Mobile Commerce Is The Future, But Customer Acquisition Is Street By Street

Foursquare Labs, Yammer, Groupon. Social mobile media is hot, especially if it targets ecommerce and the enterprise.

So how does a tiny next generation startup compete with today’s more entrenched players? That seemed to be the unanswered question at the Under the Radar conference today in Mountain View, Calif.

The conference brought together more than two dozen young companies eager to promote mobile commerce and change consumer behavior around the world.

Some were just getting off the ground. CheckPoints, a Los Angeles-based startup that offers reward points to consumers who use their phones to scan product barcodes, has 150,000 downloads of the iPhone app it launched a month ago. DoubleDutch of San Francisco announced it would close a $1.2 million seed round in two weeks with investors including Charles River Ventures and Accelerator Ventures.

Others claimed to be further along. San Jose, Calif.-based CompassLabs, which has raised $6 million in two rounds from New Enterprise Associates and TriplePoint Capital, is a a social media advertising company started by ex Google employee Dilip Venkatachari. Venkatachari, who says that social media is the future of advertising, works with about 20 well-known consumer brand advertisers.

Meanwhile, Boston-based CardStar, which gives merchants a mobile platform to connect to loyal customers, has 400,000 active users, says founder Andy Miller. Yet, getting some large merchants to pay attention is hard, even after talking with them for as long as 18 months.

“The challenge for us is to get merchants large and small to interact with us,” Miller said during a company pitch.

Many of the startup concepts were intriguing. Goodzer of Reston, Va., has a local product search engine that pinpoints the closest store carrying a particular product. Los Altos, Calif.-based Fanminder lets merchants send instant promotions to repeat customers.

It is a huge opportunity, Irv Henderson (pictured), vice president of product development at Yahoo and a judge at the event, told Fanminder co-founder Paul Rosenfeld. But “this seems early to me. There is so much more proving to be done.”

Marketing a service to local businesses is a street by street, merchant by merchant task, Henderson said.

The conference didn’t appear to reach consensus as to what types of consumer interactions will work. Chris Tolles, chief executive of Topix and event judge, told Badgeville chief executive Kris Duggan that it didn’t seem merchants had singled out one technique and labeled it a success. Badgeville of Palo Alto, Calif., uses game playing techniques to help merchants build consumer loyalty.

“I would say frankly it’s very early,” answered Duggan. “We’re installed in a handful of sites now.”

In other words: “Give us a chance to figure it out.”

Alastair Goldfisher contributed to this report.