For every famous success story such as
Amazon.com or failure like Pets.com there are hundreds of unknowns;
companies that find success, or failure, anonymously. Yet each of
those companies have interesting stories to tell, as do those within
the company, individuals discovering what it takes to bring about a
compelling idea to the world.
I hate the "Dot Com Bubble" and "Bust" labels that have become mainstream media's shorthand for "stupid business people who should have know better" because it limits the story to companies like eToys.com as "obvious" failures. Having lived in San Francisco during that period of time, having been part of an anonymous "success"1 story with C2Net Software, having met many interesting individuals I know from firsthand experience the "reality" of that "bubble" and "bust", "stupid business people" is not the first thing that comes to my mind2. I am still friends with a few individuals from "back then", follow and keep in touch with many more online and have, alas lost complete contact with many others. Each and everyone of them carries with them an interesting perspective and insight from moving in a similar network of people and ideas at a similar place and time.
While I know organizations and companies like those exists in many places I have yet to find a loose confederation of those individuals, organizations and companies similar to what I experienced in the Bay Area here in Chicago where I currently reside. I have however found such a network in Washington, DC and it is known as Social Matchbox.
As I experienced back in San Francisco with Webzine, I'm sure to many in the DC Metropolitan Area, Social Matchbox means different things to different people. To some it is a guiding principle of similar ideas, to others an event and still to others a social network of people and organizations. I can't speak to the network of people as a whole, since being in Chicago leaves me with a tenuous connection at best. I can however speak to the idea and, at least to one, event.
According to their website "Social Matchbox is where East Coast entrepreneurs and startup professionals congregate, launch, stay informed, announce job openings, and connect."
Quite an ambitious idea.
In practice, at least as I saw it put to practice last Thursday night, the group focuses on technology startups in the DC area. Now, one might think that DC startups, even technology focused ones, are geared toward one idea; winning big, fat Federal government contracts. While that might be the case for some, the startups selected to give their 5 minute sales pitch for Social Matchbox were anything but. In fact, it seemed quite the opposite, of the dozen or so presenters, about half of them had a social consciousness element to their concept. Take for example the winner of the evening's "group funding", Earth Aid.
Earth Aid is an online tool designed to assist in managing the household utilities by providing one place for viewing electric, natural gas, and water usage information. But that's hardly the only aspect. Earth Aid also highlights rebates, tax incentives and discounts to help reduced household expenses. The social consciousness element comes into play with the users ability to earn rewards for reducing utility usage, reducing in turn one's impact on the local environment.
Other groups focused on the social engagement front included:
Apps for Democracy: An online competition designed to foster innovative and useful usage of local government data online
Grasshopr: Designed to be a single online source for civic engagement on issues at the federal, state and local level
As for those "traditional" tech startups, two of my favorites:
TapMetrics: An analytics tool for iPhone Developers for tracking information about their Apps
Unblab: An API to a machine intelligence that can be used to label important messages (email, blog posts, tweets) for the user, automatically filtering out "important" information from other "non-important" messages
Will all these ideas take? Maybe. Will any strike it rich? Doubtful. But if these individuals are anything similar to the West Coast counterparts I know, the "rich and famous" part isn't what drives them. What does drive them? Well as Steve Jobs famously put it to John Sculley, "do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water to children, or do you want a chance to change the world?"
1 For some, success or failure is a hard label to place. I, like many others, walked away with shares in Red Hat, which acquired C2Net in 2000, that actually had value. But it was a difficult transition that left a bitter after-taste for many. All, in all it was probably a draw.
2 Don't get be wrong, there was some stupidity going on, but hardly everyone was a speculator, rotten to the core.