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Yaron Carni 2

Yaron Carni, lead investor

Google’s announcement last month that it was acquiring Tel Aviv-based LabPixies for a rumored $25 million caught some Israeli analysts by surprise. That’s a tidy sum for a small startup with just 12 employees that has raised less than $2 million over its four years of operation.

Yaron Carni, LabPixies’ lead investor wasn’t caught out, however. “I immediately loved the company’s products, their vitality and, of course, the team,” he said. Speaking on behalf of a handpicked group of angels including Auren Hoffman and Fabrice Grinda, Carni added “we were all deeply impressed with the character, commitment, talent and forthrightness of the founders.”

LabPixies was particularly attractive to Google due to the company’s role in developing some of the first and subsequently leading ‘gadgets’ for the iGoogle platform, Google’s alternative interactive home page. LabPixies products have garnered as many as one billion impressions a month while signing up 40 million users. One of its most popular products is ‘Flood-It,’ a game that involves dragging colored balls around the screen. “It’s very addictive,” admitted Carni.

LabPixies also builds translating programs, news and weather reports, calculators and calendars that run on other social network services including Facebook, Hi5, Yahoo and MySpace, as well as Google’s own Android mobile operating system.

However, LabPixies doesn’t make its money from the Web, but by selling mobile apps, primarily for the iPhone. Company CEO Ran Ben-Yair won’t divulge financial information, but he did tell the Israeli business journal The Marker several months back that the company has “millions of dollars in revenues.” Carni added that the company has kept costs down by staying “lean.”

Despite Google’s increasing competition with Apple in the mobile space, there’s no indication that the search engine giant will drop its support for LabPixies’ iPhone products.

Google plans to merge LabPixies into its Tel Aviv office, which according to a press release “will anchor our iGoogle efforts across Europe, the Middle East and Africa,” leveraging LabPixies’ “knowledge and expertise to help developers and improve the ecosystem overall.”

The big winners, of course, are the investors and LabPixies founders – CEO Ben-Yair, VP R&D Oded Poncz, VP business development Nir Tzemah, and creative director Udi Graff.

Investor Fabrice Grinda wrote on his blog that he was “seduced by the company. They had crazy amounts of traffic in the right countries (Western Europe and the US). Their users loved them. Moreover, their products fell squarely in a rapidly growing ecosystem: Social networks and mobile applications.”

If anything, Grinda was sorry to “sell so early. The company and team are great and the category is only becoming bigger.”

Google Israel’s managing director, Prof. Yossi Matias, is understandably bullish on high-tech in the country. “Google believes in Israeli innovation and creativity and we’ll continue to strive for collaborations with local companies and startups in the future,” hesaid .

Carni, in turn, is a big believer in Google. The deal to buy LabPixies spanned a number of months, Carni said, during which time Google was “a pleasure to work with… from the product people to the human resources professionals. They were always direct, honest and comprehensive.”

LabPixies is Google’s first acquisition in Israel. The company joins other international Internet heavyweights such as AOL, Microsoft and eBay who have invested in the local Silicon Wadi high-tech scene. Google has been active in Israel since 2005 but has never bought a company until now.

This post originally appeared on the Israel21c website.

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Gil Friedlander, Tawkon CEO

Gil Friedlander, Tawkon

What do you do when you suspect something’s bad for you but you just can’t stop doing it? That’s a question many cellular phone users have been asking themselves, with reports of radiation emissions from their mobile devices raising serious questions about the safety of our increasingly un-tethered society. A new Israeli startup may have the solution.

Tawkon has entered the fray with an inexpensive application for the iPhone that warns users when radiation levels have inched up too high and provides advice on how to counter the potentially negative effects.

The company says that its solution gives users the information and tools to avoid mobile phone radiation as much as possible by “mapping” their homes or offices so they’ll know where they’re exposed to significant levels of mobile phone radiation. It also supplies simple precautionary measures to minimize radiation, based on a user’s location and phone usage.

However, you won’t find this app on your iPhone any time soon, because Apple has banned it. Apple says that Tawkon is a diagnostic tool that would create confusion for iPhone owners from a usability perspective. Tawkon believes that Apple doesn’t want its customers to install an app that appears to advise them to talk less – even though its stated aim is to make it safe for them to “talk on.”

Tawkon founder and CEO Gil Friedlander is taking it in his stride. He says that his company is in discussions with Apple and that he is “optimistic and hopeful that the issue will be solved soon.” He insists that he’s not an anti-cell phone zealot. “We love our phones, too,” he says of the Tawkon team. “We won’t give them up. But we can help people use them more responsibly.”

In the meantime, the company is pressing forward with porting the application to other devices, starting with the Blackberry then expanding in the coming year to cover Google’s Android operating system and the Symbian OS used by Nokia phones.

