The Gray Hair Speaketh

Advice that is largely Unsolicited..

EasyOrganicProducts.com – Online Store for Organic Products

Priyanka Baya asked me to do a reivew of EasyOrganicProducts.com.

Easy Organic Products

Easy Organic Products

Category: B2C -> E-commerce -> Organic Products

What does it do?
EasyOrganicProducts.com is a regular online store selling a wide range of Organic products.

What more?
Shipping is from Singapore. Default currency is also SGD. However products are offered to be shipped all over the world. There is a store delivery mentioned, but I could not locate any reference to a store address.

My quick two cents:
The store probably runs okay because of the product range and a working operation. However there is ample room for improvement. The store comes out looking quite amateurish in all respects, by normal e-commerce standards. Simply getting best e-commerce practises in place, and combing the site to fix the various errors, will lead to significant improvement.

Wisdom Nuggets in more details:
1. On the home page, the fonts and layout is all over the place. Using too many bold tags, and also a lot of ampersand signs “&” is a quick indication of an amateurish effort. Add to that, the vast open spaces in the center whereas the left and right columns run longer. Obviously opportunities have been lost to position then, some large sized images of best sellers.

2. Speaking of best sellers, in that list, there is repeat mention of Gift Vouchers. It is clear that this list comes out of a database, and there isn’t an easy manual fix to it. A customer would like to know that Gift Vouchers are popular, you are wasting an opportunity by listing 3 denominations of Gift Vouchers as best sellers, on your home page.

3. The testimonial link from the home page goes to an inside page where there is only one testimonial. Looks embarrassing.

4. Product images can be improved. There could be larger sized ones, multiple views and in some cases, videos too. All of these are quite par for the course, these days.

5. The SEO effort is not present. Almost all pages return the same page titles, for example. For a small e-commerce site, this can make a big difference to the overall sales.

6. Links don’t work right once you are in the wholesale area of the site.

To repeat, due to the interesting product range, the site probably does decent sales. However, clearly there is huge room for improvement and it can scale newer heights, if it can fix many trivial misses.

At this time, the site looks like a good “organic growth” (pardon the pun!) business, but does not show the potential to become a huge winner, which it has potential to become.

GRAY SCALE RATING: 1.5 / 5.0

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March 17, 2009 Posted by | Ecommerce, Startup | , , , , | 2 Comments

HelloIntern.com – a destination for Internships

Abhishek Sharma, co-founder, requested for a review of his startup, HelloIntern.com.

HelloIntern.com

HelloIntern.com

Category: B2C -> Recruitment -> Interns

What does it do?
HelloIntern.com offers prospective interns a one-stop destination to find good internships. Recruiters looking to recruit interns are asked to register and post their requirements of interns.

What more?

  • Compact little site with few links that get everything done.
  • All services offered free at this time.
  • The revenue earners that I see, are the Google AdSense links on many of the pages.

My quick two cents:
Interesting niche identified. But is the niche too small to make for a sizeable business?
HelloIntern may need to either significantly invest in popularizing the internship culture in India (create a larger market) or go global (assuming there are no established leaders globally) to generate scale in the business.

Wisdom Nuggets in more detail:
1.”Where is the money?”. If it takes time to earn it, that is fine. But is there a large enough pie out there, to cut a slice out of? Otherwise, all the hard work will not pay rich dividends.
2. Abhishek conveyed an ambition to reach 10,000 companies and 1 million students in 2-3 years. Is there a market at least 4-5 times that number? On the face of it, if restricted to India alone, the numbers do appear to be large. But there needs to be validation of the numbers through some research on the subject.
3. Internships happen via college placement cells too. Is there a room for a strong alliance of HelloInterns with college placement cells? That must be explored. Especially for tier II, tier III towns where many recruiting companies may not be visiting for internship recruitments.
4. Can HelloIntern show a real difference to students and companies, as compared to established recruitment portals like Naukri, Monster, etc.? If the niche is interesting enough, it is easy for them to spin it within their portals. After all, they already have the recruitment relationships with organizations. This may be one of the toughest hurdles. On the other hand, if HelloIntern can attract independently, the niche Interns segment, and become a destination with volumes, then they also become an attractive acquisition target for a larger recruitment portal.
5. How does HelloIntern seriously scale up?
a. By increasing the market size. This may be most challenging, but done well, it can also be the most rewarding, in terms of an added benefit of brand building. By creating collaterals on how internship can be offered, what kind of jobs can be interned, why should they be interned, etc., they need to create the pipe from the recruiter’s end.
b. By launching globally: There is nothing to prevent HelloIntern to be a global play. Where there are established market leaders, HelloIntern can leave the space. But there may be ample number of countries where the opportunity may be present, but no one has tapped it well so far.
c. By going beyond pure interns and looking at all kind of short term / temporary positions: of course, the domain name may restrict such a foray, and I would also recommend this only as a last option.

One or the other way, attaining size will be the critical key!

From this review onwards, I am also including a Gray Scale rating. This is an indication, based on current business and potential, about the likely success of the startup. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the one most likely to succeed.

GRAY SCALE RATING: 3.0 / 5.0

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March 17, 2009 Posted by | Recruitment, Startup | 1 Comment

Yoplr.com – a personalized travel planner

Deepankar Biswas, co-founder and CEO, asked me to review his startup, Yoplr.com.

