Your business card for the web

Throughout the last few centuries, people would meet and exchange trade, social, or what we now know as business cards, ensuring they could re-connect with one another if there were any interest or need in doing so again.

This ink-on-paper, manual-handing-out process was adequate in a day when contact information was relatively static and there were inherent limitations on the number of people whom we’d ever actually meet. In a time when 75 percent of adults are participating, communicating and engaging with others on the web and meeting dozens, hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of others virtually, a static paper card is becoming much less useful. By the millions, we participating adults are engaged in numerous social networks and affinity groups, are blogging in record numbers, possess multiple email addresses and phone numbers, use Twitter, Skype and instant messaging accounts, and often have different identities with personal, business or some other affiliation with required contact information that can often change frequently.

One Minneapolis company has created an innovative solution to meet those multiple identity needs with a digital equivalent of the trusty paper business card, one whose capabilities go far beyond what a static paper card could ever deliver.

BusinessCard2 by Workface, Inc., “…is a simple tool that helps business professionals to improve their individual-level professional identity, relevancy and visibility on the Internet. BusinessCard2 represents a new but rapidly growing site based around individual-level professional data. BusinessCard2 enables people to build a web-enabled version of the business card they use every day that can be viewed, passed, collected, downloaded and searched throughout cyberspace. The service is complemented by a powerful Lead Generation Engine (LGE) that provides increased business opportunities.”

Workface CEO, Lief Larson, and I have talked many times about their various offerings and initiatives. This risk-taking, serial entrepreneur keeps driving forward on the creation of new companies and offerings, and BusinessCard2 is his most recent one (and, I would argue, his most promising one to date). I talked recently with Lief and his chief technology officer, Jereme Allen, and received an overview of their next-generation business card.

Last year, I talked to Lief about an earlier offering, Lyro.com, which was a service of theirs that now appears to have been a developmental step along the path toward delivering BusinessCard2. While Lyro had a few of the elements of what would later become BusinessCard2 (e.g., a business card and a profile page), the latter features have gone far beyond it by adding multiple card creation (for all those different identities we each have), listing by industry in a directory, “badges” that can be embedded anywhere you’re able to do so on the web (e.g., your blog, Facebook, collaboration site, web page, etc.), metrics to see how many have viewed your card(s) or “pocketed” them (i.e., stored them in their own account page), and probably my favorite and a key feature: downloadable vCards.

vCards are an industry-standard file format that nearly every digital address book or contact manager accepts, regardless of whether they’re on your desktop, mobile phone or in a Web application. I’ve grown to despise handing one of my staff a stack of business cards I’ve received to enter in a database or to scan them in myself. It’s always seemed ridiculously inefficient and it’s even tougher when I’m meeting someone virtually and they have their contact information in their email signature, which I then have to cut-and-paste by hand into an address book. With just this one, tiny feature, I was sold on BusinessCard2.

Why would you use BusinessCard2? The big benefit to what they’ve built is allowing easy dissemination of your contact information. I’ve placed one of their “badges” on my blog under my photo and another on the Minnov8 About Us page … each pointing to one of the separate cards I created for just two of my separate identities. Visitors to either site can view my card, download the vCard, quick-import it and so on.

The current feature-set offers more, and their roadmap for the next phases are significant. While I agreed to leave certain next steps out of this post, they allude to a few on their website:

  • It is the goal of BusinessCard2 to empower you through the formation and marketing of your professional brand, resulting in improved visibility and broader sales opportunities.
  • By adding BusinessCard2 to your website, you can bring a whole new human element by allowing users to download your BusinessCard2 as well as drop their card on your site.
  • Web widget is coming in order to “extend ties” across the Internet.
  • Enhancing the directory and adding significant Lead Generation services.

 

As I went through the site with Lief, I found myself very enthusiastic about what they’d built. Trying to maintain a pragmatic stance, I asked some tough questions but then came to the conclusion that there was no question that BusinessCard2 is a platform that could become a one-stop-shop for identity management and contact information exchange, but this category is not without its competitors and barriers to adoption.

Challenges There are three issues that are key to their success:

1) Attracting users and subsequently increasing utility not found in any competing offering.

When I showed Lyro.com (BusinessCard2’s predecessor) to several colleagues, all immediately said, “Oh….is that like LinkedIn?” (referring to the popular professional connection network). At that point I didn’t think they compared, since LinkedIn had a critical mass of people and Lyro was, basically, one business card and a page. Initial impressions of Lyro were that it didn’t “do enough” (as one colleague stated) and wasn’t attractive enough to invest time, energy and effort in using it.

After Lief rolled out BusinessCard2 and talked me through the site, the openness of it impressed me. This is, arguably, one of the key limitations of sites like LinkedIn or any walled garden where all the good stuff is behind a login: to get any benefit from it or see most data you must join, while BusinessCard2’s model is complete transparency and openness. In my view, this openness — and the instant recognition people will have about the utility of having a business card(s) on the Web — will drive people to use BusinessCard2, and I believe Workface has an inherent competitive advantage through its laser focus on the virtual business card everyone needs.

Lief Larson
Lief Larson

The key execution piece will be delivering on feature-sets that increase the utility of the digital business card and keep users doing more and wanting more, while balancing what may be the most critical PR and management issue for the next few years.

2) Protecting the privacy of users and offering data portability.

BusinessCard2’s model of attracting users is akin to what most current offerings are doing, be it Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn or many other services: get people to use your offering and participate in it; build a critical mass of users, and then begin to offer value-added and salable services to advertisers, marketers and others who’d like to reach these users.

The problem is that there is a groundswell of awareness of data portability, privacy and the usage of our data … especially our social data. Michael Arrington, CEO of Techcrunch, said it best in an article for the Washington Post recently:

Internet giants know that the days of getting you to spend all of your time inside their walled gardens are over. So the next best thing is to at least maintain as much data about the user as possible, and make sure they identify with your brand while they are out there not being on your site. The most valuable information a user has is his or her identity (that’s why the big guys are so eagerly adopting the issuing side of OpenID so you log in with, say, your Yahoo account on other sites) as well as their friend list (valuable, plus users hate to keep redoing it all over the Internet) and other information.

After further thought, I’m not yet certain how I feel about allowing the downloading of my vCard since it’s populated with a wealth of information about me. Though they’re secure against automated attacks to harvest vCards, it still makes me nervous to see how simple it is to grab my card and all it contains.

Fortunately, Lief Larson and crew are on top of these issues, and he addressed every point I brought up to prove it, which gives me confidence they’ll carefully, transparently and judiciously deliver new features that balance the needs of the user, those who’d like to reach us, along with Workface’s need to accelerate and build a world-class business.

3) Feature creep. Inevitably, users begin to ask for and then demand new features and balancing #1 above with trying to do too much is always tough for a startup.

As I went through the site with Lief, I asked for something I thought would be simple: Let me input multiple email addresses on separate business cards I create. Turns out that it’s not trivial to use these multiple emails since one email address must be tied to the identity of the person and all email addresses can’t come back to the same BusinessCard2 user record.

As we talked, it became clear that they were already thinking through options for solving this problem (e.g., creating an alias for emails) but these sorts of feature requests can quickly get out-of-hand and sidetrack a product roadmap. I think this is a must-have feature while others might have their favorite. It will be interesting to see how this emerging company manages its roadmap and keeps users excited about BusinessCard2 as a platform that will grow over time, without diluting resources and getting little accomplished.

If you are struggling with all the different identities and services you have in this time of accelerating change around the Web, or just want to try it out for yourself (it’s free), check out BusinessCard2.

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