Friedlander describes the Tawkon app as “like infrared goggles – suddenly you can see at night. We view ourselves the same way. We give users the ability to see and feel non-ionizing radiation. Once you know whether you’re in a red, orange or green zone, you have the information you need to take action.”

That action might be to move to a different location until the radiation levels drop, or to plug in a headset or use a speakerphone in your car.

Tawkon can’t actually measure a phone’s radiation – it’s just software after all – so the app relies on processing a dizzying array of factors, including your location, environmental factors such as the weather, Bluetooth functionality, how close your phone is to your body (utilizing the iPhone’s proximity sensors), antenna orientation (are you holding the phone vertically or horizontally), GPS and even the phone’s built-in compass. The app then prompts users with a vibration or tone when the radiation levels reach a dangerous threshold.

Some of the worst places to talk in terms of radiation are a room with thick concrete walls (a basement, elevator or, in Israel, the sealed room mandated from the time of the first Gulf War), and a moving vehicle (such as a train, car or bus) when the phone is switching off between cellular broadcast towers. In all these cases, the phone has to work harder to connect to a signal, hence the radiation goes up.

In some cases, the locations where radiation is highest can be surprising. “In my apartment, radiation in the washroom is high,” Friedlander says, “while the rest of the house is decent.” In 80 to 85 percent of cases, there’s “good coverage and radiation is pretty low, especially in an urban area,” reassures Friedlander.

No one knows exactly how – or even whether or not – radiation will cause serious medical problems in another 10 years, but the government isn’t taking any chances. Israel’s health ministry has recommended that children under the age of 18 shouldn’t use mobile phones at all – young people’s brain tissue is still developing. In the US and Europe, however, similar precautionary warnings have not been issued.

Friedlander and his staff of six in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya have been working on the Tawkon technology for 18 months now, going live with the still unclear iPhone version earlier this month. The app will be marketed direct to consumers via the various hardware manufacturers’ app stores for just under $10 a download.

Down the road, Friedlander says, he would be “delighted to partner with cellular phone operators,” where he believes that a tool to bring real value and safety to customers would be an absolute win/win. “We are aware that it’s challenging for them,” Friedlander admits. “For many years, they’ve just not addressed the issue.”

Friedlander is originally from Canada and studied at McGill University in Montreal. Tawkon has raised money from private investors in Canada, the US and Israel. Is he looking for larger investors? Probably not. “I don’t see the company as a big venture capital play,” he says. “It’s not a very capital intensive business. We don’t require tens of millions of dollars.”

If the app sells well – and Friedlander reports that the company has received thousands of inquiries since the TechCrunch blog about technology startups broke the story of the Apple ban – a small company like Tawkon could do quite well for its owners, partners and employees. The press is certainly interested. Tawkon has been inundated with press requests, from the Washington Post in the US to Channel 2 and The Marker business and technology print and online newspaper in Israel.

With the total number of cell phones in use said to be some four billion, and of these half a billion smart phones, Friedlander is optimistic that “it’s almost like an endless market.”

Ultimately, Tawkon is not all about the money. “Most of the time, you develop and sell a technology that reduces costs for a phone operator,” Friedlander says. “We were looking for something that can make an impact on the well-being of our friends, family and community. Being able to help the user is very important. We saw a real opportunity.”

This story on Tawkon first appeared on Israel21c and has since been written about by a number of top international newspapers and magazines.

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neatcalltNew startups have the best shot at success when they address a “pain point” – an issue that causes discomfort, annoyance or even loss of business.

Tel Aviv-based Neatcall targets just such a situation, one that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to schedule a meeting with two or more participants: Seemingly endless phone or email tag.

Neatcall’s solution is to marry mobile technology with a seemingly simple voting system. But as with any good start up, there’s a lot more under the hood.

“On average, setting up a meeting with more than two participants is a process that can take between half to a whole working day,” Neatcall CEO Dan Benger says.

We’ve all been there. A meeting initiator calls or sends out a message to the people who are required to attend. The respondents reply with their availability and the initiator then tries to find a time that works for everyone. Automated services, such as Microsoft Exchange, can speed things up, but they don’t eliminate the essential “trial and error” nature of a task that often seems to stretch on forever, especially if not all the participants are sitting at their computers at the moment the message is sent.

This is how it works: The initiator selects several free time slots from his or her calendar. A message is sent out to all attendees who then vote on which slots work best for them, in their order of preference. The Neatcall system tallies up the votes and shoots back the optimal time. If all agree, Neatcall books the meeting, sends out a confirmation notice, and follows up closer to the meeting’s actual time.

