Changing the business card game: Two Ottawa startups look to revolutionize the meet and greet

Two groups of Ottawa entrepreneurs have joined the ongoing race to make the business card obsolete.

Numerous companies have tried or are still trying to win over business professionals with mobile apps that offer various methods of digitally exchanging contact information with the heart of a business card and the body of a smartphone.

Perhaps most popular was Bump, which swapped info by bumping two phones together. In just a few years it raised more than $20 million in venture funding, was bought by Google for $30 million in 2013, and became one of the most downloaded mobile apps. But it never found any real revenue and Google shut it down after just four months.

Similar attempts will fail time and time again so long as they cause a disruption in the behavioural patterns of businesspeople, says University of Ottawa student and budding entrepreneur Cedric Eveleigh.

“Just pulling out your phone, people don’t like doing that,” he says. “Especially in the business world. People don’t like it when you change the way they socialize.”

Likewise, digital name tags used at some business events these days require a similarly unnatural interaction.

Mr. Eveleigh would prefer just to shake your hand. To that end, the 20-year-old mechanical engineering student invented a new app called Enplex – originally called Handshake – which combines mobile software with Bluetooth bracelet technology so that personal co-ordinates are transferred automatically when two people shake hands.

“Our solution is passive. It works in the background,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about anything, you don’t have to pull out your phone, it doesn’t change the way you socialize. You just shake hands and everything’s automatic.”

With other core members Francis Lefebvre, 21, and 26-year-old Craig Bryan, who leads the five-person software team, the startup plans to roll out the product in bulk at large events such as networking conferences and trade shows.

Enplex expects to demo its software by the end of April and test the bracelet technology in the summer. Once the product gets going, the team plans to create additional revenue streams by offering premium services such as customer relationship management for salespeople and event analytics for the event management industry.

The company will rely on grants and startup competitions for continued financing while it partners with event organizers. It hopes to eventually reach a user density threshold that pays off in profits in two to three years’ time.

Meanwhile, the creators of Zap have a different approach.

Designed by Mike Mason, 26, and Liam Williams, 23, under the Gladmen company name, the app pulls from users’ LinkedIn accounts and builds personalized business cards on their smartphones. When they meet someone, they flick the card over to the other person’s phone via Bluetooth, and later they each get an auto-generated summary of where, when and how they met.

“The value is not necessarily in the initial flick. It’s everything that’s happening after,” says Mr. Mason, who runs the two-man startup with Mr. Williams at Maker Space North.

Zap has placed bets on its technology being attractive enough that early adopters will spread the word. Financed by a local angel investor, the company hopes to rack up 100,000 downloads over the next several months before locking into a firm business plan.

Zap and Enplex have each established a go-to-market strategy, but both envision later expanding into contact discovery – a “Tinder for LinkedIn” concept that shows users who is around and could make for useful introductions.

That’s an eventual step that will add tremendous value to that type of service, says Jason Daley of Axia Strategists.

“I haven’t been to a conference where I’ve gotten the most out of my leads for my money spent to be there,” says Mr. Daley, who is also a community leader at Startup Ottawa. “You spend several thousand dollars to get to an industry event, and you don’t know from the name tag who you need to meet. That’s quite wasteful if you’re only getting a few key introductions.”

Perhaps most notable in the business contact discovery wave is Weave Networking. The San Francisco-based startup raised $120,000 in seed funding for its mobile app last summer, although it hasn’t quite managed to gain any noticeable traction.

Zap’s founders say that’s because businesspeople want more than just the swipe-right-or-left model of Tinder – they want more personal connections and ongoing relationship management.  It all comes down to eliminating stacks of cards on people’s desks and replacing them with a richer digital networking experience.

“I’m an engineering student, so I like to solve problems,” says Mr. Eveleigh. “And it was really bugging me that in 2015 when we all have computers in our pockets, we’re using pieces of paper to connect.”