Technology startups: 10 sectors to watch in 2014

Boule de cristal 2014

Photo: Mark Skipper

As an observer of the local and international technology start-up scene, I have the opportunity to be quickly exposed to emerging trends. In this post, I’d like to share with you ten areas that I think are particularly promising in the coming year. And whenever possible, I’ve also identified Montreal startups already operating in the space. Without further ado, here’s what I see in my crystal ball for 2014.

1)  Local vertical marketplaces.

Players like Airbnb (hotels) or Uber (taxis) have shown in recent years that you could create next-generation local marketplaces by addressing a very specific vertical. These players are generally characterized by content depth, better consumer decision-making tools and/or complete vertical integration up to the final transaction. Knowing that there are 4,000 vertical categories in business directories, we are still in my opinion in the infancy of these next-gen vertical sites.

2) Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) tools for SMBs

2013 saw the emergence of companies offering a variety of SaaS software for SMBs (small & medium-sized businesses), especially in customer relationship management, accounting and marketing. I believe we will see other small enterprise software tools launching in 2014 particularly in the offline-to-online space, to optimize sales when a potential customer physically visits a retail store.

3) Small hardware + software products

Following Google’s acquisition of Nest for $3.2 billion last week, this is the sector that will be the most active in the next few months. The democratization of hardware development in recent years is mainly due to the emergence of tools enabling rapid deployment (whether in prototyping or crowdfunding). Top projects usually include a user-friendly, well-designed software layer and are made by the best industrial design talents. With its smart watch, Montreal-based Neptune is a good example of this trend.

4) Digital currency platforms

In 2013, everyone was talking about Bitcoin, the emerging electronic currency, but very few people know that there are now dozens of other so-called cryptocurrencies. Most news articles focus on the increasing value of Bitcoin, the speculative side, but what’s really interesting with electronic money is the emergence of distributed currency/transaction platforms (and the potential around micro-transactions). If the topic interests you, do read Marc Andreessen’s take in the New York Times. Montreal startups Bylls and BitCredits operate in this vertical.

5) Cable companies ready for disruption

I think disruptive innovations will soon threaten CableCo monopolies especially around television broadcasting. Netflix’s strength, the “cord-cutting” trend, the availability of legal streaming content, forced bundles that consumers don’t want are all elements that support this trend. In my opinion, there are dozens of interesting opportunities linked to this trend.

6) Artificial Intelligence and ambient technologies

In 2013, my biggest revelation was Google Now, the almost magical mobile application that analyzes my data exhaust (geo-location, Gmail inbox content, etc.) to provide me with useful real-time alerts such as travel time, weather, flight itinerary, package tracking, etc. We talked a lot about “Big Data” in 2012 and 2013 but 2014 will be the year where we try to proactively make these large data sets useful to users. There are dozens of interesting opportunities here also.

7 ) Security and privacy

Revelations of massive spying by the NSA and targeted advertising abuse by large Internet companies is leading to the rise of new products enabling users to better protect their privacy. Montreal-based Syme is building a software solution that allows you to share content and messages in a private environment. Multiple opportunities exist in this area too.

8) Health

2012 and 2013 saw the emergence of the “quantified self” movement and the launch of multiple applications related to physical health improvement (sleep better, eat better, etc.). This sector stays red hot in 2014 with new applications that can help improve your mental health (relaxation, yoga, stress, etc.).  Montreal startups OMSignal  and Hexoskin operate in this sector.

9) Food

New food technologies in either infrastructure (better distribution, traceability, etc.) or next-generation food products (nutraceuticals, organic and local food, new types of food, etc.) will be top of mind in 2014. Lufa and Provender are proud Quebec representatives in this technology sector.

10) Robotics

Directly linked to trends # 3 and # 6, and the rise of the drone market and Google’s acquisition of Boston Dynamics a few weeks ago , I predict a great future for this area in the coming years .

This article originally appeared in French in my Journal de Montreal blog.

Update:  Boris Silver, Co-Founder and President of FundersClub, just blogged about 10 things the broader tech venture capital community is paying close attention to:

  1. Drones
  2. Bitcoin
  3. Wearables
  4. Big Data
  5. Crowdfunding
  6. Quantified Self
  7. 3D Printing
  8. The Internet of Things
  9. Mobile
  10. Virtual Reality

Definitely some overlap with the things I’m watching. Always interesting to compare.

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Airbnb’s Achilles’ Heel

As you probably know if you read this blog and follow me on Twitter, I’ve been thinking about local commerce, local search and discovery for the last 13 years. That means thinking how to create a better match between consumers and local businesses.

