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Switch Conference 2010 - The Aftermath

We're back from a weekend in Coimbra, where we attended Switch, a conference that aimed to gather scientists, entrepreneurs and thinkers, in the context of a Web 2.0, Social Media and Entrepreneurship theme, with some refreshing outliers to the main theme along the way.

The conference attracted our attention mainly because of its Startup Competition, where one could go and pitch for an idea in a couple of minutes in front of investors and a tech-savvy audience. As we have been living under a rock for a long time, under heavy research and development for our Colony framework and Omni platform, we figured out this would be a great opportunity to go out and breathe fresh air, something we started doing much more as of recently, now that we have reached a phase where Colony is becoming rock solid and very powerful, and we can quickly develop awesome applications on it.

We took the opportunity to take an idea out of the drawer (one that would scratch a personal itch), quickly prototype it, present it, and get some feedback on it. We wanted to always go out and eat in different places, to avoid falling into a routine, so we built a tool that would help us solve that problem. A place where you can just go and ask whatever is on your head in a search box and have useful results show up, like "penne all arrabiata in Coimbra between 5 and 10 euros near me", or just "penne alla arrabiata 5 euros", or whatever you feel like querying for. We implemented the prototype lighting-fast thanks to our Colony framework, and be it not for the current lack of data, it would already scratch our personal itch. With prototype implemented, and presentation in hand, and a name for what could be a new service built around this idea and prototype, we headed out to Switch to pitch for alacarte.fm.

The Long Hard Road to Switch

The organization was nailed on the head with every single frickin' Murphy Law. With Eyjafjallajokull spitting out volcanic ash and cancelling Portuguese flights and international speakers dropping out, a sh*t storm rained on the organization's parade, which could very well kill the conference, so when we arrived at the place (which was not that easy to find), and after hearing such a silence around which you could hear the grass growing, we thought for a minute that we had been scammed. Fortunately, after finding the conference hall, there actually were quite a lot of people there, and in the end, it was great to see that the organization still managed to make an awesome conference against all odds.

Switch had a little bit of a TED-like feeling to it, as different people, from different ages, professions and backgrounds, shared their thoughts on the same stage. The conference was almost entirely performed in English, which unfortunately limited some of the speakers' ability to showcase their ideas and knowledge to their full extent, as well as to deliver that emotional punch that presentations need to touch/brainwash/inspire audiences. I do, however, give my deepest congratulations to them, in fact, the lousier the speaker's english, the prouder he should be, because public speaking alone is already such a huge fear for most people, that in a popular study it ended up being ranked as the biggest fear of all, with death itself coming in second place. That's right folks, in a funeral, people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy. So a clap of hands for their courage, which allowed the results of this conference to be shareable with the whole world.

Speakers talked about everything from cell biology, to freelancing, to lifestyle, to entrepeneurship, to journalism, and so on. We even had a speaker talk about how to make didgeridoos out of toilet paper, and give a pretty cool performance on stage, which myself, having unsuccessfully tried to play the instrument in the past (not only could I not do circular breathing, but the sound itself came out as an elephant in pain), really enjoyed:

Do You See The Face?

I have to give some special attention to a great presentation in the out-of-the-box part of the conference about the science of human emotional facial expressions. Talking badly about someone behind his back is very nasty, but I will take the negative hit on my karma this time, because this one was just too f-ing hilarious.

To me, personally, this talk looked promising, as I am a closet behavioral psychology geek, which made me get preemptively excited. As the speaker stepped on stage, an epic music permeated the room, and he started talking in an hypnotic voice... a black slide appeared, as he provocatively asked if we could see the face... I couldn't see the face... and neither could anybody...

The lights were turned off, and once again we were asked if we could see the face... I couldn't see the face. As his steady voice blended with the harmonious tones of an Enigma-like music I was drawn spellbound by the eery atmosphere joining the darkness which previously enveloped the room, as I still wondered quite naively: where is the face? I wanted to see the face! I was sure he was going to surprise me with a pearl of wisdom that would shatter my model of reality and change the way I saw life and human relations forever, I just didn't have the psychological frame under which I could see the face, but when I did, I was sure my life would change... such an epic stage event just had to be the undertone for something big.

After a couple of minutes the spell broke, and I was probably the last one in the room to figure out that we were actually stuck in what could be a mixture between a sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus and a David Lynch movie, a ride that would take me into the most bizarre public speaking experience I ever saw in my life. Turns out there was actually a face on the slide, but it wasn't being seen because of a technical problem, but the lack of facial expressions on the speaker's behalf (ohhhh the irony) and the epic tone of the presentation blinded me to the fact that the performance was not a mind-blowing metaphor, but was in fact completely foobar.

