The business of business cards

June 14th, 2010 by

I work with a busy group of people. Developing the Microtask platform is challenging work, on top of which are funding and staff issues. Every day we are out meeting partners, potential clients, VCs, lawyers, advisors and government MIB.

Big events like SXSW in Austin or the HTIA Conference in Jerusalem are a great opportunity to meet a wide variety of organizations and people all in one place. After such conferences it is not souvenirs stretching my suitcase pockets as I board the plane, but hundreds of business cards. While this isn’t problematic in the same way that illicit elephant tusks are, it does cause a headache nonetheless.

It is an issue I’m sure nearly every office is familiar with: how do you file these contacts in a meaningful way, allowing for both flexibility in the way data are structured and in how they can be accessed by your team?

Don’t start me up
The problem is exacerbated when you deal with start-up businesses. Start-ups crave attention. They know that everyone goes home with hundreds of business cards, so to stand out they design eccentric cards, with unusual designs, shape or textures. Some are made of plastic, others are hexagonal, while a few only make sense in the context of the movie Alive. It is all perfectly understandable. And to be fair, nothing is more boring than a plain business card. Nothing except perhaps spending jetlagged hours sorting through cards because your filing machine is completely useless and you blew your budget for an admin assistant on elephant tusks.

Automated solutions on the market are neither flexible, easily customized, nor cheap. Moreover, most of the time they require a direct intervention from the user to store data correctly. I find it is more efficient to do it by hand, and at least make sure data are displayed exactly as I like.

For me this is not a quick process. The pieces of information I usually look for on a business card are the name of the person, their position, company, address, email, URL of the website and contact numbers. Once again, the creative flair of start-ups does not make the process any easier. Often they have email addresses unrelated to the company, no physical addresses, Skype contacts instead of a normal phone number, and unusual position descriptions (“Cultural Attaché”, “Under Secretary of Art & Design”, “Light Bearer”). All these weird decisions regarding layout, formatting and content are usually very much dependent on the company’s attitude and not based on shared standards.

As if all this wasn’t enough, when processing these cards I also like to add the exact geographic location of the company using Google Maps. Have you ever tried to find a business building in Korea or Japan? After some research and much consideration I now know that the format of addresses in these countries is deliberately designed to confuse. If a machine was entrusted with this process it would end up a total disaster, one that is only discovered when you find you turn up for a business meeting at what is actually a Yakuza hideout, with only a flashing business card shaped like a banana to defend yourself.

I dreamed a dream
Now, I’m not saying that a decent automatic solution for this problem would change my life. It would, however, allow me to spend my time doing something else, like writing better blogs or solving the Riemann Hypothesis (which I’m planning to do, sooner or later).

This is just one of many reasons why the Microtask team get out of bed in the morning (hunger is another). Because the Microtask platform can split unexpectedly stratified jobs (like my business card problem) into small tasks and allocate these tasks to humans, it is ideally suited for almost any work that requires correct interpretation of a picture, including any unusual words, meanings, signs, or conventions. This is work which any number of expensive, specialized, office-cluttering, complicated machines will screw-up.

My dream is that somebody, somewhere, will delight in the opportunity to interpret the weird business cards that end up in my bag at the end of a conference. They will be delighted not because they are any more interested in the cards than I am, but because completing the task will, for example, win them extra coins to buy virtual carrots. And I mean, why not, if that makes both of us happier at the office.


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  • http://twitter.com/aleksj aleksj

    There are services that rely on semi-automation. You mail them the business cards, they scan and transcribe them. For example, http://www.cloudcontacts.com/

  • http://twitter.com/jorilallo Jori Lallo

    Not really a solution for teams or for the writer but for my personal usage Evernote is pretty awesome. Just take a pic of every card with your phone or webcam (they support some scanners too) and the service does server side OCR which actually works really well. After that all the information can be searched and further notes or tagging can be made.

    As I said this isn't ideal but then again Evernote's API might have some answers and there's companies automatically scanning documents for Evernote.

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