come by. More on that later.

But the rest of the service is ready to go! Simply select either the $5 or $10 plan, fill in the payment info and you’ll be streaming music in no time.



A Reverse Priceline? SoBiz10 Tests Automated, Consumer-Driven Deals Service (With A Touch Of Charity)

I hope you’re not getting tired of daily deals, because I’ve got more daily deal news for you, dear reader. Among the latest trends in the evolving daily deal model is the so-called “deal wallet” and “deal resale marketplace”, which quite a few startups have begun implementing, like City Pockets and DealsGoRound, to name a few.

Another area of the deal model that seems to be going through a redux is the consumer driven deals (CDD) approach, in which sites are letting consumers determine what deals they want to see offered by their favorite local merchants. Ringleadr recently launched a service to put consumers in the cockpit, as did Loopt with its new “U-Deals”.

The consumer driven deal (or reverse deal, if you prefer) has been poked at by startups before, without prodigious success, but that is not to say that there isn’t room left for iteration and disruption, as the space on a whole is still relatively young. While Ringleadr and Loopt are both offering great services, one of the potential drawbacks to the structure of their models is that consumers have to wait for 15 days (in the case of Ringleadr) for the merchant to approve the deal. This is after the consumer has gotten a crowd of friends excited about the deal, enough so to get past the tipping point, and then has to wait over two weeks for the merchant to maybe decide to approve.

SoBiz10, a Colorado-based startup, is attempting to turn the CDD screw even further by shortening the time it takes for merchants to approve a deal. The startup is taking a “consumers get the deals they want, at the price they want, when they want” approach, not to mention it’s all completely automated. Of course, this immediacy may sound like tyranny of the consumer, but SoBiz wants to offset this potential by giving businesses the ability to generate and retain new customers for a smaller revenue share (25 percent) than is typical among group coupon sites. (The average is about 50 percent.)

But, before going any further, here’s how SoBiz works: Users get 10 of their friends together to decide on a deal they want and the merchant they want to patronize. A user then posts that deal on SoBiz, at which point the merchant receives an email, text, and voicemail, alerting them of the deal. The merchant has 48 hours to accept, deny, or counteroffer. If the deal is accepted, the 10 users are immediately sent their coupons in an email and can pay for them using the startup’s secure payment system.

From there, merchants have the ability to display the deal more broadly in the SoBiz marketplace, with the option to control the availability, and SoBiz in turn alerts members of the community that the deal is more broadly available.

Another selling point for the SoBiz take is that 25-cents per coupon is donated to a charity of the deal-creator’s choice, adding a non-profit and feel-good element to the service, a la CauseOn.

The other interesting part of the SoBiz platform comes from the fact that Founder and CEO Marion Mariathasan and team had originally built the service to be a social network, with a daily deal component as an add-on. As you can see from the image above, users and merchants can create profiles, just as one would on Facebook, write reviews of prior deals, connect with friends and merchants, and so on.

Merchants also can take advantage of a dashboard the startup provides, where they can easily manage their pending deals, approve, reject, etc. In addition, the service includes search functionality as well as deal categorization, so that consumers can request deals by category. If a user doen’t know who the best merchant is for, say, a new pair of reading glasses, they can go into the “Vision Category” to search for eyewear merchants. Categorization is an added bonus in comparison to Groupon and other deal sites — it adds a much-needed level of organization to the frantic world of coupons.

Mariathasan compares the service to a kind of reverse Priceline.com, except in the case of Priceline, consumers are just reacting to the deals that Priceline has already negotiated, whereas automated consumer-driven deals puts the customer in the driver’s seat.

SoBiz10 has been testing its model in Denver and Kansas City, with more than 17,000 consumers and 2,000 merchants participating. The startup recently forged its first big partnership with a national coupon-ing company, but is not yet sharing the terms, or the name of company, though two more are in talks with SoBiz. More to come on that. SoBiz is currently bootstrapped and seeking venture-backing to help bring its service to other cities.

Lastly, the startup is providing TechCrunch readers with 100 free keys to the private beta, which you can take advantage of by emailing the team at contact@SoBiz10.com. Mariathasan said that SoBiz plans to launch its public beta later this summer.

