The end for Folders (and now looking for my next role)

12 months ago, almost to the day, I started working with my co-founder Christian Lavoie on a new startup idea. After brainstorming for a few weeks, we settled on the idea that would become Folders.

Our idea was very ambitious. In customer interviews with local retail businesses, we realized that most were still storing their product and customer data in spreadsheets or even on paper. Others had data locked in their old point-of-sale (POS) or in their accounting system. And, even worse, they were not doing anything with it. Very few small businesses were using modern CRMs or POS.

So, we set out to build a better solution for the 80% of small businesses who were collecting data, but not doing anything with it. The resulting prototype allowed customer/product data upload (from a spreadsheet), manual entry or sync (from Quickbooks & Shopify). It did not stop there. We also gave them access to best-of-breed marketing/management apps to make that data actionable. Customer data would unlock email marketing, loyalty, invoicing and scheduling functions (and more in the future). Product data would unlock e-commerce functionality and shopping site syndication. We were, in effect, creating a basic dashboard to manage & market a small business. We talked to retailers and many loved the idea. We talked to potential resellers to help us scale sales and many loved the idea as well. We talked to a few fundings sources and many liked the idea.

Fast-forward to the last few weeks, we tried raising a pre-seed funding round on the early interest from all stakeholders. That would have enabled us to move full-time on the project and pay us a small salary, but we did not succeed. Everyone loved the team, but there were recurring doubts about the small business beachhead and how Folders would succeed against larger marketing or CRM platforms. Most wanted to see more traction. And, to get to that, it surely meant 6-12 more months of bootstrapping (getting customers onboard, signing reseller agreements, etc.). In a startup, when that happens, it’s a good time to assess where your project is and what the future looks like. It’s going to take time, so you want to make sure you’re ready to embark on that new round. For personal reasons, I wasn’t.

We’ve therefore decided to wind down the project and I’m now officially looking for a new full-time role. What I’m looking for: senior digital exec role (VP, C-level or General Manager), ideally in product management, strategy, partnership development and/or operations. My core expertise is in local search/local commerce, marketplaces, digital advertising, social media and digital tools for small businesses but I’m definitely open to other sectors. Size of company doesn’t matter, as long as it has a solid entrepreneurial culture.

If you hear of anything interesting in your network (I’m open to relocation to the US or to Europe), do let me know. You will find my LinkedIn profile here and you can reach me by email at sprovencher AT gmail.com.

Advertisements

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.

 

Announcing My New Role

Today, I’m very happy to announce that I’ve joined HomeAdvisor Canada as Vice President of Product Innovation. Based out of Montreal (Canada), I will be responsible for growing HomeAdvisor in Canada and developing innovative new products for homeowners and service professionals.

For those of you less familiar with HomeAdvisor (formerly called ServiceMagic), it is a U.S.-based company that connects homeowners with pre-screened and customer-rated service professionals and provides a suite of comprehensive tools, products and resources to help with home improvement, maintenance and repair needs. HomeAdvisor’s international operations include Canada, France, UK and Germany.  HomeAdvisor is a subsidiary of IAC (NASDAQ: IACI). You can find out more about the company in its About” section.

I’m very impressed with the company’s senior management team and I’m excited to join the organization. This new senior role fits perfectly as a next step in my career, allowing me to continue building innovative local search products in a very entrepreneurial environment.

You can find the official press release announcement here.

Vous trouverez le communiqué de presse officiel ici.

BIA/Kelsey ILM West 2012 Conference: A Preview

Image

In less than two weeks, BIA/Kelsey is organizing its ILM (stands for Interactive Local Media) West 2012 Conference, a must-attend for anyone in the local media space. Held from December 4 to December 6 in Los Angeles, the team has put another yet another great line-up of speakers and panelists.

As I will be attending, I’ve put together a list of “can’t miss” keynotes and panels:

Day 1 (December 4)

  • The ILM West Kickoff: The View From BIA/Kelsey. That’s when the analysts share interesting data on “local”. Helpful for all those PowerPoint presentations you’ll be preparing in 2013
  • Opening Keynote: Bill Gross, CEO, Idealab. Bill Gross. ‘Nuff said.

There’s also panels on venture capital, on sales transformation and on innovative startups. Those are often “hit or miss” but you never know.

Day 2 (December 5)

  • The Google Executive Interview: Todd Rowe, Managing Director – SMB Global Sales, Google. Should be good.
  • Keynote: Jason Finger, CEO, CityGrid. Definitely interested to hear what CityGrid is up to. They’ve been silent recently.
  • SuperForum: Mobile’s Impact on Interactive Local Media: National to Local. Those 4 mini-sessions all focus on local and mobile.
  • Afternoon Keynote: David Krantz, CEO, YP. Like CityGrid, interested to hear the latest news at YP.
  • Targeting Local Audiences: Hollywood Shows the Way. Ah, I love when they bring new industries to the table. Lots to learn usually.