Yoplr.com

Yoplr.com

What is it about?

Yoplr.com is a personalized travel planner. It assists users to make their travel plans, by suggesting places of suitable interest, then allowing the user to select the places, give information on travel time from one place to another, recommend the time required to be spent at a place, and in doing all that, enable a traveler to plan her travel itinerary.

What more?

At this time, Yoplr.com is equipped with data and information of destinations in Karnataka and Goa only. They mention that more states are coming up soon, on the site. Destinations have been classified well with lot of details. So you can find places, for example, with temples, monuments, waterfalls, theme parks, zoos, national parks, forts, jungle camps, etc. Likewise, while planning a holiday, you could potentially give information like whether you wish to go on a romantic holiday or an adventure trip or a picnic or a pilgrimage or a corporate holiday. In other words, a variety of different options for making travel choices, are offered.

yoplr_ss2

Other Observations:

You can’t do much, nor can you get a feel of what you are getting into, without registering. That is a big problem. Not everyone wants to divulge her information, without knowing first, if the site / service is what she is looking for. So a free tour or a more elaborate service detail can be useful. I ended up searching for other links before registering, and found an ‘about us’ at the bottom of the page.

Unfortunately, like many other links on the site (which you get even after registering), the ‘about us’ link opened in a new window. Once in a while, if some specific link opens in another window, it is fine. However having a host of links opening in new windows, is actually quite an irritant.

The other challenge with the ‘about us’ link was that it opened with a different brand name and a different look-and-feel. If Yoplr is the business, a critical link like ‘about us’ for Yoplr, cannot suddenly bring up a new name. That adds to the confusion for a user. Moreover, the fancy software implemented in the ‘about us’ sections, is actually not smooth flowing. The links open up slow, and the navigation is not smooth. If I was not in the process of reviewing the site, I would have lost my patience and exited long before.

My final observation in the ‘about us’ sections is with regards to the key team. While there is a lot of technology and management experience, and also consumer Internet experience that is visible, for a critical vertical play, I did not see strong industry experience in travel. I would have been happier to see that.

Wisdom Nuggets:

1. As a type of business, this falls into an interesting segment that can be ported well, to the Internet. Where, ordinarily, a high quotient of personalized service is required, where putting that entire cost of personalized service on to the customer’s plate is not possible, and yet, ideally, that service is necessary. Personal financial planning falls into this segment. Personal travel planning also falls into this segment, and which is where Yople is focused.

In such services, it is definitely a good option, to convert all the intelligence into a self-serving algorithm, and enable people to help themselves, via an online interface. However converting a service that would normally require a lot of personalized responses, into a pre-emptive self-service model is not an easy task.

Although Yoplr has tried to cover many variants that are likely to get encountered, unfortunately, personalized travel planning really calls for a far higher number of permutations and combinations! And the distance required to be covered by Yoplr, then, is still significant.

2. A self-service model of this type will have a user navigating across the site, on her own, and based on her choices, for a long time. The user interface, then, becomes very critical. Every single word used on the screens, the location of each message, the colors used, the options offered at each stage – everything has to be well “designed”. And it is important to recognize here that this “design” is not graphics, it is not visualization, but it is PRODUCT DESIGN. Something that may require a detailed customer understanding, understanding of the travel planning process, understanding what colors invoke what emotions, understand where the eyes go on the screen, etc. In short, I would recommend a good NID designer working with a travel specialist to significantly improve the interface. I was lost several times, as I tried out the service.

3. Yoplr needs to figure out who its market is. Very clearly. And then understand that market’s characteristics. Of all the people who travel, many prefer to take a no-effort package tour, still others have a destination and number of days in mind and would just hand over those boundaries to a travel agent, and let the travel agent work out the tour details for them. That leaves a small number of true enthusiasts, who want to do their own planning. Perhaps Yoplr can assist them and take some of their pain off. But then the travel enthusiasts are also familiar with other Internet resources, and for them to use Yoplr, they need to see the clear value addition. Yoplr’s intelligence should be higher than what they can reach on their own, for the enthusiast to be convinced. Moreover, for the enthusiast, part of the fund of travel, is this planning effort. To see a host of choices, to compare and then pick one, etc. They do not really want spoon feeding. Can they get the same kind of “high” while using Yoplr’s services? That needs to be seen.

4. In this context, it may also be noted that focusing on the ‘enthusiast’ (a natural fit for what Yoplr is offering) restricts the market size. Also because ultimately, money is to be made by making the user also ‘buy’ the travel services from Yoplr, it may be noted that the enthusiast will also have access to travel services and will research to get a best deal, on his own. So conversion rates could be lower, with enthusiasts, unless Yoplr offers best deals each time. Then, with those constraints, is it right for Yoplr to target the enthusiasts only or even make the enthusiasts, their primary market?