More on SoBiz in the video below:



Accel And Others Put $19M In Female-Focused Personal Finance Guide LearnVest

Exclusive-Personal finance site for women LearnVest has raised $19 million in Series B funding from Accel Partners and other existing investors including, Richmond Management, Rose Tech Ventures, Circle Financial Group and PKS Capital. We’re told two additional financial parties participated in the round but these names are not being disclosed at this time. To date, LearnVest has raised $24.5 million.

LearnVest, which launched at TechCrunch50 in 2009, has a simple goal: to help women organize their finances and learn how to become financially savvy. It’s kind of like an online version of financial planner Suze Orman blended with personal finance site Mint.com.

Founded by entrepreneur Alexa Von Tobel, the startup aims to fill a big hole in terms of providing an online destination that is catered towards educating women about finance. Von Tobel tells us that the company will use the funding to continue to build better products for its users.

What makes LearnVest unique is that it goes beyond just aggregating your financial information and actually helps women become more educated about personal finance. For example, the startup launched three online programs last year, called ‘bootcamps,’ to educate women on various financial subjects, including a Financial Basics Bootcamp, Cut Your Costs Bootcamp, and Investing Bootcamp. The company also sends users a daily email with financial tips and information called the LearnVest Daily.

The Investing Bootcamp teaches women how to make smart investing decisions and properly allocate their portfolios. For three weeks, women will receive daily emails with advice and actionable items that they can perform on LearnVest, making the newsletter interactive. For example, for the Financial Basics bootcamp, one of the daily actionable items is ‘Get Your Credit Score.’ Cut Your Costs Bootcamp topic range from Bootcamp topics range from ways to save on energy bills to exactly how to negotiate a lower cable bill. Learnvest incorporates all of the information users complete and input in bootcamps into their LearnVest account.

Currently, LearnVest’s Bootcamp Programs are the focus of a $150,000 study by the Financial Literacy Center, a joint center of the RAND Corporation, Dartmouth College, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. LearnVest is also adding two new advisors to its board, including Greg Waldorf, former CEO of eHarmony; and Greg Coleman, former President and Chief Revenue Officer of The Huffington Post, and the current President of Criteo.



Hotwire For Surgery

Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Dave Chase, the CEO of Avado.com, a health technology company that was a TechCrunch Disrupt finalist. Previously he was a management consultant for Accenture’s healthcare practice and was the founder of Microsoft’s Health business. You can follow him on Twitter @chasedave.

The hotel bed that is empty tonight can never be sold again. That insight led Hotwire to create a disruptive model that has given travelers great deals on hotel rooms. It turns out there are “beds” and “suites” of a different variety - Surgical Suites/Beds - that have a similar phenomena. Just as top hotels rarely are 100% booked and can earn incremental revenue from otherwise empty beds, top surgical facilities have a similar dynamic. That insight is what led National Surgery Network to develop a national marketplace for surgical procedures. (Disclosure: National Surgery Network may become a customer of my company, Avado.com, which is why I am so familiar with it.)

Over 1.5 million Americans travel abroad each year for medical procedures in what is called Medical Tourism. Services typically sought by medical tourists include elective procedures as well as complex specialized surgeries such as heart surgery, dental surgery, joint replacement, and cosmetic surgeries. However, virtually every type of health care, including complementary & alternative treatments, psychiatry, and convalescent care are attracting Americans by saving as much as 90% off of medical procedures.

U.S. based healthcare providers have taken notice as have self-funded employers and health plans. The reality is most people, if given the choice, would rather travel for medical purposes to Tucson than Thailand to save time and uncertainty. Top surgical facilities realized they can be price competitive and have extra capacity so they have embarked on a program of domestic medical tourism. The byproduct, if you follow it to the logical extreme, is the creation of a national market for non-emergent surgery that has historically been strictly a local market. As the USA Today recently reported, costs commonly vary in healthcare by 600% or more (Source: change:healthcare) for the same procedure and same outcome even in the same city let alone from one to another.

The economics driving these savings are simple:

  • Target efficient, focused facilities – Many studies have demonstrated that doctors who perform procedures in high volume also have the best outcomes. Conversely, hospitals doing procedures less frequently often are more expensive and have outcomes inferior to higher volume facilities. Facilities and their staffs that are organized around particular specialties (e.g., cardiac procedures) can deliver care efficiently and effectively.
  • Simplified Payment – By developing comprehensive case rates for most procedures, they can reduce the administrative overhead of billing and reimbursement. Patients no longer receive the myriad bills and so-called Explanation of Benefits after a procedure. As NSN CEO Ken Erickson says, “Our patients no longer worry about uncovered costs and get one letter from the hospitals and doctors after a procedure…and that is a letter of thanks!”
  • Drive incremental volume to these providers – By filling beds and surgery slots, NSN patients are financially attractive at rates that are significantly lower than traditional reimbursements.

