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January 8, 2021

Five Startup Ideas #016

Digital Dungeon Masters, vendor management for SMBs, and The Athletic for local news.

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Friends,

I'd like to say "Happy 2021 🥳🥳🥳 "...but the first week of the year has not complied with letting the good times roll. Instead, I'll say this: let's make this year amazing with more great ideas, products, and start-ups.

Before the break, we talked about SQL notebooks, modern MBAs, and machine learning tools. Of those, Annika Lewis's "English-to-SQL query tool" received most backing. Excitingly, a few folks mentioned they're working on something in the space. Those interested may wish to stay tuned...

I thought I'd do something a little different for today's email. Rather than a quote, I wanted to share the three startups or products I discovered this week that I found most intriguing. (Intriguing best)

  • Qooore, an investment app for "hypebeasts." Rather that trying to disentangle rational investing from dopamine hacking, Qooore charges headfirst. Quixotically dystopian.
  • IPRally, a platform for patent searching. Streamlining a relatively unloved but highly-impactful business process. Led by a former patent-attorney.
  • Clover, a thinking tool for creatives. Do we need another all-in-one writing, task-management, platform? No. But this looks exceedingly beautiful.

I'd love to hear if you found this brief interlude interesting, or if you missed the usual words of wisdom.

Go get 'em,

— Mario


Vendor management for the long-tail

Ridiculously easy vendor management for global SMBs

As small businesses of all different shapes and sizes embrace digital tools to run their operations, I'm interested in a software suite that enables supplier and vendor management. I envision a solution bundling a range of features, including billing and payments, document and contract management, digital signatures, and supplier performance and forecasting.

Right now, these features are either offered as one-off tools or are tailored to enterprise customers. I'm inspired by companies like Factorial, which solved a similar problem in the HR software space. They bundled payroll, ATS, time tracking, and more, as well as keying-in on user experience across stakeholders like SMB owners and employees. The question of usability is critical: small business owners aren't specialists in supplier management or accounts payable/receivable functions. A viable solution would design with this relative lack of expertise in mind.

Given the customer base, it might make sense to offer the workflow software for free and monetize through payments.

Aashay Sanghvi, Investor at Haystack

The Athletic for local news

A subscription product for local media

People care about what's going on in the city they live in, whether it's local politics or restaurant openings. Equally, tons of quality local reporters would love to cover nearby happenings.

Unfortunately, local legacy publishers are getting crushed with dying brands and upside-down cost structures. There is a big opportunity to launch a subscription local news publication with a low cost structure.

How could it do so?

First, by changing the distribution model, focusing on newsletters and podcasts. This keeps costs low, particularly when compared to legacy methods.

Second, by monetizing through subscriptions. Though having a dedicated ad sales team may make sense when you operate in just one city, it's costly and tough to scale. Subscriptions are much easier to run across geographies. There are benefits as you scale, too. I'm from Baltimore and live in Manhattan, so I'd love news from both cities.

Finally, by focusing on quality over quantity. Just as The Athletic has done, you'd want to aggregate best-in-class local reporters and give them support and latitude to right pieces that more than justify the subscription cost. That also helps differentiate the product from less rigorous local news operators.

This idea was inspired by Ben Thompson's piece in 2017, "The Local News Business Model."

Austin Rief, co-founder of Morning Brew

Friends in ads

Synthetically-generated ads featuring your IRL friends

This idea was directionally inspired by Minority Report, though I visualize something more compelling (if somewhat perverse).

Essentially, I think there's an opportunity for a company to insert your friends into commercials programmatically. Imagine if every time you see an ad with people in it (starting with the web, but likely being enabled by AR glasses), the model's face is replaced with synthetic renderings of those you know.

There are all sorts of interesting ethical issues here, of course, and regulatory risk. But if the synthetic renderings happened on the client-side, using photos you've taken, it might be possible to operate in a gray area.

Another workaround might be having an opt-in network. Friends that allowed their likenesses to be used could receive a referral bounty. In many ways, this would be fairly similar to how the Facebook Connect platform used social proof to get more people to try out other apps!

Net/net: A solution like this might connect you to more of the people you know. It also could create false endorsements.

Chris Messina, Hashtag inventor, and #1 Product Hunter

The online service worker

From digital Dungeon Masters to online event planners

The service and hospitality industries represent trillions of dollars. As more experiences move online, ranging from tabletop gaming to conferences, we'll see a new category of labor: the online service worker. Covid has accelerated the rise of this new curator of digital experiences.

For example, Dungeon and Dragons is traditionally played in-person. A "dungeon master" (DM) curates the world and drives the story. Now, platforms like Start Playing allow you to find online Dungeon and Dragons DMs. This shift is significant since over $1B is spent on D&D every year. Some people are now making more money as online game masters than they did at pre-covid jobs.

Similarly, instead of hiring event planners (a $4.9B US market), people are hiring "virtual event planners." Traditional event planners deal with venues, caterers, decor, and vendors. Virtual event planners are experts at using Hopin and Zoom, understand camera lighting and audio, and are masters of online marketing.

In the coming years, I suspect we'll see billions of dollars transition to the online services economy and new categories of jobs created that are unimaginable today. I'd like to see more startups create platforms that give rise to new types of jobs.

Julia Lipton, General Partner at Awesome People Ventures

Universal search for e-commerce

Simplified search, discovery, and purchase across the web

Shopping online has become a cumbersome and challenging process that requires dozens of tabs and infinite scrolling to find a single item. Even then, it's often not the best option for an individual. Existing solutions have taken an aggregator approach, partnering with brands and then curating amongst that subset of available SKUs for users. While helpful, this is limited by the brands and retailers a single aggregator can partner with.

Today, with the metadata that exists on e-commerce sites as well as advances in computer vision, there's an opportunity for a new search and discovery tool that indexes all products on the web (not just inventory catalogs from partner brands), suggesting the most personalized options for an individual user.

The market is massive (TAM for apparel is $300B, $102B of that online), and e-commerce as a percentage of overall spend is growing, especially as covid has driven users to adopt further online shopping behaviors.

We have become accustomed to personalized search in many other aspects of our lives (Netflix, Spotify, Instagram) — we need something for online shopping that's universal in reach and individual in suggestion.

Laura Chau, VC at Canaan Partners

Coda

A new RFS game

One of my favorite parts of writing The Generalist's Sunday email is finding a fun riddle for readers to answer. I thought it might be fun to experiment with a similar feature for this email.

With that in mind, I'm excited to introduce "Coda" a pictorial puzzle for RFS readers. To crack the code, parse the pictures below to create a name or phrase related to the world of tech and startups. If you think you have the right answer, respond to this email.

(Hint: it helps to think phonetically. I can also reveal that today's coda is related to a specific person. More clues available to those that would like them.)