Mobile-Phone Show: The Startups Shine

February 15, 2008

There were plenty of companies, both old and new, at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that offered creative new ways to enhance the mobile-phone multimedia experience. From semiconductor chips to software applications to new online services, a dozen of the hottest companies at the show had been picked up.

Investing: The Net Wisdom of Peers

November 19, 2007

by David Bogoslaw

Two years ago, Eric Wolff, 25, was handed the reins of a $5 million family trust after his family saw how badly it had been managed by a full-service brokerage firm. For the four months ended Oct. 31, the $1 million in accounts that he directly oversees has returned 13%, something he attributes to advice he received on, an online investing community, and top-notch research he’s found at other financial Web sites such as and

People saving for retirement are equally inspired to find the best investment advice. Increasingly, they’re less willing to trust brokers who they believe are motivated by greed and tend to put their own interests ahead of their clients, according to a 2004 study commissioned by the Securities Industry Assn.

Burned Retiree Tries His Hand

Bob Craft, 64, a retired pilot for Delta Air Lines, joined online investing community in early 2004 after losing 82% of his defined pension when Delta filed for bankruptcy. At the time, his assets were invested in mutual funds. Nervous about his retirement savings, he split his portfolio three ways—between Fidelity Investments, Bank of America, and his own trading account—to compare the investment results.

Craft’s brokers told him that over the long run, he wouldn’t be able to beat their performance because they invested for a living. At the end of the first year, his account had increased 30%, while the money managed by the brokerage firms was up just under 8%. His returns far outpaced those of his brokers in the second year as well. “The highest return every year has been by me, so I just moved all my money to me,” he said, adding that he couldn’t afford his brokers’ low gains.

Craft now manages 100% of his portfolio, spending about six hours a day reading up on stocks he hears about from fellow members at ValueForum and placing orders through Fidelity’s ActiveTraderPro. Year-to-date, his portfolio is up 38.2%, he says, and he no longer worries about his retirement nest egg.

Communities’ Key Asset: Transparency

As more individual investors like Wolff and Craft take control of researching and buying stocks, options, exchange-traded funds, and mutual funds online, they’re joining a new generation of online investing communities to help them reach their goals. So instead of following recommendations from full-service brokers or advisers, for investment advice they’re turning to people who are putting their own money on the line. The online investing communities take the old forums and message boards to the next level by offering tools to verify the track records of and rank up-and-coming investing gurus.

Unlike the social networking platforms and, these new investing sites don’t execute trades. What they’re selling is the ability to pull in and aggregate trading data from members’ existing brokerage accounts so they can track each person’s total portfolio.

Tracking capability is important because these communities aim to level the playing field, paving the way for a new type of investment adviser, one who’s more credible because you know what stocks he owns. Full-service brokerages and other incumbents are afraid of this, since nontransparency protects their profit margins, says Rikki Tahta, chief executive of New York-based Covestor.

What Investors Want

Before launching publicly in mid-September,, a San Francisco-based online investing community, conducted several focus groups to see what online investors were really seeking. Steven Carpenter, Cake’s founder, said investors want to find peers with the same basic outlook or trading strategy, but better performance results. Cake also learned they want advocacy—the assurance that the customer’s best interests, not the adviser’s, come first—more than education.

Cake tracks stocks, ETFs, and mutual funds and plans to add options and fixed-income trades in the future. While all the trading activity that Cake imports can be measured, members don’t have to reveal their net worth, the amount they’re investing, or the number of shares they’re trading. Eliminating the sensitive information allows users to communicate freely with each other, says Carpenter.

Cake’s service is free, but once membership has grown to at least 10,000, Carpenter says he’ll create low-cost, customized asset-management services based on the aggregated performance metrics of Cake’s members. The idea is to take aggregated performance data and overlay it on a member’s portfolio to show what stocks he should sell and which ones he should hold on to. A premium service would show members the asset allocations of their top 10 model investors and notify them via e-mail whenever one of these people buys or sells a stock, or even adds a stock to his watch list.

Fund Management Insight

For Covestor, the imperatives are verification and evening out the playing field for retail investors. By giving them the same tools that a hedge fund manager has, such as the analytics that help them understand the risk they take vs. the returns they get, and how those compare with their peers, benchmarks, and professionals, Tahta hopes to “burst open the fund management world.”

