Tech entrepreneurs have tried to help me out. Metaphors have abounded -- hello, Star Trek tricorders! -- that reminded me of the futurism of science and technology, the kind of magic that inspires people and draws them to the field in the first place.
But metaphors are not enough. Now, I want to know more: Exactly how does it work?
With that question in mind, and with the opportunity now to ask it on a regular basis (Thanks, Joe!), the first tech entrepreneur I called up was Aaron Houghton, who said, quoting an investor:
"That idea is either going to be an unbelievable success... or it's not going to work at all."
"Now, that sounds like the kind of risk you'd want to take," I thought. My curiosity piqued, I pressed for more.
Aaron was talking about not just BoostSuite, his newest venture that he launched after selling iContact, but the "black box," the innovative core of the company.
BoostSuite, with three full-time employees and five contractors, was in alpha testing this spring and headed into beta last week (Join the beta here). Daniel Smith, an iContact veteran, has been unveiled as the "silent partner" and Chief Marketing Officer.
The company draws upon Aaron's experience at both iContact and at his separate venture, web marketing firm Preation, and wants to provide not only data analysis for small business owners, but to be a web application that behaves like a data analyst consultant offering direct advice.
Think Siri -- but specialized and for SMBs.
The company will be operating in the big data market and as a recommendation engine.
The technology is in three tiers. First, there is the web application. Then, a data warehouse. And the third is the recommendation or decision engine -- and this is what Aaron's quote was referring to. This is where it gets interesting.
How do you make and constantly update recommendations to a specific, unique small business? BoostSuite's clients will be real small businesses, bakers and plumbers and dentists, the people who are awesome at what they do and don't have time to wade through data, and who operate in very different markets with their own unique challenges.
One way BoostSuite will decide on a recommendation is by looking at what has worked historically, what partners, websites and services have worked. The other way -- here comes the black box -- is an idea Aaron came up with, and which he says no other tech company in the field is doing.
Without getting into too much detail, basically, this black box would be building new concepts of what small businesses are from scratch. Operating from no preconceived notions -- from nothing reliant on economic models, what a "baker" should be, what a "dentist" should be -- it's just going to kind of get to know each small business one-on-one.
"We're going to let the data figure it out for us. If you just picked one random small business and they spend a ton of time looking at themselves, they might not even they know what they look like. But our data is going to do that," Aaron said.
This is a little brain teaser, isn't it? It's data that "meets" small businesses, and then goes through big data, to resurface and make a recommendation like a human being. Will it work?
"We're still building it!" he said, laughing. "It's a wild card."
More nuts and bolts: BoostSuite was built with PHP, MySQL, queuing technology Beanstalk, Backbone.js and EC2 from Amazon Web Services.