5. If not the enthusiast, then who? Perhaps the middle category of travelers, who are clear about their constraints, and who are otherwise willing to leave the job to a travel agent. They do not spend a lot of time, in the intricate travel planning. Once they see a tour “made” for them, and they broadly like it, they go ahead and book. Can this market be addressed by Yoplr? What does it take to address that?

a) In addition to the elaborate personalized travel planning, several “ready” packages to offer. Creating many options of ready packages, but being able to take inputs from busy travelers, and then pushing back to them, packages, that are likely to be close to what the travelers concerned, may like, and could work out well. Either keep these as ready packages, or have software intelligence that pieces together a few tour packages on-the-fly, once the traveler has given his set of constraints.

b) The other option is to be manually involved. Not the best of options, but like many other services which mix automated self-help with some manual effort, if travel constraints are taken, and then a manual tour package is worked out and offered, that may also be worthwhile. This busy traveler, who still wants some personalization (does not like package tours, say), may in fact, be a high-conversion business opportunity for Yoplr. Because the traveler is busy, if he sees a good personalized package, and also sees travel costs that are close to his ballpark budget, he will not necessarily shop around for a better deal, and may transact quickly.

It may help Yoplr to identify this target base, and focus interface and services towards this demography.

6. Between the above two points, if there is a clear understanding that the overall market is large, and there is good money to be made ultimately (from the transactions), Yoplr will need a lot of funding to get there, I suspect. It is a typical Silicon Valley type of venture, where there is potentially, high value being created, but which demands a lot of effort / resources. Until it reaches a certain threshold point, the service does not offer adequate compelling value. And there is no money being made till then. And maybe even after. People are not only planning travel in Karnataka and Goa. So more destinations, more states need to come in quickly. And I am sure that to do a comprehensive job, there is massive effort that needs to be put in, for each state that has to be added. And there is need to continuously invest in the interface design, in updating travel destinations, in updating road and travel time information, etc. And there is really no serious money to make in between. So whether it is funding from other businesses that the same company is into, or external one, it is clear that the project needs funding to create a great product. As the key to success is the quality of information, it may not be workable to leave it to user generated content in Web 2.0 terms. Moreover, a Wiki kind of public content building can only work when the user base is very large, and can collaborate and correct quickly. That not being the case, a user generated content approach is not a suitable alternative here.

7. After helping a user plan her itinerary, Yoplr offers to give them an offer for the actual travel bookings. And I guess, the actual travel bookings are where the money is being made. That being the ultimate revenue opportunity, it will hinge completely on the fact that Yoplr can offer good options and great deals on the actual travel requirements. It is easily possible that a user uses Yoplr’s great tips, to plan out the itinerary, and then takes the plan to some other travel agent, who can offer better deals! Then, for Yoplr, it would become only a labor of love. So back-end effort to ensure travel tie-ups that generate best value for money for users, also need to be put in place, so that most travel planners also become travel customers, for Yoplr.

8. Lastly, a small point. Like many other startups that I have seen for this blog, Yoplr has also not paid enough attention to Search Engine Optimization. When a new hotel is being built and they want some trees and vegetation, as a part of their ultimate look, they plant trees, even as the rest of the hotel building construction is happening. Because it is a fact that trees take time to come up, and they cannot sow the seeds, once the hotel is ready to start. Similar is the case with SEO. It is imperative to get the fundamentals right on day one. So that the crawling and the search engine linkages start building up, at an early stage. Especially for a content rich product like Yoplr.com.

In conclusion, I would say that assuming an adequate market size for Yoplr’s offerings, Yoplr is in the right business, and can be a great success. It is a long haul though. Patience will need to be high, focused development with commitment and dedicated resources will be necessary. That is the IP that Yoplr could build for itself, and which will also be a huge entry barrier. If a thing is tough to do, and you do it, that becomes the reason for your success. Easier things may get you started soon, but will enable competition to pass you by, also quickly.

Focus on good content creation, pre-emptive interface building, having quality travel specialists on board, and clear understanding of target customer profile, are the key requirements for Yoplr to address.

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March 9, 2009 Posted by | Startup, Travel | , , , , | 6 Comments

JobeeHive.com – useful company research for job seekers

Vishwas Mudgal, CEO and Founder, requested me to review his website, JobeeHive.com.

JobeeHive.com

JobeeHive.com

What is it about?
JobeeHive.com is a value added service in the online recruitment sector. Specifically, the value that it provides is in the form of company reviews and salary reports, which would be of interest to any person looking for a job.

What more?
The company reviews and salary reports are largely user content. In other words, the site depends on users to come and give the feedback, and which is organized suitably, company wise, with graphs and charts, giving a good visual feel to the data present. One can view companies sectorally and also directly using search. There is a clear community participation angle and a Web 2.0 business here.

Other Observations:
The key to a site of this nature is volume. If I can depend on relative ratings of companies or even a stand-alone review summary for a company, it would need to be based on a large enough quantity of reviews and responses. With few reviews, one cannot base a conclusion about the company. Since the few reviews can just be isolated opinions, or worse, these could be manipulated ones. For JobeeHive to be taken seriously, volumes become the absolute necessity, then.

Having said that, the core components that have been incorporated for the project, are quite good. It would indeed be valuable, if we can get at one place, the employer’s views and data, and employee as well as ex-employee feedback, besides having a shared professional network and salary data, in the same place.

