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Generation 21


Business and professional matchmaking with an SMS

Six degrees of separation' "law" of networking reduced to 1 degree of proximity

An interview with Julian Bourne, the CEO and founder of Proxpro, a start-up of Boston, by Jorge Nascimento Rodrigues, editor of, August 2005

Imagine finding in a crowd of busy and noisy people a professional, a peer or a businessperson that met your interests, someone you do not even know it exists. A proprietary algorithm developed by a British serial entrepreneur can do this mobile executive search for you, via your cell-phone. The algorithm identifies reciprocity of networking needs and profiles and determines non-zero sum interactions, in your vicinity. Boston was just choose as a "magical place" to develop this new innovative fast location-based service, laid out by Julian Bourne, 38, the British business innovator.

Julian got the idea during a serendipitous conversation in an airport lounge, talking with a guy he never met before, which by chance was an industry analyst, a leading expert in a market he was deeply interested. This coincidence, this accident, gave Julian the tech-idea: to develop a solution that enables mobile professionals and businessmen to search potential contacts in tradeshows, conferences, in the gala dinner, even in the airport lounge or the hotel lobby. "I went away thinking this sort of serendipitous meeting shouldn't happen by chance", he remembers.

Julian was at the time working for The Morgan Crucible Company, a job that required him to spend two-thirds of his life traveling and visiting events related to the business of this old British manufacturer of products made from carbon, ceramic and magnetic materials. He felt that he misses a lot of people in those conferences and exhibitions. Doing some market research he found that 65 percent of business travelers in general and 80 percent of exhibition attendees felt exactly the same frustration. So, Julian step out from Morgan Crucible, after 11 years, and create Proxpro in December 2003.

The proximity economy

The "killer app" he sorts out was Proxpro, a "proximity networking solution", a social tool for what he calls the "proximity economy". Julian begins targeting events. Proxpro prototype test bed was in UK from November 2004 and then in US from January this year. His first partners were Macworld Conference & Expo, Reed Travel Exhibitions and Clarion Events. The SMS-based matchmaking service was christened in London at World Travel Market, Mortgage Business Expo and Schroders London Boat Show, last year. The US debut happened at San Francisco Macworld Expo in January.

The idea below the service is to empower professionals and businessmen attending these events with a tool to find and meet other high profile people. The solution is scalable from small to huge tradeshows. "These trials enabled us to validate our technology for events attended by 250,000 business people", says Julian. Proxpro works with 55% of US mobile networks in the US and with 95% in the UK, but only with local cell-phones - if you are on international roaming it will not work. Julian refers that the "best performance was signing up 18% of attendees, a result we were delighted with". And he guaranties that the re-sign rate is 100%. Proxpro is preparing the next version "with a few surprises". "It will be out soon", says Julian.

Privacy Sensitivity

You can search trough a simple SMS via your mobile phone to the database of Proxpro, that will find in the place where you stay other attendees or exhibitors with profiles that matches your business and professional interests and goals - for the moment only in the US and UK, as mentioned before. You just have to register a change in your location with a text message for Proxpro - say, "I am in San Francisco Nanorobots Convention" - and the algorithm will "discover" nearby in the audience a few people that match your prespecified interests. Both parties are notified, and can use SMS to arrange a business meeting in situ. If both agree, within minutes can be face-to-face. "Be careful anyway. You must take a few steps, common sense precautions", advises Proxpro. Julian guaranties that your identity, your network and your contact details are never revealed by the service. Privacy sensitivity is very high. It is a non-invasive tool. You are also free of spammers: "For two users to connect there must be a symmetry of networking objective. A spammer will not be able to predict what your networking needs are and therefore will not be able to contact you", guaranties Proxpro.

Basically, in technical terms, you announce your location to increase the chances of meeting useful high-yield business contacts. It is a location-based service that calculates the user's location from the SMS signal. The Americans call these new emergent location tools as "social services" based on a new buzzword - "social capital knowledge management". In a simple explanation: managing networks of professional and business profiles. The only thing you have to do is to register (is free) in the Proxpro website, create your profiles, receive a code and activate the service. Sure you have to pay the contacts and the messages.

