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Monday, February 19, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Refrigerator magnet meets the digital age

Seattle Times staff columnist

I saw some amazing data centers in Redmond last week.

They were reliable, powerful, resilient and fault-tolerant.

The only problem is they're lacking the right software, according to Cozi, a Seattle startup run by former Microsoft managers and staffed with engineering and marketing talent from local heavyweights such as Amazon.com.

The data centers were a dozen potential Cozi customers — computer-savvy women who run busy households.

Cozi brought them together for one of the unusual "Tupperware party" events it's been having at homes around the Seattle area for market research and to introduce the suite of home-management software and services it has been quietly developing over the past two years.

The moms are asked about the technology they use, the organizational challenges they face and the solutions they'd like to see.

Then they get a demonstration of the software, including a shared family calendar and shopping-list builder.

Listening in at a party hosted by Marjorie Landon, it was startling to see how much data she and her friends store, sort and process to keep their domestic operations running smoothly.

It was also amazing how little help they get from technology, not to mention from their husbands.

They all have PCs, one had a BlackBerry and another had a Palm. But mostly they keep track of things in their heads, with lists in their purse and marked-up calendars taped to the fridge.

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"Maybe this is the miracle that will help," said Chandrika Seth, who always carries a printed list of items to buy at Costco.

Moms like her could give Cozi a breakout year. It's preparing to present parties across the country. It already has 35,000 users and it's in talks with major consumer brands to sponsor its product.

"We want to be a complete solution for families, a one-stop shop for applications," said Chief Executive Robbie Cape, a former Microsoft manager and father of three young children.

Shared calendars are nothing new — several other startups in Seattle are doing their own versions. A number of companies have also tried to build household-management systems.

But Cozi's taking a different approach, building a full suite that works on- and offline. It also appears to have good timing. The number of households that own multiple PCs is expanding, and already 7 million or so have PCs in the kitchen, according to Cape.

"We actually think our product is going to be a driver of getting the PC in the kitchen," he said.

Default desktop

Cozi is designed to be the default desktop that's running on those kitchen PCs, turning them into household command centers, built with moms in mind.

Martha Stewart was talking about a similar product five or six years ago, back when she mingled with the software crowd at Bill Gates' annual CEO Summit.

More recently, Microsoft created a 50-person team to build a similar family-management product code-named Ohana. That project fizzled, in part because the company vacillated on whether it should be a desktop product or another "Live" brand online service, Cape said.

Cozi's going to have better luck, he said, because it's free to build the software however it wants, without worrying about fitting into a particular category or supporting a larger business strategy.

That's also why it's a little hard to describe Cozi, which doesn't fit the startup stereotype.

While most new software companies seem to be building Web applications nowadays, Cozi is building a desktop application that also runs on the Web and mobile devices.

On the PC, it displays the calendar, shopping lists, messages, a big clock and a panel where you type calendar or list entries.

Screensaver collage

Cozi also includes a slick screensaver that pulls groups of related photos from the PC and displays them in a slowly shifting collage. When the PC is idle, it displays the collage, the clock and notifications of any upcoming appointments.

The calendar and list can be accessed from other PCs in the home or remotely through a Web browser.

Best of all, they can also be accessed via cellphone by calling a toll-free number. Cozi's automated system will then dictate the information or deliver it as a short text message.

Cozi's business also operates at a different pace from the usual startup. You won't find caffeine-fueled engineers working all hours at its laid-back offices in the Smith Tower. Most of its employees have children, so family time is paramount. Besides, the bosses like to be home in time for dinner with their kids.

"We're running a marathon, not a sprint," said Cape, 37, who grew up in an entrepreneurial family in Montreal.

In 1993 he graduated from Princeton and went to work at Microsoft, planning to stay just three years. That turned into 12, the last two running Microsoft Money, the company's consumer financial-planning software.

In 2004 he and Jan Miksovsky, then Money's lead designer, started brainstorming business ideas. A year later they started Cozi.

But first Cape brought his father, brother and uncle to Vancouver, B.C., to tell them about his plans. They were aghast that he'd leave Microsoft.

Hard sell

"My family spent a day and a half trying to convince me this was the stupidest thing I could do," he recalled.

But a week later they gave the company $500,000 in seed money.

In December 2005, Cozi received $3.3 million from angel investors, who are participating in the next funding round that's providing $7 million to $10 million more.

Cape expects the company to break even by the end of 2008, by which time he should have major consumer brands advertising on the site.

He's planning to have companies such as Disney pay to display the upcoming release of a DVD, which could be added to a family's shopping list.

Cozi may also introduce premium pay services, but the standard suite will remain a free product supported by advertising.

When I attended the Cozi party at the Landons', the moms seemed intrigued by the product and liked the ease of entering calendar items, printing calendars and lists and retrieving lists using a cellphone.

Concerns about security

But they wanted assurance that the product would be secure and private, and some had concerns about advertisers seeing their lists and calendars.

Amy Schottenstein, Cozi's "family-experience manager," told them users decide what information to add.

(Cozi pays the party hosts $100, and each participant receives a $50 gift certificate at Gene Juarez.)

The moms were also interested in having the calendar synchronize with the other calendars they receive, such as sports-team schedules. That kind of information would still have to be entered by hand.

Cozi is also considering an option that would fill calendars with school information, perhaps for $2.95 a month.

Those questions give the impression that Cozi is a good start, but there's still more to be done before the ideal kitchen computer is a reality.

One limitation is the hardware. PCs are getting smaller and more portable, but they're still bulky for most kitchens.

It seems Cozi would work best on an affordable touchscreen LCD monitor with a PC built into the frame. That kind of system is probably just around the corner, especially with Vista supporting touchscreen controls, but it's not here yet.

It would have been nice to stay and chat with Landon and her pals about this stuff. But after hearing about their busy schedules and heavy workloads, I was overcome with guilt and rushed home to do the dishes and take out the garbage.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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