Covestor is currently a free service, but plans to go to a compensation business model sometime in 2008, under which members would pay a fee to follow top performers’ portfolios, and Covestor would collect a small percentage of the fees charged by its top performers.

When ValueForum launched in late 2003, it offered a flat fee for lifetime membership to the first 200 people to sign up for the service, and within six weeks it had sold out. Through those early adopters telling friends, the community has grown to 1,400 members—most of them age 55 and older and retired with an average portfolio of $1 million, says co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Adam Menzel. Members pay an annual fee of $220 to use the site.

ValueForum doesn’t import and track members’ investment accounts, but it gives members the chance to gauge each other’s performance in other ways, such as quarterly contests where each person chooses three stocks they think will rise during that three-month period.

Growth in Self-Directed Portfolios

Another reason that investors are looking for new ways to exchange financial advice is that broker-advisers are showing less interest in handling portfolios valued under $1 million. That leaves 15 million U.S. households with assets between $100,000 and $1 million looking elsewhere for investing advice. These households’ assets total $4.5 trillion, or 35% of U.S. retail assets, most of which is being serviced by the mutual fund industry, according to a study by Forrester Research published in March, 2006.

Institutional investors are also getting involved in online investing communities., a San Mateo (Calif.)-based investment company that launched in July, 2000, uses a social network to generate the research that informs its funds’ investment decisions.

Marketocracy’s founders, Ken Kam and Mark Taguchi, opted for an alternative to Wall Street research based on what they learned while co-managing a top-rated technology fund at Firsthand Capital Management in the late 1990s. Kam, who had previously worked in the medical devices industry and was running the fund’s health-care/medical portion, found that the best ideas about a company and its business prospects came from people working in that particular industry, not from Wall Street analysts and brokers.

“It’s a process of asking the right questions of the right people,” says Kam. “People on Wall Street aren’t the right people because they rarely have the experience to ask the right questions.”

Kam and Taguchi believe it takes at least five years of tracking a person’s trading decisions to be able to discern their skill level. But after a year and a half, they felt confident enough in the collective wisdom of a select group to pick the top 100 out of about 40,000 members to serve as model portfolio managers for the mutual fund they set up. Six years later, the Marketocracy Masters 100 Fund has roughly $45 million under management and, since inception, has returned 92.42%, compared with a 53.37% return by the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index, including dividends, over the same period.

Wisdom of Crowds vs. the Individual

One bone of contention among the next-generation investing communities is whether the financial rewards of following a single individual match those of tapping into the collective wisdom of the crowd. Cake believes in taking what seem to be the best practices among groups of like-minded investors and showing members how they compare to others who are doing better than they are, both as individuals and in the aggregate, says Carpenter. It’s not a herd mentality that Cake enables members to tap into, but the collective wisdom of the few who resemble them and consistently outperform the markets over time, Carpenter says.

To identify such model investors, Cake has a feature that gathers up to 10 years of back data from the trading accounts members have opened at 11 of the top brokerage firms. Data extending over that long a time span are more convincing than the three months’ worth of back data that most other sites import, Carpenter says.

For Covestor’s Tahta, it’s the idiosyncratic thinking of individuals with insights into particular sectors that’s paramount. He cites one member, a doctor in Wisconsin, who has a unique understanding of relative strengths and weaknesses among medical equipment makers. Given all the factors that inform investment decisions, such as goals and risk tolerance, he believes it’s a waste to limit this information to a single investor’s account when it could help others with the same basic approach.

Marketocracy believes it’s beneficial to be able to access the group’s aggregate wisdom and that of individuals at different times for different reasons. Their model portfolio managers, a rotating group of the top 100 performers, tend to know the right questions to ask, based on their trading experience in certain sectors. But they often turn out not to be the people with the right answers, says Kam.

“Through our forums, increasingly what we’re finding is that you want to let everybody post [comments], because the person who has the answer might have a poor portfolio overall but may have the key piece of information that will make a great investor have conviction in the stock idea,” he says.

