Entrepreneur develops software to block the Web if surfing's taking your time or bringing you down
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Mark Ostach created software called The MentalSpaceManager to allow people who love the Internet — sometimes too much — to block favorite sites so they can get something done or avoid surfing themselves into a bad mood.
A two-year-old tech company that created a Web browser plug-in to allow people to better manage their time spent online is gaining traction thanks to tutelage from TechTown.
— The software, branded The Mentalspace Manager, disables a user's favorite news feeds, blogs and social media sites such as Facebook or YouTube if the user has determined that they reduce productivity or worsen the user's mood. Users can block individual sites or create a "power hour" — which blocks the entire Internet for an hour so that people can focus on work.
If the user tries to access the site while it's blocked, the software instead will show an uplifting quote, video or image. As an additional barrier, the user has the option to select a person who — if the user tries to unblock the site — will get an automated message to allow or deny access.
"It's meant to be playful; we're not a clinical solution," said Mark Ostach, founder and CEO of Detroit-based MyMentalSpace LLC, who was one of Crain's20 in their 20s in 2011. "It's meant for you to be more self-aware of how a site impacts your mood."
Ostach, who holds degrees in psychology and information systems, came up with the idea in 2009 after he began to see a parallel between how technology modifies behavior.
"The Internet promotes the obsessive behavior to be influenced by what you see, hear and feel, whether reading about a murder that impacts the conversation you have at lunch or harassment that can be caused by things people post on social media blogs and wall posts," Ostach said.
Internet addiction expert Larry Rosen, author of iDisorder and a professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, agrees Internet obsession and anxiety is a real problem.
"What we're seeing is that these technologies, particularly the smartphone, has become an object of obsession — exactly the kind of obsession people suffer from when they have obsessive-compulsive disorder," Rosen said. "A brain scan of someone being obsessed by technology looks a whole lot like anxiety."
Although Rosen thinks technology can provide users around-the-clock empathy, kindness and social support, the problem is that many people experience anxiety when they can't check their texts, blog posts or other communication.
Rosen said 62 percent of all iGeneration (those born between 1990 and 1999) and 64 percent of Generation X'ers (those born between 1965 and 1979) check texts every 15 minutes or less.
"What we're carrying is an amazing device in our pocket 24/7, so it's no surprise (people are obsessed with it), and a lot of it is below the level of truly conscious thought," Rosen said. "Because these are such amazing distractions, we need to learn how to put it aside."
Products like The Mentalspace Manager enable users to learn how to put devices aside to focus on other matters, such as finishing a report or having family time at the dinnertable, Rosen said.
Ostach is currently employed full time at Digerati Inc. in Detroit, a small technology company that installs custom software to help organizations run more efficiently. He launched MyMentalSpace on the side.
Through word-of-mouth, Ostach recruited a team of software engineer consultants and graphic designers who also maintain other full-time jobs, working on this project evenings and weekends.
Ostach has entirely self-funded the effort, investing slightly under $100,000 to date. He draws revenue from speaking to local companies and educational institutions in Michigan about managing Internet use.
The company has projected 2012 revenue of $30,000 and projected 2013 revenue of $150,000 based on a predicted uptick in sales of educational programs and DVDs.
Ostach said the company will sell its application to schools, employers and parents. Pricing is based on total users, and bulk discounts are available.
The premium version of the software will have a subscription that ranges from $1 to $3 per month, he said.
The application, in development for two years, was launched last September. The website has just over 1,000 users, mainly college students, with plans to grow the base through a new marketing effort in the fall called the Facebook Challenge.
This challenge will encourage users to block Facebook — the most requested site to be blocked through MyMentalSpace — anywhere from one hour to one month. It also will monitor how the user feels when off Facebook and what the user does differently with his or her time.
Though Ostach has given the application away for free to build awareness and generate users, he soon plans to begin selling a premium model of the product with additional features. This "freemium to premium" approach would enable the original version to continue to be free to join, with the ability for users to upgrade to the advanced model.
Although other tools currently on the market, such as Rescue Time, block websites and monitor users time spent on the Internet, Ostach said, what differentiates his company is its focus on how the Internet alters mood.
MyMentalSpace collects data from its users on a voluntary basis to aggregate information on how a particular website makes the user feel — happy, sad, deprived, disgusted. There may be market value in the data for researchers, advertisers and search engine optimization analysts that would provide another revenue source for Ostach's company.
In 2010, Ostach enrolled in what was then called TechTown's Smart Start, a one-year program that walked entrepreneurs through all parts of starting a business and provided one-on-one coaching.
TechTown helped align Ostach with pro bono service from an intellectual-property firm, nominated his company for local media awards and provided opportunities for him to pitch investors.
Ostach, who has had a fruitful experience working with TechTown, said an entrepreneur's experience with the organization depends on how well the businessperson can make the most of those resources.
" TechTown has a lot of energy and intelligent people working there that you just need to be able to navigate through," Ostach said. "Are you outgoing enough to make a pitch in an elevator? How deep can you dig?"
Ostach leases shared community space at TechTown on a monthly basis for his staff and interns and still meets bimonthly with his coach there, Michael O'Rourke, who has been working with Ostach primarily on his revenue model.
"What we look for are entrepreneurs who have a passion for their business," said O' Rourke, who is managing director of operations at TechTown. "We like them to have some business knowledge in order to hit the ground running, a viable business idea and potentially be able to create jobs within the city and Southeast Michigan. Mark fits all of those."
Once a tech company has begun to sell its product, it becomes easier for the company to go after investment money to undertake additional software development to enhance features, hire salespeople or develop a marketing plan, he said.
Though O'Rourke said half of all startups fail in the first five years — the percentage for success rises to 80 percent for companies that work with incubators like TechTown — the tech startups that do succeed, like Groupon or Facebook, have found a niche that hits the market at the right time.
Ostach "has to convince people that they have a need for this product," O'Rourke said. "If that can catch on, this gives him a huge market. One thing investors look at is a large market as well as a strong team they believe can actually carry the business."
One local institution using the product is Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, which brought Ostach in this past year to speak to its high school students about the proper use of the Internet.
"As an educational institution, we don't want to shy away from students using technology — we want kids to have smart classrooms and be able to look up information on their smartphone instantaneously — but we want students to use them responsibly," said Ara Brown, upper-school dean of boys at Cranbrook Schools.
Many of Brown's students downloaded The Mentalspace Manager tool right away and told Brown it helped them see how much time they spent on each website. Many students use it during evening study hall to avoid being distracted during that time. Most students block social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Google+ and others where users can post random questions and generate responses.
"Teenagers are very social beings, and they don't want to miss out on anything or feel left out," Brown said. "They appreciate that (the tool) is not 'Big Brother' coming in but that they are monitoring their own behavior to be responsible. It's easy for us to come in and say, 'You can't do this,' but that's not a stance we want to take.
"Once we're gone, they go and use (technology) anyway, so we want to responsibly teach them how to use it."