I’ve been following with high interest the rise of vertical peer-to-peer marketplaces like Airbnb and I finally had the chance to try the service a few weeks ago when we reserved a Florida house for a family vacation. As you probably all know, Airbnb offers homeowners the opportunity to rent their home or a room to tourists. You can build a very detailed profile and the site relies on strong identity checks and reviews to build up trust. After doing a lot of research, we finally settled on a house that seemed adequate for our family and it had 16 glowing reviews from strangers. Owner was extremely friendly in all his communications and we were looking forward to a well-deserved vacation.

When we arrived, the house was a little more rundown than expected (be aware that “rustic” has an interesting meaning in real estate) but nothing that we haven’t seen before, as we travel a lot in North America and Europe, and we’ve seen a wide variation of accomodation quality. I’ll skip the next two days for the sake of brevity but sadly, we had to take the decision to leave the house earlier than planned. We found too many ants and saw three roaches-like bugs over a 48-hours period in the house. The solution would have been to spray the house with repellent but we feared that this could be harmful to our toddler. I realize that Florida sometimes brings its lot of “domestic” insects but for the price we were paying, we felt it wasn’t worth it. This house wasn’t for us. We thought of complaining to Airbnb but, according to their policies, they require photos and we didn’t take any (it’s not the first thing you think about when you’re in a hurry to leave a place!) We lost our money and rented a hotel room for the rest of our stay. All in all, a very disappointing experience.

My local search mind started thinking feverishly (or maybe it was the hot Florida weather?): given that it’s probably a recurring problem in that house, why is it that, in 16 reviews, nobody mentioned ants and roaches?

Were they fake reviews? No, I don’t think so.

Were people ok with bugs? Maybe that’s a possibility, although I highly doubt everyone is fine with bugs (you just need to Google for the word cockroach in TripAdvisor)

And that’s when it hit me.  In Airbnb, you deal with individuals, not faceless corporations.  Tenants might be more hesitant to leave a negative comment about a fellow human being. There is a reason social media experts have been saying to corporations they need to have a human face and voice. It keeps the conversation more cordial. In addition, tenants and owners can review/rate each other, which means a negative rating from an owner can prevent you from possibly renting a house ever again on Airbnb.

Turning to eBay, the grand-daddy of marketplaces, I also realized that reviews from strangers in a peer-to-peer marketplace eventually become meaningless. You can read many complaints about that on the web. In a review site, what’s often missing is a like-mindedness filter, to let you know if people have the same taste as you. Yelp has that same problem.

I also realized that Airbnb is going after a vertical (hotels) that is more complex emotionally than many local purchases:

  • Vacation = positive moment in life. You mess up my vacation, I’m mad.
  • Dollar amount is bigger. I make a bad choice, I’m mad.

In addition, the hotel ecosystem comes with basic standard:

  • You know brands stand for something, a level of quality. Sheraton, Hilton, Best Western.
  • There is also a standard 5-star system, where in effect you can opt-in to lower quality (and lower prices) with full knowledge.

It also got me thinking about trust and social media. Ken Larson on Quora says:

“We really do not know who to really trust. To an extraordinary degree the age in which we live is requiring us to redefine trust and the degree to which communication and expectation contribute to it. Consider simpler times a few years past (say 50). Trust was necessary in many venues as a means of survival on a day to day basis. We relied on others extensively for our well being from our local store to our banker, from the policeman to the politician. And we knew them all better, we could reach out and touch them and we were not viewing them in sound bites and web sites, nor were we being bombarded with multiple forms of input to digest about them.”

Through all these reflections, I came up with an equation for trust. To have trust in an ecosystem, you need:

  • A strong brand (can be an umbrella brand or an individual brand)
  • Real identities (everyone uses real names and pictures)
  • Detailed Descriptions
  • Solid knowledge about local prices (being able to compare prices for same level of quality)
  • Reviews/recommendations
  • Social graph (friends or friends of friends have bought the product/service)
  • Detailed enforced standards via a certification program

Looking at this list, Airbnb is executing perfectly on almost all criteria except for one: standards. Airbnb has “host obligations” but I don’t think anyone is really enforcing those. Did you know BestWestern has a 30-page standards book you need to respect if you want to be a franchisee? Without solid standards and a certification program, I won’t be going back to Airbnb. They currently have a great brand, but they’re putting that brand at risk every day.

Update 1: less than 30 minutes after I posted this online, I was contacted by Airbnb to discuss my case.

Update 2: because we did not follow the “procedure” (contact the owner and/or Airbnb to try to solve the issue AND capture proof of our allegations), Airbnb could only offer us a $100 credit. Given that we lost about $600 and that we’re probably not going to use Airbnb again, that obviously wasn’t satisfactory.