Today I started thinking about all of the startups, services, and brands that I was introduced to, influenced by, or impressed with this past year and it gave me an idea to do this post. Being an entrepreneur of sorts I do my best to stay aware of trends and absorb as much innovation and creativity from those that I respect as often as I can. I know a lot of my friends do the same thing, every time a group of us are together someone usually brings up a new product or startup they have discovered and shares it with the group. I thought that this post would be a great discussion topic where I could list my top 10 favorite brands of 2010 and get feedback from the community on theirs and possibly Keith and I can roll all of these observations into a yearly wrap-up discussion podcast, The Best of 2010 on The Cotton Club Podcast. We would also like to have as many of you that are interested, to be on the podcast to discuss the brands and startups you are passionate about and why.
Please review my top 10 picks as a starting point and feel free to critique them or add your own by leaving your comments below. If we are able to generate enough discussion with this post and we decide to do a show, we would love to have each and everyone of you on to voice your opinions / picks. Again, the basis for this discussion is what Brands, Services, or Startups were you most impressed with in 2010?
- Gowalla – While I know that Gowalla isn’t technically a 2010 startup or anything, but I still think of them as a startup of sorts because there is no way they have reached their maximum market share by any means. I have to put them on the top of my list simply because of all of the startups and iphone apps I have had the pleasure of explaining to my non-technical friends, this one has by far been the most fun. I also see a company that has a ton of room to grow. Recently they launched business tools which will allow business owners to leverage the power of geosocial networking and I think that once this rolls out there will be a mass adoption of the technology.
- Manpacks – Not since my teenage infatuation with the Victoria’s Secret catalog have I felt more strongly about a company that sold underwear. I love the idea behind this company, let’s face it, we all feel more confident when we know we have on clean underwear. Basically the concept behind this site is that men, or the women that love them, can go onto this site and purchase a subscription that will send them new underwear, t-shirts, socks, razors, etc., every three months to their door whether they need it or not. This company was founded by two guys, one of which will be on an upcoming episode of The Cotton Club, so be sure to check back soon, it should run sometime in the middle of December.
- Hootsuite – While Hootsuite isn’t a new company, they made a move this year that I thought was pretty gutsy in that they started charging for some of their products. In this fast paced tech vacuum we live in we have grown accustomed to things always being free, look at how hard it was for Facebook to eventually become profitable and how Twitter is still trying to figure out ways to monetize their expansive network. I admire Hootsuite for stepping up to the plate and knowing when the time was right and that people finally saw the value of their product well enough to start recouping some of their startup investment by charging for their service. Keith Crawford and I even interviewed Dave Olson from Hootsuite on The Cotton Club one evening, you can find that interview here… It was a great show.
- Tom’s Shoes – Something that a lot of people might not know is that while I was in High School I worked several years in my Uncle’s shoe store after school and during the summer. It was by far one of the coolest jobs I have ever had and not only did I have a blast doing it, but my Uncle also taught me a lot about life and business in general. He was an expert when it came to customer service, everyone left that store with a smile and a new pair of shoes. All of this to say that I like the shoe business, a lot of people were surprised that I am not running a shoe store right now. When I first heard of Tom’s shoes I went to their website, and I will be the first to admit that out of all the shoes I saw I only found two that I would actually wear out in public, but that’s just my weird taste I guess, and honestly I am probably not as hip as I once used to be. This doesn’t change the way I feel about this company though, and how they have built it from the ground up. You have probably seen the commercials for Tom’s shoes where they say that for every pair of shoes they sell they will give a pair to a kid who needs them around the world. Not only is this an awesome reason to run out and buy Tom’s shoes, but it’s also an excellent marketing plan. People will identify with a cause, or charity a lot quicker than they will just about anything else these days. When you combine that with your product, I just don’t see how it can fail. (sidenote: I was already a huge fan of Tom’s shoes but when they partnered with Gowalla on a campaign, I loved them that much more. Here’s a link to their campaign…)
- Starbucks – Granted in a down economy it’s not nearly as easy to sell $5 coffee as it once used to be so a company has to look for ways to generate new revenue sources. Full disclosure, I am a loyal Starbucks shareholder and have been for a long time now so I track their moves pretty closely. When Starbucks first starting to fumble it was apparent to me that they had lost their vision a bit and that something was missing. Finally everyone came to their senses and brought back Howard Schultz in 2008 who had the initial passion and vision that helped make Starbucks a household name. From that point on, in my opinion, Starbucks has been heading in the right direction again. And kudos to them for introducing a new line of instant coffee’s that are competitively priced and available in a lot of supermarkets now. Usually the inventor is the best person to re-invent something.