The invisible field

With the widespread new infrastructure of broadband and Wi-Fi hot spots in airports, hotels, trains, libraries, Starbuck cafés, offices, conventions and conferences, a new type of services can be offered to nomad customers carrying all kind of wireless gadgets. Beyond the events segment, Proxpro targets also hotel loyalty programs, enabling customers with this plus service, and content providers with affiliated members. The powerful data this system gets, it is, also, very interesting for marketers.

The business model for Proxpro is based in contacts and messages fees, and the company splits the profit with the tradeshow owner. For telco carriers is good news also.

Wade Roush, an editor in the West Coast of the MIT Technology Review (TR), named recently this new environment as a "state of continuous computing", a society of "constant connectivity", and an "information invisible field" around us. His article at the August edition of TR talks of a "fifth wave of computing", with "social machines" (the title of the article) everywhere.

For sure, in the future, this type of networking on-demand can be customized to other purposes. But that's not Julian's business.


Why and when you decided to create this start-up? As I read the business idea was based in your personal experience and needs. Can you tell the "story" of the "Eureka!" moment?

My "eureka" moment was during a particularly grueling business trip in the US in 1998. My mind was on a pressing business problem and the solution was dependent on a deep understanding of a future market. By chance, in an airport lounge, I sat next an industry analyst, a leading expert in this market. We got talking and by the end of our conversation he had helped me significantly - and offered to send me some industry reports that otherwise would have cost thousands. I went away thinking this sort of serendipitous meeting shouldn't happen by chance. Towards the end of 2003 the technology to build the Proxpro platform was emerging and I laid out plans for this new solution.

Can you detail the killer market segments for this business idea?

The US business executive wireless market is the killer market. It's interesting -- recently youth market applications, such as ring tones and gaming, have received much of the publicity, but detailed market analysis data shows that it's the non-voice communication that dominates the mobile data market in the US today and will continue to dominate. Analysts, Strategy Analytics (SA), predict that the communication portion of the wireless data market will grow from $2.5 billion to $15.5 billion by 2009. Furthermore SA predicts that non-voice wireless communication will grow faster and exceed total users for IM (instant messaging), gaming, and ring tones. It is forecast that 60 million US subscribers will be using mobile email applications by 2009. By inference there will be 60 million devices with user interfaces that make messaging applications easy.

Do you think loyalty programs can be redefined taking in to account your tool? Have you already case studies in clients in this sense?

Proxpro is working with a variety of "content" partners who want to leverage Proxpro to enable their affiliated members to connect, and who can bring many millions of potential customers to our service. We will soon be in a position to give more information about our partner strategy.

Where were the first "test beds"?

Proxpro's prototype was trialed in UK from November 2004 and the US from January 2005 in the tradeshow industry. We were delighted to sign exclusive contracts with 5 tradeshow organizers including Reed Exhibitions, the world's leader, and MacWorld, a very high profile US event. These trials enabled us to validate our technology for events attended by 250,000 business people.

Why you decided to locate your company in Boston, despite your birth and professional relationship with UK? It seems that Boston is transforming itself in a "cluster" of start-ups in the location based services segment.

Yes, I'm British. Proxpro is a leader in proximity networking solutions. Our technology blends the wireless industry, where the UK is very strong, and, web-based industry where the US has unassailable lead. Boston is a magical place, and a natural choice for growing Proxpro. It all comes down to a new field called Proximity Economics where start-up businesses are supported by a flow of leading edge ideas; access to early stage funding and a energetic quality people produced by the world's leading universities.

How you see the development of this nomad/mobile "social capital"?

Wade Roush, West Coast editor at MIT Technology Review, eloquently described the arrival of continuous computing where people spend their entire day in an invisible, portable "information field". Combining wireless networks, with powerful devices and Proxpro's collaboration tools mean that 6 degrees of separation are reduced to 1 degree of proximity.

How it works your algorithms to explore the window of opportunity in the vicinity of the user?

Proxpro's patent pending technology is focused on the intersection of three ingredients: intellectual proximity (the mutual objectives, affinity and ranking of users), physical proximity (distance/location) and time.

How many users you have till the moment?

Proxpro's prototype has been promoted and trialed at tradeshows. Our best performance was signing up 18% of attendees, a result we were delighted with. The next version, a ubiquitous product, with a few surprises, will be out soon.

Do you expect to go public?

At the moment we are focused on making our new product a wonderful, compelling and fun experience for our customers.

Proxpro site:

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