So far, the system is neat, so to speak, but not a major breakthrough. But Neatcall has another trick up its digital sleeve. It sends out its messages via multiple mobile formats – email, SMS, WAP, instant message or via the browser to a smart device like the iPhone or Palm Pre. Even on a basic phone, people can vote by simply responding to an SMS – “send S to select the first date, T for the second date” and so on.

Neatcall also offers location management so that scheduling requests are sent to attendees in the appropriate time zone. For iPhone users, there’s an app available from the Apple App Store.

It’s no surprise that Benger was the man to recognize the need for Neatcall, seeing as he previously served as VP of international marketing and business development at web and video conference call solutions company Interwise. Customers were satisfied with the quality of the conference calls, he says, but they frequently complained about how difficult it was to set up those calls. Interwise was purchased by AT&T in 2007 for $121 million.

In addition to its innovative approach to scheduling meetings, Neatcall also offers to conduct your meetings for you, with a package that comprises chat, audio and video conferencing from a single unified site.

While Neatcall’s basic innovation should help to solve an existing problem, it may be difficult for the company to make headway with the rest of its package, given that the market is already saturated with conferencing companies such as Webex and GoToMeeting which lead the space.

Benger is hoping that the fact that Neatcall’s service is entirely browser-based, unlike competing software which requires users to download an application, will make the difference.

Neatcall sells its service directly to companies – Benger says there are several deals in the pipeline but won’t reveal their names – for up to $12 per user per month, with the price depending on whether Neatcall is handling just the scheduling or total conferencing delivery. About 200 corporate users in Israel, Europe, Australia and the US have already tried the system.

With only four employees, a few contractors and an investment of $500,000 from the Netanya-based incubator Targetech and Israel’s Chief Scientist’s Office, Neatcall is small, but looking to grow.

When I set up my interview with Benger, he used Neatcall to handle the scheduling. I received confirmation and reminders via both email SMS. And that was just, well (wait for it)… really neat.

I wrote this article last year for Israel21c – here’s the link.

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Israelis love technology. They are early adapters, and relentless innovators, always looking for ways to improve their lives in every possible area.

With the country’s talent for development, it’s no surprise that some of the world’s top gadgets were designed and developed in Israel. Israel21c asked me to put together a list of the ten best. Here’s my take:

1. DiskOnKey
sandisk-cruzer-micros 2
Dov Moran, founder of Modu (see below), previously hit the big time with his company M-Systems, which developed the very first DiskOnKey (or DiskOnChip as M-Systems originally dubbed it).

The concept is simple enough: Jam up to 64 gigabytes of data onto a tiny gadget no larger than a house key. The latest versions actually look like a key and can hook onto your key chain.

DiskOnKeys were part of the “one-two sucker punch” that killed the venerable floppy disk (the other being cheap recordable CD-ROMs and later DVDs). Aside from being a reliable way to transfer data from computer to computer, disk-on-keys are now finding new life, expanding the storage space of the latest portable craze, the NetBook.

In 2005, PC World named the DiskOnKey one of the world’s top 10 gadgets in the last 50 years. In 2006, international powerhouse SanDisk purchased M-Systems for $1.6 billion.

2. Powermat
CES-Powermat3x_Netbook 2
How many power cables do you have running under your office desk for all your computers, hard drives, modems, routers, etc.? How about those kitchen appliances and their connections to the sockets? Wouldn’t it be great to get rid of the clutter?

That’s what Powermat promises to do. The Israeli company’s technology lets you embed a power grid in just about anything – from a desk to a kitchen counter. Then, with a wireless receiver hidden inside a device, there’s no need for plugs anymore. Just position the device or appliance near a power “hotspot” and away it goes.

In a demo on the company’s website, a salesperson goes so far as to pour water all over a “Powermatted” kitchen counter – with no burn-outs or electrocutions. Other demonstrations show iPods and Blackberries charging when simply placed on a table.

The company is a joint venture between Michigan-based HoMedics and Israel’s Powermat. The first products will be available in time for this winter’s shopping season.

3. Epilady

epiladys
The story of this gadget is fraught with intrigue. We’re talking about a hair removal product invented in Israel that now has copycat versions worldwide. The original Epilady “epilator” was released in 1986. It had a rotating spring that worked by catching hair and pulling it out. It isn’t pleasant but, according to women, it works.

Newer versions have more of a tweezer action. Either way, the result is not unlike a waxing treatment, except that you can do it yourself at home, for a fraction of the cost. An Epilady treatment lasts up to four weeks.

Epilady was the first but has been surpassed by international brands including Braun and Remington (Epilady sued Remington over patent infringement but lost). Still, the company has sold 28 million units over a 23-year career and now sports 13 different models from the “Traveler” to the youth-marketed “Epigirl.”