- Moleskine and Field Notes (this was a tie) Moleskine – I am a note taker, I have project notes archived in indexed storage boxes going back to the 1990’s that I can’t seem to be able to throw away. I first started using the Franklin/Covey system and then migrated over to the DayRunner solution because their refill pages were easier to locate where I lived. Over time I found myself keeping things like Contacts and Calendar dates exclusively in electronic format in Microsoft Outlook so my need for the enhanced systems for Dayrunner and Franklin just wasn’t there so I moved over to grid tablets that I would pick up at Office Depot but when I would pull one out in a meeting I always felt like it looked unprofessional, just like a glowing yellow legal tablet, I hate those. Well, needless to say when I found out that I could get these rugged notebooks with a durable cover and binding that had grids so I could do my random sketches and notes on them, I fell in love immediately. I have moved up to their largest notebook now and it’s absolutely perfect. What’s really cool about Moleskin is how they have caught on w/ some of my friends too. I can’t say anything that Moleskine has done in terms of marketing their product that has struck me as innovative but I will say that their dedication to their product and it’s quality is legendary, and that is often something consumers realize instantly and manufacturers take for granted. Just make good stuff and once consumers find out about you, they will be loyal. The one thing that I think will help Moleskine eventually is for them to get more retail saturation, right now I have to go to Barnes and Noble in Little Rock to get a new notebook. Field Notes – I often carry a secondary notebook around with me for quick things that are going to get torn out and not archived, for instance a shopping list, things to do around the house, yardwork, etc. For occasions such as this I also like the field notes product. These are durable notebooks that also come with grid paper inside, I especially love their raven wing edition. Something that I think helped these guys have some instant credibility was their relationship w/ 37 Signals, a lot of people may not know this but up until recently they actually shared an office together. In case you aren’t familiar w/ 37 Signals, they are the people that brought Basecamp to the industry. The one thing holding Field Notes back right now in my opinion is that they are even harder to find than Moleskine, in fact no where in Arkansas sells them. You have to go to Missouri to buy them or order them from the Field Notes website.
- Apple – Granted, Apple is definitely not a startup by any means. In fact I would say that a vast majority of their biggest fans weren’t born yet when they formed in 1976. Before I go any further I should probably disclose that I am also a shareholder (even though I usually don’t buy stocks that don’t pay dividends). I also purchased my first MacBook Pro last year and over the past year or so I have grown to appreciate their commitment to quality and innovation with their products. I also carry an iPhone, that while it might not be the best phone in the world in terms of making a phone call, it will definitely run enough cool apps to make up for it. I am not big on talking on the phone anyway! I think Apple’s founder Steve Jobs first earned my respect when he took the iPod to a group of “experts” to see how they thought it would perform in the marketplace with consumers. They studied the prototype and came back to him to say that they didn’t think it would do that great because it wasn’t small and silver like all of the other mp3 players on the market, and furthermore the wheel with lack of buttons didn’t appeal to them either. Well, the rest is history. Not taking no for an answer Jobs insisted on being different and by doing so he has gifted more innovation to the world than anyone else I can think of. Arguably some could also throw Bill Gates into that same statement but I would much rather hang out w/ Jobs than Gates any day.
- Hulu – Hulu was launched in 2007 as a cooperative effort between several network giants that you would not typically see playing together nicely. The thing is though, NBC, Fox, and ABC all stand to profit from their endeavor greatly because this thing has really taken off. Basically Hulu streams network programs online on demand. Let’s say you missed Two and a Half Men last night, no problem, watch it on your lunch break. Their service is monetized by ad sales. Keep your eyes open for more and more exposure and placement involving Hulu. It’s an awesome service.
