Itizen co-founders Mary Fallon and Dori Graff didn’t intend to start a technology company when they had their big “aha!” moment last year. Both were new mothers, and found they were sharing more and more stuff with friends and family members. From stories about children to platters and punch bowls, Fallon and Graff recognized a business opportunity in the relationship between people and their physical possessions. “It was sort of a, ‘oh, the stories these things could tell’ kind of moment,” explains Graff, now the company’s chief strategy officer.
The women turned this idea into Itizen.com, a patent-pending service featuring coded tags that people can attach to physical items and link to stories they post on the website. Itizen launched with a public beta site in early July, with additional functionality – including a mobile website – already in development.
“We wanted to find a way to help people share their stories about the things that mean the most to them, and to allow those stories to continue if and when the item is passed along to another person,” explains Graff.
They found their answer in codes: Quick Response (QR) and alphanumeric, to be exact. Itizen incorporates both into their proprietary tags, called Itizen TRACKit Tags. QR’s are a form of two-dimensional bar code that work particularly well for smart phone users – with any free reader application, users can snap an image of the code and link directly to a website with more information or other media.
So when Graff and Fallon were looking for a convenient, accessible way to help people share stories through physical objects, the QR codes (plus alphanumeric codes for smaller tags) were a perfect solution. They brought on Andrew Norell as chief technology officer and built a business plan that combines dual revenue streams: Itizen TRACKit Tags and kits (already launched) and subscriptions for businesses, like Etsy sellers, who want to use the tags (coming soon).
“A great example is an artist who displays work in a coffee shop,” says Graff. “If someone is interested in learning more about that piece of art, they can scan the Itizen TRACKit Tags next to the piece, and read online about how it was made or what inspired the artist to create it. Then, if they purchase the piece, they can add their story to the page on Itizen.com.” Or, there’s the example of a Boulder, Colo. resident who wants to use Itizen TRACKit Tags alongside public artwork in the city so that people can post their favorite memories about each piece.
The sharing component is key to Itizen’s business model. The website is part gallery and part social network whereas users can create profiles and post photos of their items alongside their stories.
The founders are exploring additional revenue streams, and closely watching their early users. Already they’ve incorporated ideas from users worldwide who are using the Itizen TRACKit tags for personal and professional projects – from gift-giving to geocaching. Future plans for Itizen include a mobile application with enhanced functionality for interacting with QR codes and special features for paid subscribers on Itizen.com.
“There are so many ways that people can use these,” says Graff. “A number of people have come to us with the idea of using Itizen TRACKit Tags on books, which we feel is a great use as they are the type of thing that people share with others and can, in essence, create an online book club. Since swapping and sharing of things is a big movement right now, there are a number of companies that facilitate this type of activity with whom we are exploring partnership opportunities.”
Itizen’s founders are first-time entrepreneurs, which Graff also sees as an advantage. “We didn’t go about this in a traditional tech start-up way. We had our idea first and later found the technology that could bring it to life.”
Graff and Fallon had careers in advertising and interactive marketing prior to founding Itizen, and worked with Twin Cities-based WomenVenture to develop their initial business plan. They also drew on the experience and insights of a new found support group: other female technology entrepreneurs. “There is such a smart, generous community of women who are involved in technology – and anytime someone hears that you’re a woman in technology, it seems like they want to introduce you to a friend of theirs who can help, because we’re such a rarity,” Graff continues.
Indeed, Itizen – with two of its three founders being female – stands out in the Minnesota technology landscape. “I’m hoping it becomes less of a boys club as more women become involved,” says Graff.
*Lauren Melcher covers female tech entrepreneurs throughout Minnesota. Send your stories or suggestions to: Lauren.Melcher@tech.mn