Ironically, when the first Epilady came out in Israel it was given the “American” sounding name “Nice and Easy” while the company used the “Epilady” moniker overseas.

4. Modu

modu-phone-jacketss
Modu
looks something like a cell phone and something like an MP3 player, but isn’t really like anything you’ve ever seen before. Essentially, Modu is a tiny device with cellular capabilities that can be slipped into any number of “jackets” to give it a specific functionality. One jacket transforms Modu into a full MP3 player, in another it’s a camera. The plan is to create a mini-economy around Modu accessories.

Our favorite Modu jackets: Modu Executive (looks like a Blackberry); Modu Love (a stylish cell phone with a big heart); Modu Kids (imagine a cute green Nintendo DS); Modu Boombox (a little phone with big, built-in bass-enhanced speakers); and the Modu Bicycle Mate (that snaps onto your handlebars).

The company is facing increasing competition from Apple, Nokia, Palm and others, which may be why, despite raising nearly $130 million since its launch in 2007, Modu recently laid off 80 employees. Still, the news isn’t all bad. Just a week before the layoffs Modu announced the launch of a touch screen jacket using Google’s Android mobile operating system.

5. Boxee

Boxee Interface
Boxee
isn’t exactly a gadget. It’s software that’s intended to be integrated into other companies’ gadgets as their Internet media operating system. If it were just a TV playback system, Boxee wouldn’t be so hot; after all Microsoft and Apple have similar solutions. But Boxee excels at playing all types of video, audio and even image files. YouTube, NetFlix, Flickr and Pandora are all built in. And Boxee also plays well on the Xbox.

There are also a bunch of nifty social networking features that allow you to share what you’re watching with friends or tweet in real time.

Boxee announced recently that it is coming out with its own standalone hardware – the “Boxee Box.” In the meantime, you can install it on any computer you have – absolutely free. We installed Boxee on the laptop we have connected to our television and we love it.

6. Eye-Fi

Eye-Fi
Here’s an idea that’s so obvious it’s a wonder no one else thought of it. You’re at a family event, your child says his or her first words and you have the good fortune to capture the moment with your digital camera. You want to share it with the world but to do that you’d have to get back to your house, plug the camera into your computer via a USB cord, upload it, and then post it to Facebook or your blog.

With Eye-Fi you can upload those photos wirelessly from anywhere. The company sells a standard SD card (that you need to run your camera, anyway) that has built-in WiFi connectivity. That means that anywhere there’s a hotspot (which these days is just about everywhere) you can upload your photos to one of 25 sites that you specify in advance through the Eye-Fi software.

The Eye-Fi works with all the top cameras, from Canon to Kodak. The company was founded in 2005 and two of its four founders, Yuval Koren and Ziv Gillat, are Israeli.

But we have to ask: Is there still a market for a wireless SD card? Anyone with an iPhone already has the ability to wirelessly upload pictures – and even video – immediately. The answer: Standalone cameras with higher resolution than a phone-cum-camera haven’t gone the way of the dinosaurs yet, nor is there any reason to think that they will, which means Eye-Fi has plenty of visibility ahead.

7. MobileEye

MobileEye
Speaking of visibility, another Israeli high-tech company, MobileEye, combines a tiny digital camera with sophisticated algorithms to help drivers navigate their vehicles more safely.

Consider the lane departure warning system. When a driver starts drifting out of a lane or doesn’t use the turn signals, the system rings an alert. The MobileEye application is so sophisticated that it can even sense when a driver is “about” to change lanes inadvertently.

Fused with the car’s steering system, MobileEye takes the camera that much further. Other applications include a forward collision warning, traffic sign recognition and pedestrian detection.

MobileEye has been around since 1999 and has deals with GM, BMW and Volvo, among others. The company maintains R&D in Jerusalem but is now headquartered in The Netherlands.

8. Ctera

ctera-cloudplugs
Israeli company Ctera makes a small gadget that connects to a USB hard drive, transforming it into a cloud-based offsite storage system.

It’s a two-step process. First, data is backed up from your main computer to the external drive. Next, it’s sent to servers “in the cloud.” The result is that your computer isn’t constantly sending data to the Internet and slowing down processing speed. With this gadget multiple computers can now be connected to a USB drive that used to be tethered to just a single machine.

Ctera’s “Cloud Plug” is small enough to fit in an envelope which can be mailed from an ISP (Internet Service Provider) to its customers. ISPs like the device because it gives them a way to monetize all the online backup traffic they’re losing to third party services. Ctera also sells the gadget direct to the public for $199. Given that it’s not a question of if, but when, your hard disk will die, cloud storage has a rosy future. Ctera aims to be in the thick of it.