Day 3 (December 6)

  • A Discussion With Ben T. Smith IV, CEO, Wanderful Media. This one should be very very interesting. Ben’s company has been very active lately, including a huge $22M funding roundfrom newspaper companies in September.
  • Keynote Speaker: Dan Levy, Director, Global SMB Markets, Facebook. Facebook doesn’t usually share a lot of new information in these conferences, so stay tuned.

If you want to connect when I’m there, don’t hesitate to ping by e-mail: sprovencher AT gmail

In addition to the conferences, the event is great for networking. If you’re planning to attend and haven’t booked your ticket yet, Use my personal code to get $200 off the registration fees: ILMWSEB

Can LivingSocial be the default answer to local?

Good interview with LivingSocial CEO Tim O’Shaughnessy in Fortune today. A couple of questions/answers stood out for me:

A few months ago, you said that while Google may be the go-to solution for search and Facebook for social, there isn’t a “default answer” for local. Do you still think that?

Absolutely.

How can LivingSocial be the default answer to local then?

I think particularly on the consumer side, there is a desire for people to be more connected with their city. And people want to support the business down the street. They want to, when they’re walking around, go and know something about their community. They want to brag about their community. ‘This is why my sports team is better than your sports team.’ Those things all matter, and I don’t think there’s been a company able to go and help facilitate that in a broad-based way. I think if we can go and do that, while providing merchants and customers with new revenue streams in a thoughtful, effective way, there is that opportunity to seek that answer for local.

viaWhat’s next for LivingSocial – Fortune Tech.

What it means: From a merchant point of view, there are two sides to “local search”. The first one, known merchant searches, is now controlled by Google. That’s when consumers are looking for a phone number, hours of operations or driving directions of a local merchant they already know. The second one, discovery, is the one that hasn’t been fully cracked yet. Merchant reviews, daily deals, local Q&A, search, recommendations, etc. all contribute to this discovery process but I believe no one fully controls that space. It’s still wide open and huge opportunity. LivingSocial is part of the solution but it’s still a small part, and they’re still far from dominating the “local discovery” space. Lots more work and evolution to the service will be needed.

Pandora Trying to Get Local Ad Dollars

In the New York Times yesterday, we learn about the new “local” strategy for Pandora, the music streaming service.

Pandora’s pitch to advertisers is that its technology can cater to consumers with far greater precision than radio — it can pinpoint listeners by age and sex, ZIP code or even musical taste — and that as it grows, Pandora will effectively be the top station in many cities.

This year, Pandora has had 400 local advertising campaigns across the country. One new client was Planet Honda in Union, N.J., whose president, William Feinstein, said he gave up on terrestrial radio years ago because he felt it cast too wide and expensive a demographic net.

viaPandora Courts Local Advertisers by Reaching a Narrow Audience – NYTimes.com.

What it means: as radio gets atomized (i.e. the atom is now the song), the future of this media goes through mass customization (or mass personalization), this ability to listen to the music you like whenever you feel like it. Pandora provides consumers with that experience. In today’s world, that’s probably a better experience for consumers and it puts Pandora directly against local radio stations and ad dollars. Four hundreds local campaigns is still a very small number but it shows the potential. As always, the challenge will be getting these ad dollars through a local sales force. Expect radio companies to eventually start reselling Pandora ads as part of their Internet package.

comScore: The State of the Local Search Nation

On day 2 of the BIA/Kelsey ILM 2011 conference,  Gillian Heltai, Senior Director at comScore presented a series of interesting data points to attendees:

  • Total online searches grew 9% year-over-year to exceed 19.3 billion searches in September 2011
  • 2.8 billion of those searches were “local” (a growth of 9% from last year). Local searches growth is decelerating
  • IYP (Internet Yellow Pages) searches are down 20% year-over-year
  • 1.7 billion click-thrus to directories and regional/local content sites were generated from search in sept 2011
  • Top organic search terms by click-through rates: driving directions, white pages, yellow pages, maps, los angeles
  • 10% of US display ads are locally targeted
  • 3 of every 4 mobile subscribers own a device with GPS capability
  • Over one third own a smartphone
  • Mobile search usage grew 25% year-over-year with 26% penetration in September 2011
  • Search is the top activity of mobile browser users. Social networking is second.
  • 88 million mobile subscribers access local content on a mobile device, up 28% from a year ago.
  • Nearly 40% of mobile users access local content on their device in September 2011, compared with 75% for smartphone owners
  • 16.3 million smartphone owners scanned a QR code, 43% in a retail store, 42% from a product packaging.