Wisdom Nuggets:
1. The most critical thought that I can give is to find ways to increase the usage. In other words, to get more data for reviews of companies. If money needs to be spent and budgets are available, so be it. Incentivize people to participate in the feedback mechanism. Otherwise, find ways to partner other sites, or social networks and ensure that numbers pick up, and larger number of reviews are present on the site. I mean, for IT companies employing 30-40,000 employees, if I see only 15-30 reviews, it does not help me much.
2. There are a lot of business models that make perfect sense, but which may just have a long gestation period before they start making money. And in this interim, for the business to attract users and grow, it does not have a choice, but to keep investing and improving the service. I am afraid that JobeeHive might fall in that space. Ultimately, when there is a lot of data, and when it can be integrated in individual transactions itself, then it will make money. At least serious money. The management needs to be prepared for that long haul.

3. In the few verticals where online businesses have taken off in India, the recruitment vertical has been the most interesting one. Matrimonial, recruitment, real estate, etc. are all about match making. But it is in recruitment that one side of the match, viz. the employers, are willing to spend good money, they are willing to spend it continuously, and due to which reason, that vertical is most profitable. But if that revenue option is taken off, then what remains is a tough call on business viability.

4. JobeeHive will need to grow usage. Can that be done creatively? Why should an employee take the effort to put a survey in? Is there an incentive? If JobeeHive cannot part with money, can it find non-conflict partner sites, who may value the user, and give them some “in-kind” incentives, e.g. filling in a review on JobeeHive could get a user, a free registration on BharatMatrimony, say. Or similar other services / sites.

5. Once usage has grown, JobeeHive has to explore out-of-the-box opportunities to generate revenues. Can it become the ultimate annual HR survey of best companies in India? There are other media houses that already do these. But if JobeeHive can improve the process significantly, and in so doing, claim to have the most relevant survey, that could give huge branding and stature.

6. JobeeHive could create a concept of a JobeeHive rank of a company. Which is partly based on the facts and figures, and partly on user feedback. There could be an overall rank, and an industry / sector rank. And these numbers can be dynamic as user feedback keeps coming. Can this number become a prestigious number that companies will strive to work towards? Like an Alexa rank or a Quantcast rank, can companies work to improve their JobeeHive rank?

7. If that is done, in lines akin to Alexa in fact, can JobeeHive create content that can be put on affiliate sites or create widgets to show company ranks, and which can be made popular, for users to put on their own sites / blogs??

8. Advertising is the main revenue channel at this time. Is JobeeHive creating enough data and IP to convert its information into HR publications that can be sold?

In conclusion, JobeeHive is a very interesting business proposition. In order to keep making money, till they make the big pot of gold (they could be acquired), they will need to keep reinventing themselves in different ways, to earn money. And in doing so, the question that they need to ask of themselves is simply about what they are? Are they an online job related value added service, or do they perceive themselves as an HR research company, who happen to have an online presence? Clarity on this will decide how their business pans out!!

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March 6, 2009 Posted by | Recruitment, Social Networking, Startup | , , | 5 Comments

90di.com – an interesting travel portal

Khushnood Naqvi suggested me to review his startup venture, 90di.com, a travel portal.

90di.com

90di.com

What is it about?
In the rather congested space of travel booking sites, 90di.com aims to be different. Some of the key differentiators include combining air and train travel bookings in a single search instant, more human language search ability and a feature to plan an elaborate trip as well.

What more?
The interface is very clean and uncluttered. Which is really nice. There are options to use a standard interface or go for a simpler interface which can work with a slower connection also. This is a useful feature considering especially that train bookings can be happening from anywhere in the country, and where high speed connections may not be that common. Likewise, while searching for travel options also, there are options, viz. an English language style statement where you can use descriptive language (e.g. ‘Mumbai to Delhi by plane tomorrow’), or a more conventional form based tool, or finally, where you actually build up to an entire, elaborate trip booking.

Other Observations:
While doing air booking, the site sends you apparently, to the direct airline booking site. Unlike most other travel booking portals then, 90di.com does not attempt to close the transaction on its own site. It could be a matter of awaiting the approvals from the sites, or it might be a conscious choice made by 90di.com, for some commercial reasons. There is a map interface which shows a chosen route on the map. It is an interesting feature.

Wisdom Nuggets:
1. Ordinarily, I would have hesitated to review “one more travel portal”, as there is already much congestion in the space, and the jury is really out, on who amongst those will survive the heat, and remain around to make money. With several funded startups in the space, what does 90di.com expect to achieve? Well, I do see them making a difference with their offering, having focused on specific customer needs, like the air+train bookings. I would recommend them to continue focusing on few but well directed features.
2. There is a speed challenge across the site. Specially the Ajax functionalities are slow and can be frustrating at times. These need to be fixed.
3. There are interesting features that can be useful to users. However there is the big question of revenues. How is money going to be made? It does not seem apparent.
4. As it is, travel bookings are a low margin business. The only hope for travel portals is to generate high volumes of business. I am not sure how 90di.com will manage to do that, in terms of brand building efforts, etc. There may be an opportunity to provide their set of services to another funded travel portal, by being their backend.

On the whole, while I appreciate the simplicity, the specific focus on few value-additions that 90di.com has taken, it is not clear to me, as to how revenues will come, and especially, serious, large revenues. So that remains a big question as far as I can see, with regards to 90di.com.

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March 5, 2009 Posted by | Startup, Travel | , , , | 5 Comments

EveningFlavors.com – for your wining, dining and partying needs

Akash Shrivastava sent me a request to review his startup, EveningFlavors.com.

EveningFlavors.com

EveningFlavors.com

What is it about?