9. Easy-2-Pick

easy2picks
Airplane travel is stressful. There are the security checks, uncomfortable seats, tasteless meals and then, of course, there’s the fact that you’re hurtling through the air at breakneck speeds in a tin box. But perhaps the worst party of all is waiting for your luggage. You never know when it’s coming up the conveyor belt. You grab a bag only to discover that it belongs to someone else. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just sit back and wait for your luggage to alert you when it’s arrives?

That’s the idea behind a simple device from Easy-2-Pick, a small Israeli company founded by two American Express travel agents. The gadget has two components. One piece attaches to the luggage, the other fits in your pocket. The range between the two pieces is only 15 meters, so the alert only sounds (it also lights up and vibrates) when your luggage is close by.

The Easy-2-Pick system was red hot when we first wrote about it last year. It seems to have floundered since then as the inventors search for distributors. Still, it’s a wonderful idea and we hope it succeeds. Imagine the same technology being applied to your keys… or your car, when you can’t remember where you parked.

10. Medical imaging via cell phone

rubinsky_smIn the Western world, we take for granted high-tech tools for physicians and hospitals such as the hand held ultrasound wand that displays the heartbeat of a fetus or detects a tumor. But how would you use that same device in a remote village in Africa where there isn’t even any electricity?

Boris Rubinsky, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has come up with a novel concept: blend the wand with a cell phone. The phone powers the medical imaging device, then transmits the resulting data to a central processing facility – perhaps even in Israel – where it’s turned into an image which can then be messaged back to the village physician’s phone

The entire process is not unlike the trend in medicine in recent years where X-rays taken in the US are sent to Israeli radiologists for review and then returned via the Internet – saving money and time (it’s daytime in Israel, while it’s still night in the US when radiologists may not be so readily available).

Rubinsky’s life saving gadget is still just in the prototype stage but it has a promising future (and Rubinsky has the patents to back it up). Next in line: Rubinsky is working on a gadget that will extract small amounts of electricity from potatoes – just enough to charge a cell phone in those same far flung third world villages.

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Free Israel logo 2The courts have ruled that the service is legal, but it still leaves a muddled taste in my mouth. I’m talking about Free.co.il, a popular Israeli auction site that works more like the Lotto than eBay.

You can’t help but be drawn in by Free.co.il’s home page which promises a Sony Playstation for NIS 99 ($26), a MacBook Air for NIS 299 ($79), and even a brand new Mazda 3 for a steal at only NIS 899 ($237). Who wouldn’t want to play with deals like these?

At first, it would be hard to distinguish Free.co.il from a traditional eBay-style auction site: you place your bids on items for sale and the highest bidder within the auction’s time frame wins. Unlike eBay, though, you have to pay for your bids. The cost of each bid varies; for the MacBook, it’s NIS 20 (about $5). It’s higher for bigger ticket items.

So, let’s say you bid 20 times to win that MacBook. You’ll pay NIS 20 x 20 or NIS 400 ($105). Then you pay the price of the unit, plus shipping of NIS 75 ($20) – written in tiny letters on a separate page you have to click to see. Your total cost: NIS 774 ($206). That’s still way less than the retail price of NIS 8,899 ($2,400) at Apple’s Tel Aviv outlet, but it’s not the NIS 299 that was initially advertised.

And what if you don’t win? Then you lose the NIS 400 entirely. That’s how Free.co.il can offer such low prices.

Still, if you place your bids right (and there is a whole section on “bidding strategies” on the site), and you’re willing to stick with it and spend hours aggressively placing last minute bets, you will win eventually (hopefully for an item you actually want). So, even if you wind up spending NIS 2,000 bidding on several items before winning one that’s valued at NIS 10,000, you’re still getting the product at an 80% discount.

There’s one other trick Free.co.il has up its digital sleeve. If two people bid the same amount, both bids are canceled. That means that the highest “unique” bid wins. You can see who’s placing what bids, their initials and even where they live, but not the amount they’re spending. So you never really know if your bid is being burned or not.

Free.co.il is entirely in Hebrew, but there’s a thriving market of overseas competitors. Is this a good business? Investors seem to think so. One of Free.co.il’s rivals, Swoopo, has raised an astonishing $14 million. Another – BigDeal – has a $4 million war chest and some Silicon Valley luminaries at the helm.

It’s certainly compelling – who wouldn’t want an iPhone at a tenth of the retail price – though I don’t think I’d have the stomach for it (I usually chicken out and click the “Buy it Now” button on eBay). And it peeves me that Free.co.il buries those hefty shipping fees in hard-to-find small print – it makes me wonder what else are they hiding.

But if you’re willing to play by the rules, and you enjoy the thrill of the game, Free.co.il could be the 21st century version of “The Price is Right.” All we need now is our own Israeli version of Bob Barker.

