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Startups at SXSW: Lots of buzz, little substance

The deluge of highly touted but ephemeral products at SXSW highlights a mounting lack of substance among new startups.

SXSW 2012
Blake Robinson

For all the hype that Highlight received during SXSW Interactive, the app pretty much went silent when it came to the music part of the conference. Awareness of Highlight among techies was high, but it just never made it to the outside world. I'd like to say that this is surprising, but really, it's not.

Buzz apps seldom achieve osmosis between the tech world and the real world. Those that do sometimes find fame and fortune, but the majority just swirl around the industry vacuum before pivoting into oblivion. It's a problem.

One of the most basic tenets of starting a business is to identify a problem and then attempt to solve it. Nevertheless, developers are continuously answering questions asked by none. This might be a product of the hack, hack, hack mentality that pervades the tech industry. It might stem from a genuine desire to innovate. Whatever the case, it's not producing viable businesses.

Assume for an instant that Highlight does take off. How would you monetize that business? What sort of transaction between client and app would yield legitimate profits? If you can answer that question, Highlight would probably love to hear from you.

Sure, it's helpful as an effect of marketing. Even if you get people talking, it doesn't mean they'll keep talking. How many of you are still using Hashable?

SXSW is a diametric event. Two types of people occupy the same space for a very short and frenetic span of time. Taken by itself, SXSW Interactive is not representative of the general consuming population. Taken as a whole, SXSW -- with movies and film -- is an ideal test bed. Robert Scoble is a good dude and a great proponent of technologies, but there's very little parity between him and the sort of consumer that will comprise the base of a successful tech business.

It's a dilemma, and it got me thinking: At that instant, amidst the craziness that is SXSW, what technology at my disposal had the best odds of jelling into a long term successful business? And more importantly, why?

The winner would have to go beyond buzz -- it'd have to solve a pervasive problem. SXSW has a reputation for being a giant party. That's not far from the truth. In the end though, SXSW is still a conference and its main reason for existence is networking.

In an average year, I collect thousands of business cards. Literally. I'd estimate that 25 percent of those cards come from SXSW. I take them with the best intentions: Collect cards, digitize, followup. Unfortunately, the realistic trajectory is closer to: Collect cards, lose cards, run into the person months later and awkwardly explain why I didn't follow up.

This isn't an effective system; it never has been. Shoeboxed and CloudContacts are great at processing cards, but they're ultimately digitalization services. CardMunch was a revelation when it was released, but like the other two, it doesn't eliminate business cards, it just makes them a bit easier to manage.

Thank you, Tout, you were helpful

ToutApp for iOS Tout

Dealing with all of that paper is difficult. It's a problem that has needed to be resolved for some time and Tout has a solution. It launched last year out of 500 Startups, a Mountain View based accelerator run by super angel Dave McClure (who will be talking startups at next week's CNET Community Series).

At its core, Tout is an e-mail template platform. It's not just an app; it's a paid service with a mobile app. ToutApp for iOS works in conjunction with the Tout service, allowing you to quickly access your templates and fire off emails to people you meet while mobile. It improves the entire way people exchange contact.

I didn't use a single business card throughout 10 days at SXSW, and I didn't need to. There's an email waiting in my new contact's inbox and that person's email was logged on my end. It starts a conversation from the moment contact is established.

My SXSW template had a vcard attached and looked like this:

Hi {{first_name}},

Great meeting you at SXSW 2012.

Below is my contact information and attached is my vcard.

Let's stay in touch and please let me know if there's anything that I can do for you.

Best, Blake

-- Blake Robinson G+: Tweet: Work: Email:

It dynamically inserts names, so that "first name" variable is personalized for each dispatch. It worked well. The number of individuals with whom I've followed up in the week after SXSW is substantially higher than in years past. And I met more people this year than ever before.

Each e-mail is also embedded with a tracking pixel that indicates each time it's opened. If you notice a new contact has opened your email several times, you have a good indicator to follow up. That's a keen piece of business intelligence that didn't before exist. There's also a Tout Chrome extension, that enables you to access your templates or to "Tout" any e-mail with tracking elements.

Tout templates with analytics.

What's more, Tout was just as useful when the interactive crowd rolled out and the music crowd rolled in. It's not necessary for everyone to have ToutApp installed for it to be useful. It simply innovates on top of email, a service used by virtually everyone.

Tout isn't attempting to construct a new network, it's set up shop inside a long established infrastructure. It's a working strategy. The startup has a user base of about 25,000 users, that's populated mainly by small to medium sized businesses.

This why I believe it has a solid shot at being a long term successful business. It's also why it won the SXSW startup battle for me. Now I just need to convince them to make an Android app so I can stop carrying around this iPhone.