High-Quality Discussion

It’s likely that even without the functional bells and whistles, online communities would attract investors based solely on the quality of the discussions—a welcome refuge from the junk many say is clogging the message boards on financial portals at and ValueForum even allows members to vote to dispatch off-topic posts to a separate discussion board called the “Coffee Shop” so that the main discussion threads stay focused on investing matters.

Online investing communities have also begun to extend their reach beyond the virtual into the physical world. Take InvestFest, an annual conference organized for and by ValueForum members. Now in its third year, the conference offers presentations not only by members who specialize in certain investing topics, but also by industry professionals such as investment newsletter editors and occasionally a company chief financial officer. Cake is also envisioning local investor cocktail parties around the country in the future.

Many people tout the Internet, and message boards in particular, as tools that are democratizing the flow of information. But for Kam and Taguchi, research by social network is more about meritocracy than democracy. It’s about weighting people’s voices by their track records and giving commensurate attention to the most talented. Says Kam: “Other social networking sites looking to make a play in investing are interesting and share the same goals as us, but it’s going to be years before they have anything substantial to prove to investors that they can add value.”


Social Networking with the Elite

November 19, 2007

by Douglas MacMillan and Paula Lehman

Are you on the digital A-list? It’s no longer enough to get invited to exclusive conferences or be asked to join professional organizations—many movers and shakers are taking their hobnobbing online, where a new crop of social networks aim to keep out the riff-raff by demanding credentials at the virtual door. As MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook have expanded to people of all ages, classes, and affiliations, there’s a backlash against the open culture of social networking. Walls are going up. The scene is more velvet-roped club, not open-mic night. These three gated sites are among those with tough membership requirements and, presumably, more elite social networking.


In October, British news giant Reuters launched a private online networking community for hedge fund managers, traders, and analysts. Dubbed Reuters Space (, the industry-specific site leverages its own pool of proprietary data on thousands of companies to verify the employment status of applicants, be they futures traders or chief investment officers. Members each have a feeds page, where they collect news from Reuters and other sources tailored to their financial specialty. Each one also has a profile page—a personal blog where they post notes to colleagues and close industry contacts and set privacy controls to determine who has access to their contact information. The site has potential for companywide rollouts: For example, London-based Schroders Investment Management, a global asset management firm, is planning to adopt the platform to give more of a sense of community to its employees in 24 offices around the world.


Launched in April, 2006, is a network of more than 900 executives who work in or close to the wireless industry. To qualify, you have to be at least a director at a large company, a vice-president at a midsize company, or in the C-suite of a startup. So far, members include executives from carriers such as Verizon Wireless, content providers such as Walt Disney, and handset makers such as Nokia. Arthur Goikhman and Stephen Dacek, co-founders of New York mobile-games startup Cellufun, joined in February. They were able to make connections with Yahoo! on the site and struck a deal with the search giant to place ads with Cellufun’s games. “I’m glad it’s not a free-for-all,” says Dacek. “It really does make it a lot easier to network.”


This invitation-only social and business network, making its debut this month, relies on a selection committee elected by all members on the site. The committee has already chosen 100 members out of more than 7,000 applications that came in before Diamond Lounge ( went live. Members, who pay a monthly $60 fee, can hail from any industry and have two identities: a social profile in “the Lounge” and a business profile in “the Boardroom.” For the social profile, members set limits on who can view them based on such characteristics as age, physical build, and gender; for the boardroom they provide their income, industry, and job title. They can exchange gifts, much like Facebook, where members buy icons of cakes and teddy bears, for example—but Diamond Lounge gifts include real Gucci bags or tickets to business events.


BusinessWeek:Looming Online Security Threats in 2008

November 16, 2007

by Aaron Ricadela

It’s nearly enough to make you long for the days of typo-ridden e-mails pretending to come from your bank.

As Internet users display more of their personal information on social networking Web sites, and office workers upload more sensitive data to online software programs, computer hackers are employing increasingly sophisticated methods to pry that information loose. In many cases, they’re devising small attacks that can fly under the radar of traditional security software, while exploiting the trust users place in popular business and consumer Web sites.

In September, the names and contact information for tens of thousands of customers of Automatic Data Processing and SunTrust Banks were stolen from CRM, which provides online customer management software for those two companies. The incident occurred after a hacker tricked a Salesforce employee into disclosing a password.