This article originally appeared on the Israelity blog.

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Video capabilities are a game changer

Not quite a game changer

With the much rumored and insanely anticipated Apple iSlate, due to be announced later this month, being referred to as a potential “game changer,” as momentous as the original iPod and its big cousin the iPhone, I thought I’d take a look back at a post I wrote in September in which I called the new iPod Nano a game changer itself.

At the time, I hadn’t actually gotten my hands on one. That finally happened last week. And I’m sorry to report that my prediction now seems premature.

My enthusiasm for the Nano was that it was the absolute smallest, decent quality video camcorder on the market, and it had a built in iPod to boot (or maybe it’s the other way around). It would be a boon to bloggers and media publishers of all sizes, not to mention consumers shooting silly cat tricks, I wrote.

And indeed, that potential is readily apparent. I have a client that works with communities in far flung places such as India, China and Burma. Why not arm its constituents with Nanos to document lifecycle events and send them back to us to edit and post on YouTube or Facebook.

When I finally tried out the Nano itself – at a rock concert where I needed a clip to accompany an article I was writing – the Nano neatly delivered on its promise: the device is so tiny I was able to keep it stowed safely in my shirt pocket, and it warms up fast so I was ready at the beginning of each song to grab the shots I wanted. The video quality was entirely acceptable; the audio less so.

So what’s the problem? It doesn’t have a camera; it’s just video. That might seem a bit nit picky, but the market today is all about convergence – reducing the number of devices you need to carry. The iPhone does this perfectly: it packs a phone, camera, video recorder, MP3 player and web browser all-in-one shiny black package.

But the iPhone (like most smart phones) is relatively hefty. It doesn’t fit into a pocket, it’s too bulky to wear on an armband while exercising and, frankly, it does more – and costs more – than many people need.

The Nano has the price and form factor I want, but without a camera for stills, if I want to be ready at any time and any place to shoot a photo and a video, I have to carry both my Nano and my digital camera. My cell phone doesn’t take pictures at high enough quality to make it a worthy alternative.

Why didn’t Apple include a camera in the iPod Nano? Probably to prevent cannibalization of sales of its higher end i-products (although the official rumored reason is that they couldn’t get the optics small enough to work). Perhaps the camera will be a part of the package in the future – along with a tiny wireless receiver, now wouldn’t that be cool! – but before then, the business buzz will have already moved on to the iSlate as the next game changer.

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In case you were wondering how that video I shot at the rock concert came out, here’s a short clip I took with the iPod Nano. The audio is a bit muffled, but I think that’s more due to where we were sitting (in the front row, where the instrument amps were closer) than the iPod’s functionality.

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Flip MinoWhy has the Flip video camera (and now its key competitor the new iPod Nano) been such as a roaring success? An article in the September issue of Wired suggests it’s part of a technology trend to build “good enough” products.

In terms of growth (if not total numbers), the little Flip is beating the pants off full-featured digital camcorders from Sony, Canon and the like (sales at Flip are up 200% this year even in the recession). The video on the Flip is indisputably crappy; the camera itself has none of the bells and whistles of its bigger cousins (there isn’t even a proper optical zoom); even the view screen is tiny.

But, as Wired senior editor Robert Capps writes, the camera does the minimum of what consumers want: it fits in a pocket and it quickly uploads videos to YouTube. And at under $200, it’s “good enough.”

The Wired article presents a number of other examples, from “eLawyering” to reduced expectations from military hardware. The most familiar, though, is the de-evolution of music quality.

Even today, old-fashioned records are still considered to deliver the highest-fidelity sound. Of course, by the end of the 80s, these were nearly entirely replaced by CDs, which purists derided for years.

But the real change is the MP3 which is clearly inferior in sound quality. But, again, it’s “good enough.” Music lovers can store thousands of songs on a mobile device and easily share or download the small files.

Even more: in an informal poll conducted over the last six years by a Stanford University professor, young people are increasingly stating that MP3s sound “better” than CDs, because they’ve become accustomed to the distortion found in compressed audio. If that isn’t “good enough,” I don’t know what is.

So what does this have to do with product management, the theme of this blog? The same trend in end user products has crept into the product planning and strategy phase. It used to be that you needed significant capital to properly launch a startup (we raised just under $1 million in the first round for Neta4 in 1998 – and that was considered on the low side).

It’s much easier today for a couple of talented engineers to cobble together a working beta (and isn’t everything beta for years nowadays?) quickly and with little or no investment. When you’re coding in hurry, there’s no time for product management. You post it and then crowd source changes in near real time.

The problem is that this approach has led to a delge of half-baked sites and services that nevertheless get covered on TechCrunch and other review sites only to eventually enter the inglorious “dead pool.”