EveningFlavors.com is a directory of restaurants, pubs, party places, longe bars, etc.  It gives good details of these places, and offers reservations, reviews and promotions as well.

What more?

Specific searches are offered for restaurants (you can search on basis of location, type of cuisine and budget), pubs (area) and parties (date). There is room for users to add their own reviews. Several promotions run as hot deals, and could spell good value to the users. At this time, Bangalore properties are well populated and other cities’ data must be getting ready. The data appears to be quite comprehensive as far as the heads of information go. User reviews would become the driving force of the site, and in time, these should also build up.

The layout is neat, with easy navigation and pre-emptive linking.

Other Observations:

The site clearly has the right ideas and the right structure. It is looking at the user needs clearly, and site layout, content, navigation are all focused towards the user’s needs. There are some Google Adsense ads that are visible, but in a non-interfering way. So these might be used only for purpose of creating some supplemental income, and they do not seem to be the main revenue line. In a venture like this, lot of revenue opportunities can be created, so Adsense may only be a marginal income.

Wisdom Nuggets:

1. When you remove the frills and the laces, you see this business as a niche segment yellow pages. For the wining, dining and partying vertical. In that respect, the competition for EveningFlavors could come from the likes of Sulekha.com, JustDial.com and others in that space. Sure, EveningFlavors will portray itself as a specialist and offer value addition, including table reservations, party event information, etc. But over time, it will need to build clear brand equity in the space, to generate usage volumes, and thereby have a lock-in, into the segment. Both for users, as well as for the “merchants” , viz. the restaurateurs etc.

2. One of the key revenue drivers for businesses of this type is advertising income from the merchants. JustDial, Sulekha and other specialists have created large sales netorks on the ground, and who are creating sign-ins and advertising income. I am not sure where EveningFlavors stands on this, but they will need to have their field sales teams too. There, the challenge is that since yellow pages companies are working on any and every vertical, their sales costs can be kept lower, as salemen’s visit location can cover large number of calls. Whereas, with niche vertical of EveningFlavors, their unit cost of sales could be higher. Also whenever they add new cities, they will also need to shore up a field sales team, for that city. And only to nurture a single niche vertical, as against multi-vertical yellow pages’ companies.

3. A value proposition to users will be in getting good information, regularly updated. Maybe information about the menu offered (scanned copy of the menus of the restaurants would be wonderful), table locations (”near window”, etc.), the day’s specials, etc. would be useful. Also regular updation of details, will be a good way to get a lockin, on the users. However in implementing these strategies, they will not get pro-active cooperation from the restaurants. Due to various reasons, including not being very excited by the medium, not getting adequate results on the investment, etc. And yet, for EveningFlavors, giving good quality information is the one big way to lockin the users. Then, EveningFlavors has no choice but to update its information. And for which purpose, they will need to take the onus of collecting this data on a regular basis, from the restaurants!!

4. Mobile integration (can’t see if its done or yet to happen) is almost mandatory. Another interesting feature that could be added, along with a mobile integration, is to enable restaurants and pubs to put short term, live promotions, e.g. “Happy Hours for the next two hours” etc. On the other side, users can enable their own opt-ins when they require (like when they are planning for an evening out), and also specify area and cuisine type if you wish, and they could get SMSes from corresponding live promotions that have been put by the merchants. This could also spell additional revenue for EveningFlavors, as a higher lead generation commission.

5. Likewise, Social Media integration is nearly mandatory. To have a loyal users group on Facebook, or to tweet promotions to loyal follower lists, will be a must-have integration to the proposition of EveningFlavors.

6. The business proposition is per se, not a rocket science. One has heard of and seen others working on similar models. The winning brand will then be, not necessarily someone with better technical capabilities, but a team that “breathes” the business better. A team that understands the pains of users, as they plan their wining, dining and partying needs. If EveningFlavors is that team, then they will execute the tasks better, and could emerge the winners, after all.

7. Speaking of branding then, also brings up the fact that to differentiate in the market place, there will be some specific brand building effort required. Some of it could mean money spend, and some could be just clinching smart deals with partners, hotels, taxi services, travel guides, college campuses, credit card companies, etc. One or the other way, users should come across the EveningFlavors brand frequently, so that ultimately, they choose to make it a habit.

8. Again, from the point of view that there are others pursuing similar strategies, it is also essential for EveningFlavors to add many cities as quickly as possible. They need to become a national brand for this service at the earliest, and occupy the slot, and keep servicing it, with excellent offerings for the users. Otherwise, someone else will take the slot, or it will become a fragmented market, helping no one brand.

9. Community and Reviews are going to be very critical. I would urge the management of EveningFlavors to take up community building and getting more and more user reviews, as a top priority. If traction is got on those fronts, there is no reason why EveningFlavors cannot become to the wining and dining space, what TripAdvisor is to the travel space!

10. A useful win-win-win proposition can be to issue exclusive promotions or discount codes (on SMS or emails) from EveningFlavors to users. When users take these to restaurants, the restaurant validates the value of their presence on EveningFlavors. Also for EveningFlavors, besides the validation for its paying clients, namely the restaurants, leads generated like these could be negotiated for higher commissions. And finally, for the user, a promotion / discount is always good, and she will be glad to have got it from EveningFlavors, generating user loyalty.

