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Talk Time on Television

The post-bubble venture funding continues to go to the companies that innovate within existing markets. This week, voice-activated television company AgileTV moves toward making the life of a couch potato even easier – and other alarm:clock news from the land of private venture funding.

It’s hard enough to create a new company – why try to create a new market as well? That’s why we like start-ups that target markets which already exist. In fact, we’ve examined this theme in the last few weeks – more often than not, start-ups are best served by approaching old problems in new ways. The advantage is obvious: the demand for the products or services is already in place.

Take AgileTV, which is creating a better remote control for televisions. The trend with remote controls and TV management has been to stick with clunky remotes and produce volumes of onscreen text guidance. But AgileTV would have viewers tossing that hunk of plastic, ignoring the on-screen listings, and simply telling their TV to find the program they want via voice commands.

A TV-watcher can use voice commands to search through broadcast TV, program guides, on-demand listings, and DVR content. The service, called Promptu, uses a database of more than 100,000 phrases, and is currently being tested by cable operators. (No more scrolling through snail-like program guides to find out when the O.C. is on.) Last week the company raised $22 million in its second round of funding to take the product to market.

Another approach to an existing market comes from CafePress, which offers online ordering of custom printing projects, such as t-shirts, coffee mugs, and posters. Sound like small potatoes? Think about any tourist destination you’ve visited recently, where one inevitably finds vendors hawking “I’m With Stupid,” “I got Scrod in Boston,” or “What Happens in Cabo, Stays In Cabo” t-shirts. CafePress has taken off by tapping into this market. They allow just about anyone to easily design low-cost printed items, then resell them on the CafePress site. The company, in business since 1999, has over two million registered users.

Because t-shirts have become a surprisingly huge Internet business, CafePress has attracted a top-flight group of venture-capital investors, including August Capital and Sequoia Capital. Wall Street might not think it’s ready for a t-shirt store dot-com IPO, but we suspect that when CafePress opens its books and reveals its revenues, the Street will be impressed.

Another retooling of an existing concept comes from Five9, this one in the call center market. The idea is to greatly simplify call center operations with new technologies – particularly voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) and an application service provider (ASP) platform. The old version of call centers is characterized by a roomful of customer service representatives making calls via AT&T’s phone network and using software hosted on the premises.

With Five9, and its competitors, the concept of the call center as a physical location has been transcended. Tele-support employees might work from home or abroad and are voice connected to customers via the Internet. Furthermore, they receive information about their customers from their Web browsers, with information coming via Five9.

If Five9, its rival Contactual, and others entering this market make their technology work as well as billed, it will become a lot easier for companies to launch and support their products, since one of the biggest headaches in such businesses is maintaining a call center. Last week, Five9 received a $12 million investment from Partech and HummerWinblad. That should be enough to find out if the concept works.

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Tagged: Computing

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