There are two schools of thought here: virtually ship it “good enough” and iterate, or get it right before launching, the thought being the old adage that you only have one chance to make a first impression.

It may seem that I’m arguing for the latter approach, but truthfully, they both can work (and they both can fail). For agile companies in a hurry, I’d recommend that as soon as they do receive funding (and after all, other than a few viral Facebook, Twitter and iPhone apps, it’s pretty hard to make it to the big time without investor backing), they back up and start the product management tasks they didn’t have time for the first time out – planning, strategy, specifications, prioritization, roadmap, business intelligence, competitive analysis and more – with an aim towards hiring a full time product manager as soon as possible.

There are some great companies out there that have taken unorthodox ways on the path towards success. “Good enough” technology is here to stay. That doesn’t mean that product management necessarily has to follow suit.

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My colleague and friend Jay Bailey has launched RapidFire Video, a new company that creates simple but effective “intro” videos for startups and more established companies. The basic idea is that a straightforward, lightly animated short can quickly convey a company’s message without requiring a huge upfront expense. Think of it as a calling card for your site. Here’s an example:

But the real opportunity, Jay says, is to attach your video intro to an email you’re sending to follow up with a potential customer or partner you just met at a networking meeting. RapidFire videos are small – no more than a couple of MB – which makes them appropriate for posting to YouTube or Facebook as well as via email.

Jay has a very fun style – he chooses often irreverent graphics that make you smile. I’m thinking of having him create a video calling card for Blum Interactive Media. He says the price of a RapidFire video can be as much as 3/4 off the price of a big Flash design house. And he offers a nice discount for referrals – so if you use him, tell him I sent you.

So far there are videos for Ruder Finn PR, Answers.com, Fring and Bite2Eat.

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As the 16 “social entrepreneurs” took to the stage last Thursday to present their 15-second “elevator pitch,” I was filled with anticipation. What would the next generation of hi-tech founders come up with?

Here were some of Israel’s best and brightest, hand selected by the Presentense organization which aims to arm young people who want to do good with solid business skills and knowledge.

And at first glance, the strategy has paid off handsomely. The participants in the Presentense “launch night” were confident and personable. The first ever publicly presented elevator pitches on their would-be companies – from subjects as diverse as fostering peace in the Middle East to making prayer more accessible – were polished and presentable; none would have been out of place in a corporate board room.

After the on-stage performance, each Presentense “fellow” manned a table equipped with a laptop, business cards and printed collateral material for the 500 or so guests to peruse and pocket.

As I weaved between the entrepreneurs’ pitches, I found myself enthralled by the creativity…but confused by the business models behind many of these pre-seed startups. It’s not that Presentense didn’t prepare its participants properly; it’s more the nature of social change-focused non-profits which have lofty goals but that all too often rely on philanthropy not profits.

But I’m feeling up to the challenge. So let me here present some of the projects that most stood out for me, and let’s brainstorm together on how each could, if not actually generate enough revenue to make its founders rich, at least sustain itself as a social entrepreneurial success.

CreaTV

As a media guy, I found CreaTV fascinating – a marketplace of sorts matching up amateur movie makers with professionals to develop quality products for YouTube or broadcast television. CreaTV is targeting the Israeli market initially and will reach out to students at Israel cinema schools. Founder Elad Kimelman describes himself as an “enthusiastic Zionist” who believes that Jewish-produced media can help bind together the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.

Kimelman hopes that the company will generate projects that receive funding from Israeli production companies; CreaTV would then take a cut. That’s not a bad idea, but unless there are a lot of financed productions, it’s hard to see how the site will sustain itself in the interim. YouTube is drowning under bandwidth costs and parent Google still hasn’t figured out how to sufficiently monetize the site.

A Vimeo model, where CreaTV charges for video storage above a certain monthly file size and bandwidth limit might work (although rumors are that Vimeo is in financial trouble). CreaTV could also adopt the approach of recruitment classifieds, charging a fee when a match is made. But that seems to go against the company’s do-good goal of fostering partnerships.

MediaMidrash

MediaMidrash is another media startup that I liked a lot. Founders Russel Neiss, a librarian, and Charlie Schwartz, a rabbinic student at JTS, dream of creating a site where all of the Jewish videos in the world could be uploaded for teachers to use in school classes. Moreover, teachers could include curriculum to enhance the videos (from both the videomakers themselves and independent instructors who find the videos useful).

My first job back 20 years ago was as the at the San Francisco Bureau of Jewish Education’s media department. I was in charge of taking orders from teachers and sending out films, VHS tapes and even filmstrips (remember those?) I would have loved a computerized database like MediaMidrash.