There are at least two other ideas that I can share, and which would both work with the current EveningFlavors infrastructure, but which would be extensions to the current business. I can share these with the founders, in case they are interested, but I will not put them up on an open forum here.

Other than that, I can conclude that EveningFlavors is sitting on an excellent idea with tremendous potential, and if they can execute it quickly and well, they could be a very exciting and profitable business.

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March 5, 2009 Posted by | Ecommerce, Hospitality, Social Networking, Startup | , , | Leave a comment

SwappinZips.com – a low cost, self help real estate sale tool

Geoff Yunker wrote to me on LinkedIn, to check out the new startup that he is associated with, namely SwappinZips.com.

SwappinZips.com

SwappinZips.com

What is it about?

SwappinZips.com offers a low cost online option, for selling a home. Via its few different packages, SwappinZips covers nearly all kinds of services that any home seller is expected to need. And the entire product is an online product, offered at a low fixed cost.

What more?

In addition to text that you can read, there are audio messages narrated using a site avataar that convey the key information needed by any user. The site enables a user to give details of her house once, and with that information, the house gets listed into many sites suitable for real estate deals, including realtor.com. In addition to the listing package of services, they also offer Marketing Package, Closing Package or an overall Bundled Package. Then there is one buy-as-you-need a la carte package on offer too. As demonstrated on the site, they have priced the services to look like a steal as compared to the fees charged by a typical realtor.

Other Observations:

This is a very typical and very workable model of business. Where in the traditional space, there are human service providers who are always going to be expensive, if the service is converted into an online self-help offering, it can be a tremendous value proposition. Similar service offerings have been seen in personal finance, insurance and other areas. In that respect, SwappinZips.com is in a good slot. The game clearly, in such models, is put all the learning and the intelligence in the online product, and then ensure that a lot of people use the service, offered at a low cost. While I am unable to try out and comment on the actual service offering, if this is what SwappinZips has achieved, then they are certainly on the right track.

Wisdom Nuggets:

1. At the outset, a simple and small step is to improve the SEO friendliness of the site. Page titles, URLs, metas can all be improved to make the pages more search friendls.

2. In services of such kinds, where human service providers are undoubtedly expensive and online versions should be adapted as a no-brainer decision, why do people still go and spend the money with the human service providers? It is a question of the credibility factor. So if that has to be addressed, various communications on the site need to focus on this factor and address it strongly. There is room for improving communication in this aspect.

3. The home page has too much text, with a variety of fonts and colors. This does not give it a professional look. Moreover too much congested text does not make for easy reading, in any case. The text can be lesser and be very clearly focused on the one strong message – that of being a low cost option! Instead of trying to get multiple messages out.

4. The header is very valuable real estate on the page. There is an empty space in the middle and images of houses on the right. I am not an advocate for filling up that space completely, by any chance. However with some empty space and rotating images of houses, the space is being under utilized. Maybe a smart banner with an image of a house, a person and a blurb with the tagline or something of that kind, may be better value of usage of that space.

5. The audio messages are good, and convey the desired communication well. However as I go back and forth over the pages, the audio repeats when I return to a page. That is quite an irritant. If there is a way to ensure that an audio auto-starts only once per session, it would be nicer.

6. A clear “About Us” page and link is always useful. Especially in sites where money is being asked for, to provide services, customers often want to know who is behind the site, and to whom the money is being paid. Such an ‘about us’ page is missing here.

Other than these few points, the site is well positioned in terms of the service offering, and given a good shot of promotion, it should be able to create an excellent niche for itself.

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March 1, 2009 Posted by | Real Estate, Startup | , , , | 1 Comment

MyArtPlot.com – A Social, Commercial and Professional Art Network

Minh Nguyen connected with me on LinkedIn and shared this website MyArtPlot.com, which he is involved with.

myartplot_ss1Minh informed that the project started out originally as a business plan competition at Brown College, and which after funding, got converted to a proper business that we see now. In fact, the official beta of the site is now hardly one month old, although the site has been in preparation for longer.

What is it about?

MyArtPlot.com is bringing together Artists, Crafters and Supporters. Artists are the main “members”. Artists get space for themselves, referred to as their “plot”, and where they are able to do a lot of things. Showcase their works, give updates, statuses, etc.

myartplot_ss2

The art works are also on offer for sale.

In addition to artists, MyArtPlot is also open to buyers, who can come and purchase art works, offered by the various artists. In fact, there is a separate direct access to all the items on sale, and a buyer does not need to look up individual art plots, if she does not want to:

myartplot_ss3Broad Observations:

The site has good positioning and can become a destination for art lovers. There is clear potential for this network to zero into a perfect social network for the community concerned. And since it has factored in commerce along with, it makes for a great win-win opportunity.

In a lot of ways then, the model points to quite an ideal social network, which can be really effective, during the times of existing social networks struggling to find monetization models!

The “plot” offered to artists is quite complete. Lots of features possible, leaving it to the artists to promote themselves as best as they can and want to.

Few other things that Minh conveyed to me:

– That outside of the bet, they have 3000 members at this time, but where they wish to take it, is 100K by summer and 500K by Dec of this year
– That, having provided the artists with the various tools, they would like and expect the artists to do their own promotions mainly,
– That he sees mutiple opportunities to generate revenues, but he expects that once the usage increases, those things will come into place on their own.

