Web hopefuls try starting in the middle

Web hopefuls try starting in the middle

Creators want to be intermediaries between big firms, consumers

12:00 AM CST on Tuesday, March 14, 2006
By CRAYTON HARRISON / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – For young Internet businesses, the middle is the best place to be.

Product ideas at SXSW Interactive in Austin show how Internet users of the future may shop and browse.

Many of the start-up companies getting exposure at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival are trying to carve out a place as mediators, middlemen and matchmakers.

Many of the start-up companies getting exposure at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive Festival are trying to carve out a place as mediators, middlemen and matchmakers.

The space in between Internet users and the sellers that want to market to them appears to be fertile ground. Big movie studios, for instance, need ways to use the Web to find the audiences who will love their films. Independent musicians want to reach niche audiences.

Todd Wagner, co-owner of 2929 Entertainment, addresses a panel discussion at the SXSW Film/Interactive festival in Austin.

That’s where the start-ups step in. They use a combination of sophisticated technology and old-school marketing savvy to connect buyers and sellers.

Many of the companies exhibiting at SXSW Interactive, the annual trade show and conference geared toward the Web, are fueled by venture capital funding, and they’re not household names.

Some will never make it past the start-up stage, if history is any indication.

But their ideas are a useful way to see how Internet users may shop and browse in the coming years.

MusicIP, for example, has developed a way to help consumers find new music. The California venture capital-backed company uses software to create a digital "fingerprint" for a song based on the characteristics of the music. An acoustic guitar jam, for instance, would have a different fingerprint than a rap song.

Using the fingerprint technology, MusicIP’s software can be a digital DJ. Play a song in your computer’s music library, and it will queue up other songs of the same type. And it can scour the Web for digital music that also fits the song’s mood, helping the listener discover new artists.

"It nails it. The bloggers have been going nuts" about the software, said MusicIP chief executive Matthew Dunn.

Blog writers hold a lot of sway at SXSW, of course. Another venture-backed start-up, Pluck Corp., is offering a way to get them mainstream attention.

Austin-based Pluck’s service syndicates bloggers’ Web sites and offers their content up to the Web sites of mainstream publishers, such as newspapers. A newspaper could use the service to get a constant stream of blog posts on any topic and then publish the posts on its Web site.

Newspaper companies are understandably nervous about associating their Web sites with the wild world of blogs, so Pluck gives them ways to filter the content, said Adam Weinroth, the company’s director of product management.

"In one sense, we’re a technology intermediary, but we’re also an editorial intermediary," he said. Newspapers "are out there trying to figure out how to use this stuff to its fullest extent."

Pluck, funded in part by Austin Ventures, has deals with several large newspapers, and the San Francisco Chronicle will probably become the first to use the service publicly in the next few weeks, Mr. Weinroth said.

Another start-up, Spout LLC, is at an earlier point in its development.

The company is devoted to film lovers who can use the site to discuss and recommend movies, then buy DVDs.

Eventually, the privately held Michigan company hopes to have an audience of film buffs that are attracted to specific niches and genres.

That kind of information is very useful to moviemakers.

"The idea is around independent filmmakers," said Paul Moore, a Spout employee whose business card says "Cassavetes lover," among other titles. "Now they have an audience that they can target."

How will Spout help moviemakers reach those audiences? Those plans haven’t been made yet, Mr. Moore said. The important thing now is to build the audience. Once it’s there, the opportunities will come, he said.

E-mail charrison@dallasnews.com

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