CEO and founder, Mooter
Mooter started out as a research project funded with an Australian government grant. It was right after the crash and everybody was saying, "What are you, crazy? Don't you know that the Internet is dead? Why don't you go franchise some coffee shops?"
I have a background in psychology research, so I spent the first year or two in human observation. We tried a lot of things. Some worked, some didn't. Actually, a lot didn't. So when we put Mooter up live as a beta engine, we just wanted a couple thousand people to use it so we could start checking our algorithms. We've been blown away by the response.
You spend an awful lot of time in search engines drilling down through a lot of rubbish. You actually form maps of information in your mind without even realizing it. So we've modeled Mooter on neural-network technology. We call it "navigation amplification." It gives you a snapshot overview of a lot of sites. Our front page of clusters presents 60 to 100 sites by theme. We haven't preconceived those themes; we suck them straight out of the data.
You have to have a lot of balls to go up against Google. I'm not afraid. I've learned to work through fear. Besides, we're coming from a different headspace. It's difficult to take human science theory and translate it into algorithms that work. But our whole paradigm is based around this. It would be very hard for other engines to unravel what they're doing and restart.
Text ads placed by Mooter's "smart" algorithms have a 7% click-through rate. The industry average is 1% to 2%.
The Switzerland Opportunity
CEO and cofounder, Pluck
Search engines are temporal. You come, you go, they don't know who you are, what you look for, what you've found interesting. You start all over again. The memory of Pluck adds power. We're actually embedded in the browser. We can store results, compare them, and share them with others easily.
When Pluck came out, people began saying, "It's like TiVo for the Web!" It's like fast-forwarding through the commercials — you don't have to look through 45 pages on a Web site to find what you want. With Pluck, either you like it or you jettison it. It's all about whether the customer likes the software in the first five minutes.
Now we've got just 20,000 users, so we enjoy the benefit of a petri dish. Out of our 20 employees, 18 are writing code. We're polishing the stone and turning it into a gem. We've been introducing innovations every 60 to 90 days. The most recent is Perch, which stands for "persistent search." It's forever fetching things. You can perch on eBay, news sites, Google. You can perch on competitors — or look for new ones. It's like a personal-clipping service.
Google, Yahoo, Microsoft — they're in an arms race. I'm not easily intimidated. The fact is, they're not interested in providing you with more choice. Yahoo is never going to make an application that makes it easier for you to search Google. We're the Switzerland opportunity. By the time the big guys get interested enough in what we're doing, we're hoping it will be too late.
Pluck is the first provider of third-party buyer tools that eBay has ever promoted on its site. It recently closed an $8.5 million funding round.
San Francisco, California
People ask, "Aren't you afraid of Google and Microsoft and Ask Jeeves? They've got all kinds of people thinking about this stuff." I say, "Yeah, but they're thinking about a lot of other things as well." This is all we ever think about. Sure, the David versus Goliath paradigm comes to mind. But remember the details of the story. The giant was slow moving, and it was defaulting to traditional weapons of battle. Being small is a tremendous advantage.
Fifty percent of people who use keyword search engines abandon their search. We want to get rid of all this Boolean query stuff. The technology ought to serve us, instead of us serving the technology. The best thing about blinkx is that it's always on. It doesn't matter if you're online or offline. It will search anything on your screen. So you can start anywhere you want — Word, email, a Web page, a PDF — and you can link to anywhere else. The format — what the file is, where it is — isn't important.
So far we've had nearly a million downloads. Last week we had a day when we served 200 million links. But I'm always asking, "What if it did this?" Wouldn't it be great to type in "Happy Birthday, Emily" and go straight to the home video where people are singing "Happy Birthday" to her? How about being able to circle a picture of someone and bring back other pictures of that person? Or whistle into a microphone and let blinkx figure out which song it is and play it? We're working to scale these features down to fit on your PC.
Blinkx launched on July 22, three months ahead of schedule. It has indexed 800 million pages of the Web.
Cracking the Code
Chief marketing officer, Ingenio
Co-inventor, Ingenio Pay Per Call Advertising Platform
San Francisco, California
When the Internet emerged, cost-per-thousand banner ads were the prevalent model. It was a bust. In 2000, pay-per-click took off. Change the model and baboom: Today, 35% of online spending is pay-per-click. Now we're ready to change the model again. Pay-per-call is going to crack the code.
The problem is, pay-per-click isn't suitable for businesses in local markets. Roofers, plumbers, auto repairmen, cosmetic surgeons — most of them don't even have Web sites. They don't need clicks, they need calls.
Local Google and Local Yahoo are drivers for pay-per-call, not competitors. They deliver traffic. But they're in a different business; they're great at connecting server to server via one click. We connect people in real time.
This isn't something the faint of heart should get into. We've invested five years and $50 million in the platform. Here's how it works. When you type keywords into a search engine, they get passed on to us. We determine the category and serve back the appropriate merchants with a unique, trackable 800-number. Because the number routes through us, we can charge the merchant when a customer calls.
We created a marketplace of attorneys, psychics, computer assistants. Customers pay these businesses for intangible goods. All we had to do was change the direction: Have the business pay to acquire the customer. Businesses love it because they don't have to pay beforehand. They pay after it has worked.
A Jupiter Research study commissioned by Ingenio found many businesses would pay anywhere from $2 to $35 for a call lead.
A Better Yellow Pages
Cofounder, CEO, and president, StepUp.com
San Francisco, California
We don't compete with Google or Yahoo or any of those guys. If you're doing a research paper on monkeys, they're great for that. They search what's on the Internet. We're not trying to do that.
I was in e-commerce for 10 years. I'd be at a cocktail party and someone would say, "I've got a small business, how do I use the Internet to sell my products?" There weren't any good answers. Meanwhile, advertising in the Yellow Pages is a $14.9 billion business in the United States, but we all know how frustrating they are to use. I figured there had to be an easy way for businesses to make their inventory visible over the Internet.
More than 70% of small businesses — 1.2 million — use QuickBooks. So we've designed a product that automatically extracts inventory information out of QuickBooks. Say you own a golf shop. If a customer is looking for a Callaway driver, we'll be able to search your inventories and tell that customer how many you have in stock, how much they cost, and where the store is.
We started the company in February with $150,000, and we've been with our heads down since. We just launched the beta on August 9, and the public response has been incredible. Businesses love it because it's free for them to submit their inventory. Customers love it because oftentimes they just don't want to order online. Maybe they want to see it in person before they buy it. Hey, maybe they can buy it on the drive home from work!
According to Jupiter Research, 87% of small businesses in the United States do not use the Web to sell their products or services.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.