Social Matchbox

Aug 24 09

Social Matchbox

Paul Weinstein

For every famous success story such as
Amazon.com or failure like Pets.com there are hundreds of unknowns;
companies that find success, or failure, anonymously. Yet each of
those companies have interesting stories to tell, as do those within
the company, individuals discovering what it takes to bring about a
compelling idea to the world.

I hate the “Dot Com Bubble” and
“Bust” labels that have become mainstream media’s shorthand for
“stupid business people who should have know better” because it
limits the story to companies like eToys.com as “obvious”
failures. Having lived in San Francisco during that period of time,
having been part of an anonymous “success”1
story with C2Net Software, having met many interesting individuals I
know from firsthand experience the “reality” of that “bubble”
and “bust”, “stupid business people” is not the first thing
that comes to my mind2.
I am still friends with a few individuals from “back then”,
follow and keep in touch with many more online and have, alas lost
complete contact with many others. Each and everyone of them carries
with them an interesting perspective and insight from moving in a
similar network of people and ideas at a similar place and time.

While I know organizations and
companies like those exists in many places I have yet to find a loose
confederation of those individuals, organizations and companies
similar to what I experienced in the Bay Area here in Chicago where I
currently reside. I have however found such a network in Washington,
DC and it is known as Social Matchbox.

As I experienced back in San Francisco
with Webzine, I’m sure to many in the DC Metropolitan Area, Social
Matchbox means different things to different people. To some it is a
guiding principle of similar ideas, to others an event and still to
others a social network of people and organizations. I can’t speak to
the network of people as a whole, since being in Chicago leaves me
with a tenuous connection at best. I can however speak to the idea
and, at least to one, event.

According to their website “Social
Matchbox is where East Coast entrepreneurs and startup professionals
congregate, launch, stay informed, announce job openings, and

Quite an ambitious idea.

In practice, at least as I saw it put
to practice last Thursday night, the group focuses on technology
startups in the DC area. Now, one might think that DC startups, even
technology focused ones, are geared toward one idea; winning big, fat
Federal government contracts. While that might be the case for some,
the startups selected to give their 5 minute sales pitch for Social
Matchbox were anything but. In fact, it seemed quite the opposite, of
the dozen or so presenters, about half of them had a social
consciousness element to their concept. Take for example the winner
of the evening’s “group funding”, Earth Aid.

AudienceEarth Aid is an online tool designed to
assist in managing the household utilities by providing one place for
viewing electric, natural gas, and water usage information. But
that’s hardly the only aspect. Earth Aid also highlights rebates, tax
incentives and discounts to help reduced household expenses. The
social consciousness element comes into play with the users ability to earn rewards for reducing utility usage, reducing in turn
one’s impact on the local environment.

Other groups focused on the social
engagement front included:

  • Apps for Democracy: An online
    competition designed to foster innovative and useful usage of local
    government data online

  • Sunlight Foundation: Similar to
    Apps for Democracy, only focusing on federal information via

  • Grasshopr: Designed to be a single
    online source for civic engagement on issues at the federal, state
    and local level

As for those “traditional” tech
startups, two of my favorites:

  • TapMetrics: An analytics tool for
    iPhone Developers for tracking information about their Apps

  • Unblab: An API to a machine
    intelligence that can be used to label important messages (email,
    blog posts, tweets) for the user, automatically filtering out
    “important” information from other “non-important” messages

Will all these ideas take? Maybe. Will
any strike it rich? Doubtful. But if these individuals are anything
similar to the West Coast counterparts I know, the “rich and
famous” part isn’t what drives them. What does drive them? Well as
Steve Jobs famously put it to John Sculley, “do you want to
spend the rest of your life selling sugared water to children, or do
you want a chance to change the world?”

1 For
some, success or failure is a hard label to place. I, like many
others, walked away with shares in Red Hat, which acquired C2Net in
2000, that actually had value. But it was a difficult transition
that left a bitter after-taste for many. All, in all it was probably
a draw.

2 Don’t
get be wrong, there was some stupidity going on, but hardly everyone
was a speculator, rotten to the core.