The assaults on consumer sites are getting more unnerving as well. A security researcher reported Nov. 8 that hackers had hijacked pages on News Corp.’s social networking site MySpace, including the home page of singer Alicia Keys. Clicking nearly anywhere on the page would lead viewers to a Web site in China that tries to trick them into downloading software that can take over their PCs. “We’re going to see a lot more of this in the consumer space,” says John Pescatore, an Internet security analyst for Gartner IT.

Exploiting Trust

These kinds of targeted attacks on Web-based services may constitute the top computer security threats of 2008, according to security experts. “One of the biggest challenges of 2008 will be, how do you do business online when you know there’s a bad guy in the middle?” says Chris Rouland, chief technology officer in IBM’s Internet security systems division. “The personal computer isn’t the target of 2008; it’s the browser,” he says. IBM sees the landscape changing profoundly enough that the company plans to spend $1.5 billion next year to develop security suites that can address a broad array of threats rather than different products aimed at specific security risks.

Although a rash of e-mail-borne virus outbreaks in recent years have made most PC users wary of opening attachments or clicking on links in suspicious messages, it may be harder to prevent attacks that exploit the Web-based lists of friends and business contacts that users store in widely used services and social networks. “We’ve definitely seen the bad guys use malware to go after friends lists on MySpace and Facebook,” says Pescatore. “They’re exploiting trust.”

By targeting a relatively small number of users at a time—tens of thousands vs. millions—new hacking strategies can elude efforts to detect them. Hackers also are employing more professional approaches to maximize damage without being caught. These include division of labor by hacking expertise and wider use of black-market sites to hire programmers and purchase professional malware-writing tools.

Hackers Shift Attacks

Factor in the growing variety of places where people are connecting to the Internet—from work, from home, from Starbucks —and the growing array of devices they’re using to do so, and the coming year could present a potent brew of problems.

Although traditional PC software such as Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Office programs still present the broadest target because of their hundreds of millions of users, hackers are increasingly attacking online services, says Scott Charney, Microsoft vice-president for trustworthy computing. Worse, traditional virus attacks that crash PCs or issue floods of commands to overwhelm Web sites are being augmented with malicious software that can swipe personal information, such as bank and credit-card numbers.

To be sure, it’s in the interest of companies that sell security software to maximize fears that there’s a cyberthreat lurking behind every mouse click. At the same time, the sheer size of attacks is getting larger, and the Web’s incursion into nearly every facet of daily life presents attackers with more ways than ever to strike.

Cellular and Corporate Caution

For consumers, it’s not just their profiles on social networks that can be mined for personal information. Sophisticated smartphones that run full-fledged operating systems and e-mail applications, and hence store more valuable data, could present tempting targets. Security researchers have found numerous ways to break into prominent mobile-phone platforms from Symbian and Microsoft, and quickly demonstrated ways to hack into Apple’s new iPhone. “All of a sudden on that phone is the stuff the identity
thieves go after,” says Gartner’s Pescatore, noting security vendors have been hyping the cell-phone threat for years, while the damage hasn’t amounted to much.

In the corporate world, criminals are hunting for more of the valuable information stored on companies’ servers. A computer breach at T.J. Maxx in 2005 and 2006 may have handed hackers access to credit- and debit-card numbers for up to 94 million of the retailer’s customers—double what the company originally reported, according to court documents filed by Visa and MasterCard  in October.

Cyberthieves are also attacking corporate databases in search of undisclosed financial data or proprietary design and engineering information that can be sold, says Phil Dunkelberger, CEO of security software company PGP. “The really big money now is going to be in stealing intellectual property,” he says.

Viruses: More Sophisticated Bait

Hackers are also unleashing viruses that can recruit armies of consumer PCs into larger networks of remote-controlled machines. These “botnets” can distribute spam, attack database software, or keep a record of users’ keystrokes. One of the worst, Storm Worm, has infected tens of millions of PCs this year.

Even the messages containing virus payloads are getting slicker. In the past, as compared with the sophistication of the viruses, the e-mails carrying them were rather crude. That made users less likely to follow their instructions, says David Perry, director of global education at security software vendor Trend Micro. “These were really well-written viruses, but nobody in the U.S. would click on them because they sounded like they came from Boris and Natasha,” he says, referring to Cold War characters from the old Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons. Now, he says, “they’re hiring professionals” to write the e-mails.

