OpenLabel Brings on a CTO, Prepares to Launch Barcode App

Rating the world around you is something people seem inclined to do, judging by the traction of services like Yelp (which is looking to go public in March) and the amount of user product reviews Amazon has racked up. Startup OpenLabel is hoping to capitalize on that urge to pass judgement with its barcode scanning app that allows anyone to weigh in on the virtues and vices of a product or its parent company. Today the company is announcing the addition of Sam Colak, serial entrepreneur and former senior architect at the European Space Agency to the team as CTO.

Colak will have his work cut out for him at CTO; OpenLabel founder and CEO Scott Kennedy said in an interview that his startup is a data-driven company. “It’s exciting to me to take the oceans of data and the success of networks and connections in the computer world and move them out into everyday life,” Kennedy said, speaking of his larger vision for OpenLabel and the technology behind it. “First we need to start moving into semantic backends and databases and then we need to start finding ways to catalogue these objects and consolidate the data.” Kennedy believes Colak will be instrumental in helping achieve that goal.

What OpenLabel offers sounds like it could catch on with consumers, which would ultimately result in the generation of plenty of data relevant to merchants and businesses. The app allows users to scan any barcode associated with any product and then post opinions about said product, or see the opinions posted by others. People can vote products up or down, and are prompted to declare upfront whether what they’re saying about a product is bad or good, before they even enter any commentary.

The idea isn’t entirely new: Billy Chasen and Seth Goldstein’s Stickybits also allowed people to scan barcodes and see information about products, but the team behind the app recently pivoted away from that idea to the hit social DJ app When asked about why OpenLabel would succeed where Stickybits fell flat, Kennedy talked timing, as well as his product’s vision. Kennedy said that Stickybits was hurt by being too early to market, and he also doubts their commitment to the concept.

“When they started, they’d already pivoted a bunch of times, they weren’t committed to the idea,” he said. By contrast, Kennedy says he has a “thorough and deep love/hate with branding,” and they also “didn’t set out with the same sense of mission that we did.”

Another potential competitor for OpenLabel is Oink, the rate-everything app from Kevin Rose’s Milk Inc. Oink has been around since November 2011, and it reported 100,000 users as of the end of November, but it’s not clear how much traction it’s gained since then. Certainly, it hasn’t been a runaway hit in the vein of Instagram. OpenLabel is more targeted, Kennedy believes, since it’s about having conversations directly about a specific purchasing decision. But how OpenLabel plans to kick off that conversation is maybe the most compelling aspect of the app overall.

“We have these partners in non-profits who are our beta group who want to pre-seed the database with things that they don’t like, or do like,” he said. “Our model is that the manufacturers [of those products] are going to need to be there.” By targeting non-profits first in terms of partnerships, OpenLabel is taking a risky first step; Kennedy is aiming to force the hands of brands to establish a presence on the service in order to balance the activist element. But he thinks it also presents a more relevant opportunity for brands to defend themselves, too. “That’s the best place to have a dialogue about a product we think is on a product, rather than on a blog somewhere where it’s totally lost” he argued.

Kennedy notes that brands likely would rather not have to deal with complaints and brand perception issues surfaced through Facebook and Twitter, but they pretty much have to at this point. He’s counting on an approach with OpenLabel that would put them in a similar position. It’s definitely a gamble, since alienating brands out of the gate could make them hesitant to partner later, but that’s why Kennedy is focusing on partnerships and funding to help build an active community prior to public launch; if the conversation is already happening, he contends, brands will have no choice but to take part.

Eventually, the plan is to offer those same brands dashboards that allow them to track user response to their products and information about users’ scans that can be correlated with sales data. But getting to that point will mean convincing users not only that they need a shopping decision-making network, but also that they need to use scanning technology to take advantage of said network. To date, no company asking users to download a specific app to scan barcodes has been a runaway success, so OpenLabel definitely has a challenging road ahead, but with his new CTO on board, Kennedy is eager to face that challenge.

BetaKit readers can sign up for prioritized access to the soon-to-launch private beta of OpenLabel by entering “BK” in front of their email address at the OpenLabel launch page.

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