Y Combinator Challenge #11 – Office Competitor

For more information about the Y Combinator Challenge, check out this post first 

11. Web Office apps. We’re interested in funding anyone competing with Microsoft desktop software. Obviously this is a rich market, considering how much Microsoft makes from it. A startup that made a tenth as much would be very happy. And a startup that takes on such a project will be helped along by Microsoft itself, who between their increasingly bureaucratic culture and their desire to protect existing desktop revenues will probably do a bad job of building web-based Office variants themselves. Before you try to start a startup doing this, however, you should be prepared to explain why existing web-based Office alternatives haven’t taken the world by storm, and how you’re going to beat that.

My Idea – OfficeHours

Considering that I’ve been happily employed at MS for the past three years, I’ve only got two words to describe this post: Awk. Ward.  🙂  But, a challenge is a challenge, so here goes.

If my idea had a thesis statement, it would go a little something like this: to gain share with an online office suite, you should look at The Facebook and follow the same pattern that Mark Z and the gang did when building their little empire.  To begin, target the college crowd in a very specific way.  Only allow the site to be accessed by students, and only allow them to access the section that is focused on their school.  Why college students?

  1. College kids have no money.  And even if their parents gave them the $50 it takes to buy the discounted student edition of Office, 90% would rather spend it on beer.
  2. College kids are surrounded by always-on, high speed Internet connections.
  3. College kids have grown up using Internet-based applications and are not afraid to use them.
  4. College kids don’t worry about privacy and don’t have to abide by any government or tax regulations around data privacy or accountability.
  5. College kids often work in groups and have a need to share information.
  6. College kids are generally already connected via some social network (probably Facebook).
  7. College kids like to experiment and try new things.

In other words, they are perfect candidates for free, online Office-like apps.  Here’s how this could work.  Students would first log onto the site using their Facebook credentials (thank you, Facebook Connect!) and would be taken to a very cool-looking home page customized with the school’s logo.  First-time users would then be prompted to choose which courses they are currently taking (i.e. CHEM100, ENG425, etc..) to further customize their experience.  Once their schedules are set, they would have several options.

First, users could choose to create a new “Word”, “Excel”, or “PowerPoint” document.  Each of these standard office apps would have just the basic, most useful features, and would also allow users to invite students from their study groups (via either IM integration or Facebook messaging) to work along with them in real-time on the assignment.  Invited users could edit the copy directly or insert “thought-bubble” style comments anyplace within the text.  To enable flirting enhanced collaboration, the sidebar of the app would be configured to feature multiple real-time streaming video chats.  In addition, users would see names and Facebook profile photos of any members of their classes who are currently online, and could invite them in for an impromptu study session or to send them a quick question via IM.

While users would have the option to change the privacy settings on their documents, the default would be set to “only show to friends in my classes”.  When users would log into the site, they would see a news feed of all of the documents that were recently created by their friends, and could browse through them to catch up on any notes that they missed, validate answers to assignments they’ve already done, etc..  To help combat cheating, the app would keep track of every person who viewed each document (and for how long) and give the document creator the ability to block any freeloaders from any future documents.  You could go even further and print out a unique URL at the bottom of each printout of the documents, which the professor could use to view a page listing all the stats of the various contributors and viewers of that document.

What do you guys think about this one?  Any college students out there that would use something like this?  I’d love to hear any thoughts on this one in the comments below.

11 responses to “Y Combinator Challenge #11 – Office Competitor

  1. College kids have DC++, Demonoid, Torrentspy, ThePirateBay, and little sense of ethics.

    Not gonna work.

  2. Hi Sam,
    A – Congrats on the new laptop! Cool to see the awesome sense of community over at YC news.

    B – Those are all file sharing sites, no? My idea is more around creating a standard online Office suite that targets the college demographic as a way to build a user base and differentiate from existing offerings in this space. I actually disagree with the “little sense of ethics” comment – smart students know that it doesn’t really make sense to cheat as you’re the one who is paying to learn (and your college GPA is basically worthless in the long run anyway). Those who don’t get that are going to find a way to cheat anyway, and that’s really not who I’m targeting here.

  3. So… how do you make money?

  4. Andy – http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/09/17/breaking-yahoo-acquires-zimbra-for-350-million/

    Barring a big payday, revenue could come once the product has traction by offering custom versions specifically for companies and/or using a freemium model to pay for extra features (such as offline access, templates, support SLAs, etc..). In this space, though, you would really need to make some big upfront investments, this isn’t one of those “cash positive on day one” type of ventures.

  5. Freemium would work great with advanced features for thesis writing and journal articles.

  6. SCZ – good idea! Especially since users could start with free versions during freshman, sophmore, junior years, and then migrate to the premium features like this for their senior/grad school years when in theory they may have a little more cash available.

  7. Hi Sam
    >Before you try to start a startup doing this, however, you should be prepared to explain why existing web-based Office alternatives haven’t taken the world by storm

    Because Office is a low level-old stuff program:

    – It’s fast.
    – It’s responsible.
    – It’s a quality program.(I use Linux , Word is one of Microsoft’s best products,if not the best, they bought it and what makes it good was created before MS doing bad software.
    – It’s free if you pirate it(people do it).
    – It could be networked(a la google earth, traditional software with network connection).
    – I want to be able to connect with friends word DIRECTLY, without anyone else in the middle. A lot of people are with me in this.

    Today web programming is crap (sorry for this word, but represents reality):
    – It’s slow.
    – It’s buggy.
    – Depends on servers processing.
    – My documents are not their business.

    You know, when people talk about traditional software problems they argue:
    – It’s difficult and complex programming.
    – It’s very slow to program.

    MS don’t have this problem, the software is already done.

    I think office competition is impossible, MS Office with a lot of people a lot of years effort is going to be better office than you, only doing things very radically different from word could do it. Then you won’t be competing with anyone.

    This is the marketting credo, forget about the product, focus on the need. It should be a need not satisfied from MS.

  8. I think Sam’s mention of all the Torrent sites was the fact that students can freely download MS Office 2007 Enterprise Blue Edition in about an hour, free of charge. It validates as genuine software, so no worrying about patching, and you have no issues with your school not accepting your file format.

  9. Jose, We working on it…flex is a little faster if built right…helps to have our SVP from Adobe…too..
    ours will be for kids younger kids though…
    mouse turns pages, top right…inserting test will be drop and drag….

  10. I agree with Jose…

    Office is THE standard. Everyone buys a computer just for MS office – one reason why parent’s see a need to buy a computer for their son or daughter.

    And office will be pirated if not available. Trust me on this.

    So if office is standard on a lot of computers, it makes little sense to bring it on the web – and if web office was a huge success, then MS would copycat it – destroying your market.

    Everyone wants to steal market share from MS’s core bread & butter software suites, but you have to give people a real incentive to try out alternatives.

    My idea? Learn from microsoft, and develop a vertical stack of products that work _very_ well together which includes a web office app.

  11. Pingback: Y Combinator Challenge: Mission Accomplished! « A Startup A Day

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