Security Tips

Given the assortment of nasty behavior befouling the Internet, what’s a PC user to do? consulted the experts, who offered the following advice:

  • Don’t give away any valuable or sensitive personal information on your MySpace or Facebook profile, or within messages to other members of the network. And don’t click on any links in social network messages from people you don’t know.
  • No reputable company will ask for your password, account number, or other log-in information via e-mail or instant message.
  • Use one of the many antivirus, antispyware, and firewall programs on the market. Often, vendors offer all three functions in a single package. And many Internet service providers offer them free with your monthly subscription.
  • Upgrade your browser to the most current version. From Microsoft, that’s Internet Explorer 7, Mozilla’s Firefox is on version 2, as is Apple’s Safari browser.
  • Pay attention to the messages from Windows that pop up on your screen, especially in the new Vista operating system. They often contain helpful security information that many users overlook.
  • Turn on Windows’ automatic-update function to get Microsoft’s regular security patches.


StumbleUpon’s ‘Social Search’ Upgrade

October 30, 2007

That Google’s faceless search engine has enjoyed such immense and lasting popularity doesn’t much impress the passionate minority who say the human touch is sorely lacking in Web search.

Yet not even fans of “social search” sites like Yahoo! Answers, where users steer the recommendations, can compete with the cool efficiency of Google and others that use sheer computing power and complex formulas to spit back thousands of results, often in less than a second.

But there’s no reason it has to be one or the other. So now StumbleUpon, maker of a Web browser toolbar that directs users to sites recommended by others, is offering a new version that runs alongside the major search engines. The goal is to combine the speed and authority of Google, Yahoo! Search, or Microsoft Live Search with the opinions of a community—and of one’s friends and acquaintances within that network. “There’s no reason you can’t have both,” says StumbleUpon co-founder Garrett Camp.

Social Search Options

For those familiar with StumbleUpon, which launched nearly six years ago, the new toolbar marks a significant change. The original StumbleUpon focused on what its founders called “social discovery.” Users who downloaded the application and “stumbled” were directed to Web pages based on the positive ratings of friends or other users with shared interests or similar voting behavior. (Users can register opinions of any site they visit by clicking a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” button in the toolbar.) The new version of StumbleUpon places friend and community ratings next to the Web links displayed by major search engines and other popular destinations such as Yahoo’s photo-sharing site Flickr.

StumbleUpon, acquired in May by Internet auctioneer eBay for $75 million (, 4/23/07), isn’t the first company to attempt to combine social search with the computer-generated results produced by the major engines and their sophisticated mathematical algorithms. ChaCha and Eurekster have long specialized in “human touched” search results.

ChaCha, whose name is a play on the Chinese word for search and the Latin ballroom dance, provides conventional search results by combining links gathered from the leading engines. But it also highlights the links found to be most useful by its thousands of users and editors. Eurekster works by enabling users to save search results and highlight the links they found useful on a specific subject, for instance, Halloween costumes. New users looking for the same information can open the saved search featuring the results others decided to highlight.

“Beyond Entertainment”

But StumbleUpon has happened on an approach it thinks will resonate better with users because it doesn’t require them to switch to an entirely different search engine. Once downloaded, the toolbar simply adds information to the regular search results. And by now, StumbleUpon has amassed a sizable store of information to respond with, thanks to an existing base of 3.7 million users who have rated more than 13 million Web pages. Smaller social engines often lack results on more niche or esoteric topics that may fall within that database.

StumbleUpon’s biggest advantage may come from its new backer. Since being acquired by eBay, the company has hired seven people to help develop new features for the toolbar. Camp says the company plans to make the new toolbar compatible with more search engines during the coming months.

Over time, StumbleUpon may also integrate its user-driven results with product search engines. For example, it could recommend products based on other items that users with similar interests or search histories purchased. And naturally, eBay is exploring ways to integrate StumbleUpon’s technology with its online auction and e-commerce businesses. “We are moving beyond entertainment,” says Camp, referring to StumbleUpon’s original use as a way to discover other fun sites. “Now we are making search more useful.”