National Surgery Network is one of the first to identify this opportunity and has created a national network of surgical facilities that have been aggregated to offer to self-funded employer health plans (i.e., the employer directly pays for medical costs rather than buying traditional insurance) who have been frustrated with the hyperinflation they’ve felt covering their employees health costs. Currently, 110 million Americans are on health plans that are self-funded.

This is another example of the growing movement I call the Do-it-Yourself Health Reformmovement such as MedLion that was profiled earlier in The Most Important Organization In Silicon Valley That No One Has Heard About. That is, organizations such as National Surgery Network aren’t waiting around for politicians to fix what is widely understood to be the broken and most expensive facets of healthcare. Rather, through their own trial and error, they are refining care and payment models that are demonstrating impressive results. 

While the value proposition is clear for the employer who can save 10′s of thousands of dollars off of their employees’ medical bills, what’s in it for the employee? First, NSN only contracts with facilities that have shown the best track record for surgical procedures. The hospital closest to you may not have great outcomes and it’s tough for a typical consumer to assess that whereas that is NSN’s business to understand that. Second, a GetWell Benefit also rewards the patient financially for adhering to discharge protocols and for participating in longitudinal follow-up.

One woman who had a long history of heart problems required an aortic valve replacement.  The hospitals in her local market were poorly rated for heart care.  NSN arranged for the procedure to be performed by one of the leading surgeons at Heart Hospital of Austin.  Although the surgery required was more complex than anticipated, the outcome was a complete success.  The patient reported that although she had been in and out of hospitals for years, this was the first time she was being cared for and not just treated. NSN has what they call Care Navigators to help with a process that can be intimidating for patients.

NSN uses technology in support of personal interaction. They provide an on-line Health Information Portal to assist the patient in choosing a provider.  They also have care coordinators that establishes a personal relationship with each patient.

They use a secure on-line medical records system for easy access by the NSN physician specialist and the patient’s local/primary care.  Each patient using NSN receives their own electronic personal health record as an additional benefit. NSN is also deploying social media to help patients share their experiences and connect with one another in an environment that protects privacy and anonymity where appropriate.

TechCrunch contributor and venture capitalist Mark Suster has repeatedly stated that entrepreneurs should be solving the truly big challenges in our society — health, education and energy — instead of creating yet another social tool, location-based service or trivial application. NSN is doing exactly that.



Google+ Added $20 Billion To Google’s Market Cap

How much is social worth to Google? Investors added $20 billion to Google’s market cap the first week after the launch of Google+ on June 28. A Morgan Stanley downgrade on Friday, brought the total down to $15.8 billion because of doubts whether Google will indeed be able to capitalize on new products such as Google+. But somewhere in between there, give or take a few billion, is how much more the market thinks Google is worth than before the launch of Google+.

On June 27 (the day before the announcement), the stock closed at $482.80. It rose to a high of $546.60 on July 7, for a $20.6 billion gain to its market cap (with 322.25 million hares outstanding). Then the stock dropped to $532 at Friday’s close.

Of course there are other factors at play here (the health of Google’s core search business, the overall market, etc.). In the past week, however, the most important new event for Google was it’s latest foray into social. And even though Google+ is still in a limited beta, the market is already rewarding the serious focus on social that it represents.

Bravo, Larry Page. If he can deliver on the promise of social, Morgan Stanley will be tripping over itself to upgrade the stock. Anyone want to guess what will happen to Google’s market cap between now and then?



Epic Gif: The Facebook Google+ Slapfest

Oh, I could just watch this all day. We’ve been writing about the growing rivalry between Facebook and Google, with its new Google+ social network. But here you have it in gif form, with the Facebook and Google+ favicons superimposed on the dwarf from Game of Thrones (Google+) slapping the child-king (Facebook) over and over again. I am not sure why Google+ is a dwarf, but it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching.

It kind if sums up visually the whole fight between the two companies. Don’t you think?

And where did I find this? On Google+ of course. It was created by graphic designer Ala’a Assamawy . Well played, sir. A meme is born.