In the end, I still have no idea what the hell the presentation was about, and what the speaker has done in his supposed decades of research, due to the absolute lack of content in the presentation. I wanted to post the video of his talk here, and help create a new internet meme, but unfortunately, I could only find the presentation itself, which with some imagination and my previous description, I hope will give you a nice laugh:

P.S.: When I die (knock on wood), I am going straight to hell...

The Startup Panel

In the end, we managed to present our project at the startup panel of the conference, which was unfortunately, too small, as it consisted only of us, showcasing alacarte.fm, our restaurant and food discovery service, and another startup, showing Bondiu, an event discovery and management service.

Bondiu was pretty interesting, and it's true that I have felt a need for such a service, and even though competitors exist, for some reason I never found them to be good enough, and never ended up using them, so good luck to them on this one, as I hope I will be able to Bondiu in the future.

Our presentation went quite well in my opinion, as João managed to keep it going rather smoothly even with all the unexpected technical problems. I mean, give us a break, we improved the idea and implemented a prototype in little more than a week, within blank timeslots around our regular work, and had to pull close to an all nighter the day before the startup panel, to have things ready. The presentation was fine, the prototype was also working great, but we forgot to turn off the screensaver on the laptop, which kept nagging through the entire presentation, a rookie mistake on our part that won't happen next time.

Anyway, the feedback was great and mostly positive, and to all of those that jumped on the web address expecting something... no, it's not there, this was only a prototype. However, we will probably put a minimal set of stable features online soon. To all of those that weren't there, I leave you with our current "long elevator ride pitch" for alacarte.fm:

Do your days always seem exactly the same? That's because you're doing exactly the same! Why don't you try going out to eat in a different place everyday for the next month? You may think that's too much of a pain, you don't know where the restaurants are, the ones you know are far away, you don't know what you can eat there, if you have enough money, or they don't have what you want to eat... not anymore! Just go to alacarte.fm, tell it what your stomach and wallet are thinking about, in a freestyle google-like fashion, and you're done! You'll get the best restaurant that fits your stomach, wallet and current location!

You're a restaurant owner, and lots of people passing by your restaurant just ignore it? You know you're better than your neighbouring competitor, but they still go next door, and you can't figure out why? That's because humans are creatures of habit, and in this particular case, their habits are being fueled by deep primal survival strategies... they want food! They'll go for where they can fulfill their need in the best way, they won't settle for any unknowns, they won't give you a fair chance. You just need to be able to showcase yourself and prove them how great you are, and we give you just that! We take the choice out of choosing. The people for which your restaurant is the best choice will be the ones we suggest to go there, and since they don't even have to think about it, and it's the best choice for them, they'll have no reason not to go... the rest is up to you, if you're good, they'll be hooked for life! :)

And here are the slides for the presentation too:

The Aftermath

I have no idea as to the real impact this event had, but I am sure it had at the very least some, and that it was one step forward in waking us up to our great potential, one step towards making us stop whining and step up to the plate, to get our ideas out there and act on them.

Yeah, we live in Portugal and we're in the middle of a financial crisis, but then again, we live in Portugal and we're in a middle of a financial crisis, same phrase, different interpretation, our circumstances can either be a handicap, or a huge advantage. Let's choose wether we want to be whiners or winners, and then stick with that decision. Until then, we hope to see you at the next Switch or similar conference, and see the idea YOU have been keeping in the drawer for all this time :).

17 May. Sérgio Santos wrote:

Liked to see new faces making web applications in Portugal. And I think your alacarte.fm idea has potential, but it will need some time and money to bootstrap with a decent amount of restaurants. Take investment if you can and want to make it serious. Is not, do it anyway for the fun of it, and who knows. Best wishes ;)

17 May. João Magalhães wrote:

Thanks for the comment, that exactly what we are going to do, build the solution and try to get investors to make it grow in size. We're also hopping to have the crowd collaborating with us, making the data repository strong and full of accurate information. This is still a two week of spare time project, so we know that there is still a lot to be done. Tnx

18 May. Deepthroat wrote:

What will distinguish your service from yelp? I know it will probably be more specific for restaurants business, but since people only care for reviews and ratings, what will you bring that already doesn't exist?

18 May. Tiago Silva wrote:

To your good question, I give you a simple answer: try searching for "steak between 5 and 10 euros within 3 km" in yelp. Ours is a semantic search engine, basically you can ask it for anything you want with all your constraints by just typing in the search box and you'll get a quick result, it's aimed at getting instant gratification. P.S.: As far as Portugal is concerned there's not much you can do with yelp either.

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