Tapping the Wisdom of the Crowd

October 19, 2007

The term “crowdsourcing” has the ring of a passing fad. But long before Wired contributing editor Jeff Howe put a name to mass Web collaboration in pursuit of economic reward, entrepreneurs and big businesses alike were starting to explore methods to tap the wisdom of the crowds to produce goods and services. “Is it jargon?” says Howe. “The phenomenon itself predates my article—it’s the application of open-source principles to fields outside software. There doesn’t need to be a profit motive, but it is a mode of economic production.”

And the trend is building. Six months ago, BusinessWeek‘s Inside Innovation brought readers the lowdown on crowdsourcing, highlighting several of the more interesting projects (see “Crowdsourcing”). Since then, several new crowdsourcing experiments have emerged. Here are five recent efforts that you should know about:

A Swarm of Angels

This British open source film project takes on Hollywood’s traditional business model, aiming to create cult cinema for the digital age. Subscribers—the “angel” investors that “swarm” to create the site’s name—pay roughly $50 (£25) each to join. The site aims to draw 50,000 angels to create a film with a $1.8 million budget. Project founder Matt Hanson has written two separate movie screenplays that will be edited and refined based on feedback from the subscriber community.

Eventually, the community will vote to decide which film will be made. Community members will be paid to handle the production, and once finished, the film will be released free on the Internet under a Creative Commons license. Viewers will be invited to watch it, share it, and remix it. So far Hanson and his crew have 800 investors. Advisers include sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow and musicians The Kleptones. Stay tuned.


This French startup plans to use crowds to develop and bring to market tangible, inexpensive, electronic devices such as CD players, joysticks for video games, and Web cams. The community will handle all aspects of the product cycle—its design, features, technical specifications, even post-purchase customer support. As with software start-up Cambrian House, community members will submit and vote on product and design ideas. The winners will be funded by community members and they will go on to prototype and beta-test the products.

A core CrowdSpirit team, along with a subset of community members and distributors, will have a final say on decisions. The hope, however, is that the products will be extraordinarily focused on the customer because the ideas are coming directly from the people who will use the products. In development since last September, the site will formally launch at the end of June, 2007.


Marketocracy’s Web site boldly announces a mutual fund that delivers higher return with less risk. Launched in 2000, Marketocracy aims to gather the collective knowledge of the best investors to create a highly successful mutual fund. Sign-up is free and anyone can run a virtual fund, starting with $1 million. So far, the site has more than 60,000 users. Based on the virtual investments of its 100 most successful members, the site launched the Masters 100 Index in 2001. The fund now has $44 million in assets and has outperformed the S&P 500 Index with an average annual return of 11.4% since inception. Five years in, that’s a decent performance, though not worthy of Warren Buffett.


Barack Obama all but announced his intention to run as a candidate for the 2008 presidential election on Jan. 16 (the official decision will come on Feb. 10), and already is peppered with t-shirts sporting his name and election slogans. This Foster City (Calif.)-based online retailer lets members create, buy, and sell merchandise. Entrepreneurs Fred Durham and Maheesh Jain founded the site in 1999 to let members—the site reports 2.5 million—transform their artwork and ideas into new products and sell them through an online storefront with no up-front costs or inventory to manage.

Members can also personalize their own gifts by adding touches to one of 80 available products. sets a base price on products and takes care of printing, packaging, processing payments, and customer service; sellers decide how much to charge for their products. The site got a big break in 2003 when Phil Collins, Jet Li, and Olympic Gold Medalist Tara Lipinski launched online stores through Since then it has grown to 800,000 shopkeepers and 36 million products.


Among the largest newspaper publishers in the U.S., Gannett has said it plans to change its newsroom to take advantage of crowdsourcing, putting readers to work as watchdogs, whistle-blowers, and investigators. Already last summer, the Fort Myers (Fla.)-based The News-Press (circulation 100,000) invited readers to help investigate ongoing concerns over price hikes in their utility assessments.

The response was hefty. Readers got involved—organizing their own investigations, poring through documents, and connecting to inside sources. As a result of the investigation, the city cut assessment fees by 30%.

Source: BusinessWeek online