You Don’t Have to Reinvent the Wheel
A new round of startups — founded, owned and run by women — is demonstrating that traditional industries like birth control or budget shopping can use updates. Their new takes on old business models are turning out to be game changers.
In our startup culture, which promises an app or product to solve any problem, entrepreneurs can feel like they have to reinvent the wheel to stand out. Instead of trying to come up with a never-before-seen product, these women assessed the flaws in existing industries and found ways to innovate.
Wanting to move reproductive health forward, Ida Tin co-founded Clue in December 2012. The app expands on the little red dot you’ve seen organized friends note in datebooks. Launched in July 2013, Clue analyzes data based on daily reporting of when your period starts and ends, level of discomfort, fluid, sexual activity and mood. Using Clue is extremely simple — in less than a minute you can report this data by clicking icons.
Clue’s website indicates that they believe that “technology, connected to the mobile phone, is the future of family planning.” So does it aim to eventually supplant traditional birth control methods? CEO Tin says that “[w]hile Clue is very accurate at predicting ovulation — and getting more accurate all the time — to provide an alternative to hormonal birth control, any app (including ours) would need to interface with body metrics in some way. But I do believe that is where technology is headed.”
Clue is equally useful for women trying to get pregnant or to avoid pregnancy, in that it provides insight into a user’s fertility and when a woman is most likely to conceive. The design stands out: It’s decidedly not pink and doesn’t sugarcoat women’s health into something infantile or butterfly adorned, like many of its competitors. Clue’s algorithm gets more accurate at predicting your cycle over time, and has acquired over 25 million data points from women in 180 different countries.
Clue is currently free, and the Berlin-based company of 14 employees is funded by angel investors. Monetization will come from a forthcoming hardware component, but they have yet to announce the product. Intriguing.
If you’re looking to get from Point A to Point B in New York City, you traditionally have had little control over the person behind the wheel. SheRides (called SheTaxi in Westchester County and Long Island) aims to give you that option, and to change the livery industry entirely. With a forthcoming launch delayed because of overwhelming consumer demand, the Long Island City-based SheRides is the only taxi and car service app in the country specifically aimed at women. What makes SheRides so unique? Its cabbies are exclusively female.
As anyone living in New York can attest, getting into a stranger’s car late at night isn’t necessarily a comfortable experience. SheRides aims to provide safe, reliable and vetted female drivers. And SheRides goes a step further — passengers concerned about their safety can opt to have their rides tracked by designated friends and family, and all rides are tracked by GPS.
Beyond providing an option for female passengers who may be more comfortable with a female driver, CEO and founder Stella Mateo says that, “this ride matching service intends to empower women to take the wheel” in a traditionally male-dominated industry. The numbers within the industry are bleak: The New York Times reports that “[o]f New York City’s 59,999 for-hire drivers of livery cars, green cabs, limousines and luxury sedans, only 2,952 of them, or 5 percent, are women, according to city data. Even fewer women drive yellow cabs: 574 out of 51,874 drivers, or 1 percent.”
Originally intending to launch in September of 2014, the company delayed last month in order to find more female cab drivers, saying that its roster of 100 drivers wouldn’t be able to satisfy the demand. While the launch still lacks a set date, a company that seeks to provide safer options to female consumers and to challenge the industry’s gender imbalance is a welcome innovation.
While the world of circuits, motors and sensors has been mostly inaccessible to those without training in electronics or engineering, littleBits is breaking down the barriers. littleBits is a set of electronic modules that easily snap together with magnets. They aren’t unlike LEGOs or Erector Sets, if those toys could light up or power a motor. But littleBits goes further; these are tools for innovation, invention and prototyping.
Founder Ayah Bdeir explained her mission to bring electronics to the people in a TED talk, referencing transistors as the key component of all modern technology, but one that is inaccessible. In that talk, she says: “I personally don’t accept this — that the building block of our time is reserved for experts, so I decided to change that.”
Founded in 2009 and launched in September 2011, littleBits is a way of opening the world of electronics to children and adults alike. The company’s simpler modules are marketed as tools that teach children about electronics and science. littleBits’ open source hardware model (designs are free and downloadable) gives anyone with a desire to learn the ability to create projects using electronics. Modules can even be used to hack your midnight snack.
So far, the product line includes over 50 color-coded electronic modules that can be combined countless ways. Bdeir says that they are nowhere near finished, and that they want to “make every single interaction in the world into a ready-to-use brick — light, sounds, solar panels, motors. Everything should be accessible.”
The New York-based team of 50 employees has sold its modules in over 70 countries. The products are in more than 1,800 schools and Maker spaces.
After spending years in advocacy and political work in Washington, D.C., Marci Harris and Rachna Choudhry decided to find a better way to facilitate communication between elected officials and their constituents. In 2010, they founded POPVOX — an online platform that lists every single bill introduced in congress, giving each piece of legislation its own webpage.
POPVOX is a clear alternative to what CEO Harris describes as the “perpetual state of outrage” that seems to surround national discourse. The current discussion isn’t productive, and much like "constant stress in our bodies makes us sick, this kind of sustained discord is damaging to our national psyche and our governing processes."
Instead of providing a summary of the bill (which wouldn’t square with their commitment against editorializing), POPVOX provides positions from multiple advocacy groups and organizations on both sides of the aisle to help inform decision-making. Users are then prompted to voice their support or opposition and encouraged to provide a comment explaining their position. That information is aggregated into a report, which is delivered to members of Congress, who are able to more accurately and easily assess the opinions of constituents.
A key difference between POPVOX and signing an online petition is verification, which means that POPVOX can guarantee that legislators are only hearing from their constituents. It makes the feedback much more likely to be heard, and Harris pointed out that “members of Congress truly do care what their constituents have to say. They don’t care, at all, what the entire Internet says.”
POPVOX reports over 400,000 users in all 50 states and congressional districts. The site has delivered more than 3 million messages to Congress. Originally funded by angel investors, and family and friends of the founders, POPVOX has found a way to be profitable outside of the free-to-use communication platform, including white label widgets, custom analytics and data mining tools sold to interest groups.
Homemakers have been clipping coupons for decades, and the Internet changed the coupon game dramatically, giving us sites like RetailMeNot and Gilt. Annalea Krebs took those platforms a step further in 2010 and decided to merge coupon shopping with personal values. ethicalDeal “started from a mission of making green more mainstream,” says Krebs.
Based in Vancouver with a total of 10 employees, ethicalDeal is a free subscription service like Groupon or Living Social. Users receive a daily email with a steep discount for one green product, such as food, baby products, household supplies, body care and cosmetics. ethicalDeal is available in 12 major US cities including New York, Los Angeles and Boston and 12 Canadian cities.
Krebs, who’s described on ethicalDeal’s website as a “social entrepreneur,” sought to provide green products to people who felt that environmentally conscious living was inaccessible. In fact, “education around green products is intimidating and overwhelming.” The daily coupon site allows consumers to try out products at a fraction of the store price, and combats the main barriers to living green: the expectation of higher prices, inability to find products and a lack of trust. Kreb’s seemed to be onto something; ethicalDeal posted sales figures of one million dollars in its first year and reaches almost 100,000 green shoppers.
What truly sets ethicalDeal apart from companies like Groupon is the commitment to a specific value, and the ability to bring that value to the masses. The products and companies must measure up to a set of criteria including how they affect the planet, the treatment of animals and benefits to the community through programs like local sourcing.