I've been moderating a session this morning with four young entrepreneurs, which included Rob Kalin, one of the founders of Etsy; Stefanie Peters, who's heading European activities for Jajah; Tamer Kulmac of Vaybee; and Nikolaj Nyholm of PolarRose. The latter has not launched yet: they are developing a picture search system, which will include sophisticated facial recognition technology and combining it with tagging (I will review it when it goes live).
Vaybee is an "ethnic" online social network for Turkish immigrants in Germany and in other European countries (but it is used also in Turkey), with about one million users, a set of services including news, online dating and a Turkey-focused travel agency, and an interesting anecdote: "some people have the impression that we aren't a business, but rather a non-profit institution of some sort working on social and cultural integration", says Tamer.
Jajah is one of the most interesting companies I've seen recently. They launched about one year ago, offering cheap phone calls using the Internet. There was yesterday another panel on this topic (see this post on "disruptive connections"), and of course the immediate benchmark in this space is Voice-over-IP service Skype. Jajah's approach however is different: it uses normal phones. "We are for the ordinary people who know the Internet but they don't want to download software, install it, get updates, use a headset", says Stefanie. "The existing phones work very well, both fix and mobile, so why bother with a headset?". The way Jajah works: after registering on their website, you get a page with two fields; put your phone number (the number which you are using/where you are) in the first, and the number you want to call in the second; the Jajah computer calls both numbers and connects them (while telling you how much the call will cost). Technically, it is an automatic call-back system. Quite simple and straightforward: use the Web to initiate the call, but the call happens on normal phones. Calls are significantly cheaper than using normal phone services (2-3 cents per minute for a transatlantic discussion) because the user end up paying the equivalent of a local call. Jajah makes money by taking a cut on the communication charges, and by charging for other services such as SMS and scheduled calls. On average, they make 8 euros per month per customer (for comparison, mobile operators in Europe generate revenues of some 30-40 euros per month per customer). I asked Stefanie about the quality of service, and particularly of the call, and it turns out that Jajah doesn't transport the calls over the public Internet: "we have our own leased lines to connect to the operators, so we can guarantee good voice quality". The Jajah approach also works on cell phones of course, as long as your device has a browser (to initiate the call using the Jajah website) or you can install a small J client software. Yet: imagine that you're on vacation in another country. If you use your cell phone to place a Jajah call, you will still be paying the roaming charges to your operator. So here is a trick to skip the outrageous roaming fees: send an SMS to the friend you want to call, telling him to Jajah you on your hotel room phone number or any other fix phone that you have access to. Cost for a long call: a few cents for him/her, the cost of the SMS for you.
Another very interesting company that was represented in the panel is Etsy, which is an online marketplace (à la eBay) for handmade, non-mass-produced goods (from handbags and shirts to paintings and iPod covers). There are many interesting aspects in what they do, starting with the design of the website, with a large use of images and of interesting navigation approaches, including a feature allowing "shopping by color" (looking for a green t-shirt to match your green bag? - see the screenshot for their unconventional Flash-based interface). Listing an item costs 10 cents, and Etsy takes a 3.5 percent cut on transactions. Rob Kalin, one of the founders, was in the panel; he is a fast-talking carpenter by training, and I asked him about the re-birth of crafting that Etsy seems to be riding on. "I believe it is a generational issue; the generation of my mother doesn't use Etsy, baby-boomers were fascinated with mass produced goods, with their polished look; younger people - and my grandmother alike - are instead very much into Etsy, into non-homogenized products, into connecting with other people who "make" things, into caring where the goods you buy come from and how they were made. That's the same trend that's bringing back farmers markets in big cities".