Again the question: how will this make money? I spoke with Neiss who said it was a low cost operation and that he could run it while keeping his day job. I pointed out that, if MediaMidrash takes off, bandwidth and storage costs will quickly outstrip a volunteer job. The company’s documentation talks about offering premium services such as creating custom video and course material, staff training and websites.

In general, I think this “freemium” model – where you give away most of the content for free and upsell paid services – is the way to go. But creating new video and course content will require specialized staff – whether in-house or outsourced – and the mark-up in order to keep the company going (and pay its founders) may prove prohibitive to Jewish day schools already suffering in a post-Madoff era. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

JewTo

Jewto.com is a great name that founder Melissa Berg somehow snagged – finding a short and catchy URL like that is almost unheard of these days. Berg wants to create a mashup of Craigslist-like classifieds with a global guide to Jewish resources. Think every kosher restaurant in the world and mezuzas for sale.

Berg talked to me about hiring staff to write about all things Jewish in your city, but a more scalable model would be ape Yelp, the popular U.S. reviews and rankings site, where regular readers like you and me write the reviews of restaurants, dentists, bars, beauty salons and more. No need to pay when users contribute for the fame and glory.

Jewto can then upsell premium placement – such as your restaurant at the top of the listings (clearly marked as sponsored of course) – along with tools such as table booking, menu listings and take out. Yelp also sells display advertising – so should Jewto.

Berg should also look into partnering with fellow Israeli startup Bite 2Eat for the restaurant booking functionality as well a to look into whether Yelp or a similar site licenses its engine to third parties.

Jewto is a huge project but the business model – if done right (and it will need VC financing to pull off) – has real potential.

Peula

Did you ever receive crappy service from a store or government office? Wanted to complain but didn’t know how? Peula.com is here to help. The company is building a system to automate letter writing and to gather support from similarly minded aggrieved individuals online. Peula then sends your complaint on the right person.

Peula’s secret sauce is that when the target of your complaint responds, the reply is sent to all of the people listed on your e-complaint which means the responsible party’s response is tracked publicly.

Peula hopes this will differentiate it from its already formidable competition. In Israel, there’s atzuma.co.il, tluna.co.il, and shout.co.il. In the U.S. and U.K., companies like PlanetFeedback and HowtoComplain, and even the Better Business Bureau provide similar services – all for free.

Since the competition doesn’t charge, neither can Peula. Ads and sponsorships on the site are the company’s main business prospects. Allowing users to print letters for a fee, as founder Romi Shamai suggested to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense – users could too easily just copy and paste. There are probably additional added value tools Peula could add that I haven’t thought of yet.

The Open Siddur Project

Perhaps my favorite entrepreneur of the evening was Aharon Varady who is trying to create an online siddur (prayer book) with versions and commentaries from every source imaginable – from Rashi to Jewish Renewal plus user-contributed content. Spiritual seekers could then mix and match how they want to pray and print out their own personal siddur. “Imagine if the first siddur presented to a day school student was actually crafted by that student over the course of a year while being introduced to the liturgy in class,” Varady says.

As someone who struggles with prayer myself, I would love to have a site like Open Siddur. Varady is committed to “keeping this resource completely free.” So how to make money? Varady hopes to charge for printed copies through partnerships with print-on-demand printers.

But what would keep someone from simply generating their on their home printer? Those of us in the Internet publishing business have all learned the hard way that users won’t pay for content online. The print-on-demand model could work, but since each siddur would be customized for the individual, the volume would be low and as a result any partnership revenue from the POD guys would be similarly small.

Selling services around the siddur project – Jewish designers, calligraphers, scholars and even freelance editors – and taking a cut might be a better direction.

The Israel-Asia Center

The Israel-Asia Center seems to be the most mature project in the 2009 Presentense fellows program. The company already has a working website – a news magazine focused on “promoting partnerships between Israel, the Jewish people and Asia, with a strong focus on China.”

The management team includes an Israeli professor in China, and founder Rebecca Zeffert, a PR specialist and Chinese Studies graduate. They’re backed by a 20-member volunteer team in Israel, China, the U.S. and India. The company also has an impressive advisory board.

The Israel-Asia Center’s business model also makes sense: use the website as a platform for selling services – course syllabi on Israel-China relations, speaking engagements, briefings and exchange programs.

Given the growth of China as the world’s second largest economy and Israel’s already existing ties with the Asian giant, I give a hearty thumbs up to Zeffert and crew.

There were a bunch of other entrepreneurs at the event that I didn’t get a chance to talk with. Will they all succeed? Certainly not. Do they deserve to? Absolutely. Do I have all the answers? Not a chance. But this is just a start; some friendly advice, and I have no doubt these fledgling startups will receive plenty more.

What do you think? Which directions would you point these worthwhile endeavors. Drop me a line or leave a comment on the blog.

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