I first became aware of Itizen last summer when my brother, Andy, handed me what looked liked a funky book of postage stamps. He explained that Itizen, the brainchild of one of his former co-workers at Minneapolis-based Little & Co., and her business partner, is a new social network that proposes a bold idea: to build a bustling, dynamic community by bridging the digital world and the analog world. Itizen users put Itizen TRACKit Tags on items they might gift or share, like books, clothing, or antiques. Each tag has a unique 5-character code and a QR code that is used to access digital notes with a smartphone or on a desktop. Users can check-in to an object and add their own digital message that can include text, photo, video, and/or audio notes for others to access. Notes are saved to users’ accounts and travel with the object no matter where it goes. All users connected to the object receive updates on the object as others check-in to the object and leave additional notes.
Itizen founders Dori Graff and Mary Fallon, along with tech guru Andrew Norell, have built upon their professional experience in the Twin Cities design and interactive community to develop this fresh offering in the crowded social media marketplace. Thus far, the team has raised more than $100,000 in seed funding and is in the process of upgrading the functionality of Itizen, and seeking additional funding.
Dori Graff expanded on the Itizen story in this recent email exchange:
Merge: Tell me about the inspiration for Itizen? It seems to draw equally from emerging online social media trends as well as more analog activities, like scrapbooking and collecting.
DG: The inspiration for Itizen came when Mary and I recognized how we were increasingly sharing the things that we own with friends and family—children’s toys and gear were commonly shared, but also clothing, tools, and things for entertaining. This became a very social activity for us, and provided a touch point with the people in our community. As these things got passed around, their value became less about their intended utility and more about the people connected to them and our shared experiences. With Itizen, we are able to capture these connections and bring these experiences online.
Merge: How have each of your backgrounds in the creative business world influenced the development of Itizen?
DG: Our backgrounds in design and interactive is what provided us with the knowledge of the tools and enabled us to bridge the offline with the online (i.e. 2D barcodes). Because of our print background, we have a strong focus on the offline user experience with the TRACKit Tags and how that leads to a positive online experience. We are also very aware of the convergence of certain trends that are causing a shift in consumer behavior. This includes a dramatic increase in peer-to-peer sharing, renting, borrowing, and giving. For more information on this, I highly recommend checking out two recent books: Rachel Botsman’s What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, and Lisa Gansky’s The Mesh.
Merge: Launching a start-up is a complex endeavor that involves a whole set of skills not common to people in the creative world. What resources have you had to seek out in order to build the business thus far?
DG: We have tapped into a number of resources that serve as advisors to us. Our legal counsel includes an attorney specializing in start-ups as well as separate attorneys for trademarking and intellectual property. We also have a consultant that helps with accounting and finances. We have recently been approved for the Minnesota Angel Tax Credit which provides a 25% tax credit to angel investors (both in- and out-of-state) who invest in Itizen.
Merge: There’s a great ongoing debate in the entrepreneurial world about how and when to create a business plan. Some say you should not take a step without a clear plan, while others say too much planning can drain the process of valuable momentum. How have you handled the planning around the Itizen launch?
DG: I believe in the importance of a business plan as an internal tool that help sets direction and priorities for the company. This can be very rough, but some form of a blueprint that outlines the business model, customer segments, value proposition, revenue, etc. is necessary. Until you are in need of funding, there isn’t much point in spending a lot of time finessing the details, as it is constantly changing. But once you are approaching a bank or an investor, you will need to put a stake in the ground and clean it up so that others can review it.
Merge: Many experts are predicting that the social media boom will begin to settle down in the near future and that niche networks and communities will begin to settle into some of the gaps left by the big players like Facebook and Twitter—a vision that could bode well for Itizen. What do you think is around the next corner for social media?
DG: We foresee the integration of online and offline worlds becoming more seamless. People will continue to seek ways to connect and relate with others in meaningful ways. Having online connections with our followers and friends may not be meaningful enough—connecting back to “real life” in whatever form that takes will increase. Social media will facilitate and potentially enhance live events and gatherings, but not replace it.
Merge: It seems like there could be some opportunity to extend the Itizen brand and experience into new areas. Do you have plans to grow in that way?
DG: We feel that there are so many opportunities and directions we can take this. Our goal right now is to focus on improving the UX and making it easy for partners to integrate our functionality into their platforms. Once we get the base functionality where we want it, you will start to see many new features added that make the experience more engaging and generally more pervasive.