Wisdom Nuggets:

Since the site is not very old, some of what I may say now, might be a work-in-progress, and should fall in place soon. But still, I will point it out anyway, just in case, its escaped Minh’s and others’ attentions.

1. The site obviously needs SEO to happen. Something simple like page titles are absent at this time. This needs to get in place quickly.

2. It is one thing to say that the promotion has to be done by the individual artists. However MyArtPlot.com must also do its part in the promotion aspect. In fact, I see the site as similar to a mall, where lot of stores are pitching their tents. While the stores have to promote themselves, the mall ALSO has a duty to perform, to get word out, and generate the footfalls. So MyArtPlot must try and drive traffic into the site.

3. Minh informed me that commission on the sale of products, was one out of several revenue sources for MyArtPlot. That may of course be fine, for MyArtPlot. But the fact is that, if there are sales, then the interest of the artists will sustain. And that being the case, if MyArtPlot also aligns itself to this goal, then the goals of the artist and those of MyArtPlot will be aligned. And nothing can drive the company to greater heights, other than such total goal alignment amongst the main stakeholders.

4. How will the site go from 3000 to 100,000 in a few months? If this is the main metric being chased, it is essential also to, constantly monitor and set targets and have a clear accountability for the same!

5. I am okay with a fundamental idea of ‘you build a good product, and users will come, and if they come is large numbers, then advertising also follows’. However on the web it is dangerous to let things be, assuming they will take this natural course. We are seeing a lot of excellent products (Twitter, Facebook, for example) with excellent user traction, but struggling for monetization. So taking the revenue side for granted may not be the wisest thing to do.

6. Minh also informs that there are mutiple revenue opportunities that they perceive as possible. Which is great. The biggest danger then, in such cases, for a startup, are that one keeps looking at the ‘next revenue source’ to make up the deficit. If there are 5 revenue sources, there must be a study done, to estimate potential revenue numbers for each of those 5, and then set targets on that basis. And have each of those numbers chased, irrespective of how the other numbers are running. That is the only way to shirk off possible complacency on the revenues front. This is especially true when you have a great product. There is a tendency amongst the founders to fall in love with the product, at the cost of not addressing the revenue challenge enough. There needs to be a good balance between the product and the core objective of any commercial entity, viz. to make money!!

All in all, I believe that MyArtPlot.com is a great opportunity, has immense potential, and executed well from hereon, it can become a very interesting niche play, and make good money for it’s stakeholders.

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February 28, 2009 Posted by | Arts, Ecommerce, Social Networking, Startup | , , | Leave a comment

LayoffSupportNetwork.com – Support System for Laid off workers

Javed Ikbal has founded this support site for laid off employees, LayoffSupportNetwork.com.

LayoffSupportNetwork.com

LayoffSupportNetwork.com

What is it about?

LayoffSupportNetwork.com is a not-for-profit support group website, for people who have been laid off. The cause is very noble and very timely, considering such support will be a big need at this point in time.

What more?

The site uses a combination of subject matter experts (about 10% content) and user generated content (balance 90% content) for the information presented on the site. Key areas of interest including concerns on money, living (changes in lifestyle), health and of course, job resources to enable reemployment at earliest, are separately addressed.

There is a donate button of significant size on home page, but Javed informs that the button does not generate serious donations, and the amount collected does not even cover the hosting costs for the site. Any other means of collecting revenues, such as advertising etc. are not visible at this time.

Other Observations:

It does appear to be a new site that has come up soon, and is likely to undergo more changes over time. The design is minimalistic and will probably go through some changes. The membership numbers so far, are quite small. Even from the content point of view, the design will suddenly become unmanageable, if the articles and users increase.

Wisdom Nuggets:

1. There is an urgent need to raise the membership. Given the benefit of doubt that it is a new site, the focus has to be on growing the numbers rapidly. Social networks, especially online ones of this type, need numbers to be useful and productive. Also in times like these when we read about tens of thousands of people on laid off list, it should be possible to get into far higher numbers quickly.

2. Of course, in order to raise the numbers, the key value proposition for the members must come out clean and strong. I would suggest highlighting that on the home page, rather than the big space taken by members’ photos, login area and the donate button. The login and donate areas must shrink to small size, and space must be given to clearly zero in on the benefits offered to members. And a few pictures of new members could still be accommodated to show the increasing acceptance of the model.

3. During layoffs and times of economic recession, there are many government bodies which offer some assistance to people. Javed confirms the same to me. It should be possible to integrate that help with the site strongly, as that could become one key advantage offered here.

4. Inter-member interactions are not very apparently visible here. A support group of this kind needs to enable this and promote this. Support group members look to each other to provide the necessary first shoulder to lean on. This should be enabled and shared link for the same.

5. Besides a few SME articles, what is the key differentiator for people to use this site? It may be worthwhile to analyze deeper and figure out what could be 1 or 2 biggest concerns of this demography. And if those are addressed quickly, clearly and proactively, then the user acceptance will be faster.

6. If sponsorship is to be solicited online, then a good pitch for the same, may be made and kept ready.

All in all, if there is a genuine value addition offered to the users, and which is apparent, then the concept and the need is strong enough, to make it a big success. If, due to the lack of revenues and being non-profit, Javed finds it challenging to devote time and work on this, he must enlist more volunteers from his early group, and ensure growth – with the design, content, layout etc. to be perfect.

