I've been doing the public transportation thing when going to/from my office in Toronto. I live north of the city which is served by a commuter train service (Go Transit). In my town, there is bus service which can get me from the train station to my house, within a block. Not back, when you think about it. They charge 50 cents for the bus over to the train and the train is 200 bucks for a month of all you can ride on the network.
I do this for a number of reasons, hating traffic being one of them. The others are more relevant to my VC gig. It is an excellent way to 'gut check' the many theories, business ideas, etc, with real people living real lives. Here are some examples of what I've been seeing/doing.
TVs on the train.
You'd think, this would be a big deal, right. Captured audience, nothing to do for an hour, perfect target. Well, not so fast. I've seen (and turned down) a number of these captured screen things. The ones on the bus, trains, elevators, and gas pumps have all come by our office and we've passed. On the train one, I counted heads and 'eyeballs' to see who looked up for any portion of time. Who stared at the screens? For sound, they have an interesting idea, use low power FM signaling. Given that almost every MP3 player has an FM radio built into it, this seemed to be an interesting/low cost way to get the rider to tune in. The screens, flashed, sound is on 92.5 FM often, etc. I saw nobody tune it. What I did see was sleeping (snoring!), gabbing with friends, and reading. While this might be a good idea and maybe scrolling sports scores or some other information stuff will get people's attention, I'm doubtful. The TTC - Toronto's aging subway system - has those types of flashing screens with ads, news blurbs, etc and I'm not sure how much that gets remembered.
To further sniff test this, I asked random people if they could remember any of the ads. I also did this when I was looking at Elevator News Network. I stood around asking people in offices, etc, if they could remember any of the ads. In Canada, when say I'm taking a survey, people are really nice and give you an opinion. In times of major world events, all of these things are ways to get information out. The TVs in Airports, interestingly enough, get watched and people pay attention. My hunch is the sound. It closely resembles sitting around watching TV. The train thing doesn't really do that. It is a bit of an 'unnatural act' to hop on the train, break out the FM tuner, etc. I note that the Heathrow express train has a TV display with sounds and people do watch it.
An interesting start up lesson for you: Watch how whatever you offer impacts people's habits. Getting somebody to change is a big deal and needs a serious value proposition.
Wifi on the train.
In my view, dead issue. The uber-geeks will have wireless broadband cards either built in to the latest laptops or a plug in PC card. There is no value/major business in putting 802.11 on these commuter trains. Again, you'd think this would be a big deal but in my sniff tests, I don't think people would pay for it and I further don't believe adding it would dramatically increase rider ship to cover the costs. Here again, I walked the length of the train's 9 cars multiple times, on various hours, and counted the number of laptops in use. Lots of Apple Laptops these days and good ol Solitaire continues reign supreme. Asking the survey question, would you use it, I didn't get the I'd kill for it responses that would have me jump onto an investment. The side observation is that the road warriors were thumbing away on the blackberries always telling me that it was good enough and they didn't want to drag the laptop out, etc, etc.
An interesting start up lesson for you: Keep a close eye on technology and those working people's habits. Four years ago, text messaging was for kids flipping messages back and forth. Today, lots and lots of people on the trains were text messaging to friends, family and business folks. This was the norm four years ago in Europe/Asia and only started taking off in North America within that timeframe as it applies to Adults. What this means is that, today, putting up a sign in the subway or commuter train that has a text messaging call to action can work here in North America. Four or five years ago, not so sure.
Facebook came to the Train
I've listened (overheard, snooped) on a number of conversations with the groups of people talking about last night's facebook adventures. Given the demographic and the responses, it tells me things about usage and application opportunities that you don't get from user groups, surveys, etc. Those very same people who talk about Facebook, give me blank stares when I ask "how many blogs to you read". Even today, this morning actually, 'what's a blog' was a response. While I didn't panic, it tells me that for all the noise we (you the blog reader and I) live in, we are still a very very small thing that isn't man on the street stuff. Many years ago, I knew my alma-mater Microsoft was fixing to get a can of whoop-ass from the general population when I was in a computer store and overhead a mom talking to her two kids about buying a replacement mouse. She said "No, we're not buying that, Microsoft is a mean company, we'll buy this other one." It was in the mid-90s and it was spooky.
An interesting start up lesson for you: Walk among the people; the real people. Watch, ask, listen, ask again, listen again. You can spot trends, solutions, validate ideas, etc, by taking the train and bus to work. For example: In the U.S., the Sunday paper has an insert section that contains a big pile of coupons and flyers from local grocery stores. Millions of households base the shopping plans around those flyers. Who has the hamburger on sale, etc. Nobody has successfully pulled off a comparison site that let's you put in your shopping list and simply tells you, go here, take these coupons and save this much. Massive audience of rabid people who try to squeeze every penny out of the grocery budget. There are actually some good reasons why and I'll cover this in another post but the larger point is that in talking to people, I know this is a big deal based on hundreds of hours of research on this one.
Sorry for the post length, I'm currently at 32,000 feet heading to LA.
I hope the larger point of getting out of your bubble has been made. There are tons of problems looking for solutions that can make good money. Grab a bus ticket and check it out.