- Facebook – It’s somewhat comical to think that Facebook was once a startup founded by a college kid who’s motivation was fed by his desire to meet girls. They have grown this network into something that even exceeded my expectations. For a long time I viewed Facebook as the empire that would one day turn MySpace into a newer version of GeoCities, but with innovations and careful planning they have rolled out innovation like no other company I have ever known. I can remember calling my partners one evening while I was reading about Facebook Connect and telling them that eventually this would be something that we would interact with on a daily basis for our clients. For the most part that is already a reality. I also really like how Facebook stepped up to the plate this year and realized the demand for a Geosocial product and delivered one, albeit not as fun as Gowalla or as easy to cheat as Foursquare, they still managed to incorporate something i do like, Deals. I think that this is worthy of watching over the next year to see how it matures and how businesses become early adopters.
- Evernote – Evernote is a product that i use on an almost daily basis and that I have literally fallen in love with. I have also heard a lot of my friends from within the tech community rave about Evernote as well. It’s an extremely practical application that allows users to take notes, audio recordings, photos, etc. and archive them in a web-based solution that can be synchronized between desktop and mobile devices. Evernote also allows for sharing as well. I haven’t seen a lot of marketing innovation by Evernote to help grow their user base which tells me that it has primarily been a grass roots movement of satisfied users getting their name out there that has helped them grow. Evernote almost didn’t make this list though, and I will be happy to share why… I made a simple suggestion as to how I thought they could make their product a little more useful in one of their support forums or message boards, and I was quickly chastised and treated rudely from a “senior member” of their community who immediately started saying that my idea sucked and that Evernote would never do that. Well, I kept my cool during the entire exchange on their message board and eventually a few others chimed in to agree w/ me and they thought my idea was actually good and they would like to see that as well. I did tastefully ask the person who was so antagonistic with me on the message board to just Google my name and learn a little bit more about who I was and had accomplished in my career before he shot down my ideas, maybe I had had a few good ideas over the years and he should listen to me, or at least take me serious. That was the last exchange I had from the “senior member” or whatever on the message board and I decided to take the tread down. About a month later, Evernote added the feature that I had asked for in my post. I never heard anything from them about any of this but I just thought it was a dangerous thing to have users instead of actual representatives from the company or community managers being the voice of your product to your user base. I hope they change this, and it might be already. They could at least send me a sticker pack for my negative experience…
Who Almost Made the Cut?
I have several that I wanted to add but ran out of room. One company that I think you should keep your eye on for 2011 is Footfeed. Keith and I interviewed their CEO a few weeks ago on The Cotton Club and it was an awesome interview, you can listen to that here.
Another entity that I really wanted to add was the website TMZ but I was afraid there would be this huge backlash of people pointing at me and laughing but I have to say that as a web-preneur I am extremely impressed with how quickly this website (which is basically a daily blog) that covers Hollywood and Entertainment gossip has grown their community and quickly risen as a credible news organization. Harvey Levin and his people have worked hard and they beat the other network news outlets to the punch every time for late breaking Lindsay Lohan news we can’t live without.
Also absent from the list was Groupon. I really like what Groupon has been able to do w/ their startup. They are already generating tons of money and on top of the world but I don’t think they are anywhere near their potential yet so I will likely have them #1 on my 2011 list.
Who Didn’t Make the Cut?
For the record, I still think Twitter is cool, but I didn’t really want to list them because I am still scratching my head as to their motive for a few decisions they have made this past year, the first being why in the world they decided to compete with the developers who have helped them grow by releasing their own app. Another thing I question is the vision they have for profitability. I worry how they can sustain themselves long term w/ their current model. However, one thing that I will say about Twitter that is favorable is that they are certainly a lot more stable now than they were a year ago.
I also didn’t mention Google in the list. I am just not a fan boy, and I certainly can’t think of anything cool that they did in 2010 to impress me. My heart still goes out to those 9 people who were sad to see Google Wave go way…
Also, absent from the list is Microsoft, who I can’t remember doing anything impressive or innovative in a while. I also chose to exclude Adobe, while I am a huge fan of a few of their products like Dreamweaver, Illustrator, and Photoshop, I haven’t seen anything cool out of them in a while that was life changing for me.
So, what are your thoughts? What Brands, Services, or Startups were you most impressed with in 2010? Drop your comments below…
Also, as a sidenote, If you comment and would like to be on our year-end podcast (date to be announced later), be sure to add me on Skype: cotton.rohrscheib