I attended my first Startup Weekend event here in Toronto last weekend. There were over 200 people stuffed into one floor of the Burroughes building on Saturday and Sunday rushing to transform ideas into startups. The idea behind Startup Weekend events is to bring together a lot of people with different backgrounds who are interested in creating startups, throw them in a room for 2 days, feed them, stir vigorously and see what comes out. Not to say that it was chaotic, the organizers did a good job explaining the process (eg. how to pitch ideas, form teams, what to work on and what to demo for the judges) and kept everyone happy and productive by providing for our basic needs (food, wifi & bathrooms).
I didn’t pitch any of my own ideas but there were around 30 to choose from so I didn’t lack for options. One idea in particular really caught my attention. Lon Wong, of Unstash, pitched the idea that there is a growing need for a cross platform reputation service that would allow people to establish and measure the trustworthiness of other people. In particular, his pitch highlighted the needs of sites in the collaborative consumption space. With so many new startups getting into collaborative consumption, neither the startups nor the people who use their sites want to have to worry about building and maintaining separate reputations for every site. His pitch really resonated with me since there is currently no reputation system for freecycling and I’ve long been wanting to tackle that problem with trash nothing!. So he and I teamed up along with two others and quickly got to work fleshing out how you define and measure trust online (and of course, my last name seems to uniquely qualify me to work in this area).
Our team started out with four people (2 programmers, 2 business development people) but it quickly dwindled down to just Lon and I (a bizdev and a programmer) for various reasons (which just goes to show you that building a good team is hard, especially when you have less than an hour to get to know potential teammates before committing to work together). With less than a day to build a startup to demo, I quickly realized that I wouldn’t have enough time to build any sort of functional prototype (at least not one that would be impressive). So I took off my coder hat and resolved to create the best damn prototype screenshot mockups that I could while Lon refined and perfected the business case for our startup.
The rest of the event flew by in a haze as I spent most of my time pushing pixels in Gimp with occasional breaks to bounce ideas back and forth with Lon and to eat. At some point, we decided on the name Reputate.
From the Reputate user reputation profile page screenshot I created below, you can see that our approach to establishing and measuring trust was two-fold. First, we wanted to pull in and reuse existing sources of online data that could be correlated to trust. For example, Ebay and Couchsurfing ratings but also data from social networks. The idea being that people measure trust in different ways for different purposes. So by providing a broad spectrum of data, users can make their own decisions on how trustworthy a person is based on the criteria that matter the most to them. Pulling in 3rd party data also makes it easy to bootstrap people’s reputations so they don’t start with a blank slate.
The second key to how Reputate would work was to support a system of vouching between users. This would allow you to vouch for people you trust and be vouched for by people who trust you. We decided that the key to vouching was to tie your reputation to your vouches. So if you vouch for someone who proves to be untrustworthy, it would ultimately harm your reputation.
Of course, given the time constraints, we didn’t dig very deeply into how this would all work under the hood. To really make Reputate happen, you’d need to come up with a good tamper-resistant algorithm for handling the vouching while also finding a way to pull in all the 3rd party data from other sites.
Long story short, Lon gave an awesome demo that clearly communicated the problem we were solving and how we planned to solve it. And at least four of the other startups mentioned during their demos how useful Reputate would be or that they planned to use it in their products. The judges didn’t ask us as many questions as they did the other teams – which worried me that they didn’t find our idea interesting. But, in the end, it turned out that all the judges really liked Reputate and Lon and I were both surprised when Reputate won 3rd place (beating out much larger teams and teams who had been more active publicizing and evangelizing during the event).