Rest of course, this is a niche segment, and how fast and how far this business goes ahead, will need to be seen in future.

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February 23, 2009 Posted by | Recruitment, Social Networking, Startup | , , , | 2 Comments

InkFruit.com – Design your own T-shirt

Kashyap Dalal presented the story of InkFruit.com, at the Startup Saturday event.

InkFruit.com

InkFruit.com

What is it about?

Inkfruit.com enables the design community, or even amateur designers, to design their own T-shirt designs and submit. Based on user votes on the designs submitted, the best ones are chosen as winners. The designers win prizes, and the designs also become available to inkfruit.com to make into T-shirts and sell via their website.

What more?

The site is really about “design”. The main pitch is to get good designs on T-shirts. All logistics are managed by the company. Printing of T-shirts is done with high quality screen printing or by transfer printing process. This is to ensure good quality and longer life of the printed T-shirt. The business of about 1.5 years old, has reached a healthy run rate of Rs. 2 crores gross merchandise sales annually, and there is significant room for growth, considering the T-shirts market.

New initiatives include affiliate marketing options, selling it via offline stores and also branching into other custom design products.

Competitive pressures do exist with few good, well established offline brands, and other personalized T-shirt offers online.

Other Observations:

Inkfruit is not necessarily printing on the fly, once orders are received. In fact, they print and keep a small lot of each T-shirt design ready. When a product is offered on sale, it is already ready duly printed. The large inventory exposure however, is only in the plain T-shirts.

In recent days, they have had foreign designers also put their designs on the site, and as a consequence of these being featured on the site, some sales of such T-shirts are also trickling in from foreign customers. Retail level orders are shipped from India, to execute these orders, by Inkfruit.

Wisdom Nuggets:

1. As I see the proposed growth paths of offline retail, new products, affiliates, etc., I have a specific question to pose. What is the real business? Are you about T-shirts, about all designer products, about distribution, about online retail, etc.? Based on that, the suitable growth steps need to be taken. If enough thought is not given to this fact, there is a risk of creating a lot of activities, but which do not necessarily add up to cohesive value creation.

2. The e-commerce market in India has not really grown to seriously large numbers. While e-commerce is theoretically assumed to be a lower costing option for retail, it is only so after crossing a certain minimum level of volumes. Until that happens, the economies of purchase are nowhere compared to offline players. And also the additional cost burdens of cross-border shipments (as against in-store local sales) such as shipping costs, taxation like sales tax, octroi, etc. make the proposition not very attractive economically. Designer T-shirts fall into a clear niche segment of business. Even if designer stationery or other similar products are added, these are still not high volume sales products. How does the business scale up in revenues rapidly?

3. Offline business opens up a different challenge. In reality, it is almost a different business. Or of course, its a different channel of distribution – whichever way one sees it. Undoubtedly though, the challenges are of a very different nature. From extending credit, from inventory replinishments, from returns of sales, sharing a healthy commission, etc., there are a set of issues that come up. Doe Inkfruit really want to go that way? And if it does, then that offline sales initiative should be taken with all vigour, and in fact, in that case, the online sales will become trivial compared to the offline one!

4. New products bring a different set of challenges. From the production aspects, to begin with. There is a clear repeatable process of printing T-shirts, and there is, numbers wise, a reasonably predictable market. And also if there is inventory stuck up, if a sale is done periodically, at lower cost, the T-shirts may move off. But say, there is a designer calendar, or a designer pen set, or something like that, even at low cost, it may not move at times. Then, inventory management and dead stocks may open up newer challenges. Put another way, if T-shirts are doing say, business worth 100, would you add 10 new products and take business to 120, or focus on pushing T-shirt sales and take it to 110, if not 120? Also what is the right size when expansion of products should be attempted? When T-shirts have reached a fairly mature market size.

5. There is an opportunity worth exploring, which Inkfruit has just accidentally touched. Which is of delivering the T-shirts to customers outside India. In a designer T-shirt, there is a cost of design. Which in western countries, might equate to a number even higher than the cost of the shirt itself. Indian amateur designers will be cheaper. Further the T-shirts itself come cheap from sources like Tirupur, which are anyway, one of the manufacturing hubs for global supplies. Finally the other overheads of business are also cheaper in India. If these are appreciated and Inkfruit chooses to thrust itself full blast into the international space, it could well generate far higher growth rates than what it gets from Indian market. Yes, the logitics cost and its challenge will need to be factored in. There are ways to work on those. But this could well be a useful and highly productive move for Inkfruit.

    In conclusion, while a top line of Rs. 2 crores looks interesting, since it is a semi-trading, semi-manufacturing, plus service (retail + CRM etc.) business, it may not be leaving enough room at the bottom line. To make serious money from the venture, the top line needs to go to at least Rs. 10 crores level or so. That means, selling 5 times the number of T-shirts, on an average, from what they are doing now. How confident is InkFruit of getting there in the next 2-3 years at most? And after doing that also, the business will be Rs. 10 crores, which for a trading or retail business, still looks small. There is a clear need to examine the business model at that base level, and see what they need to do, to expand and grow very rapidly from this point.

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    February 22, 2009 Posted by | Ecommerce, Startup | , , , , | 4 Comments