Catching up with WhatsCrowded

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The headlines from October 2011 Portland Startup Weekend teams keep pouring in! I recently had a chance to chat with WhatsCrowded founder Al kari as he prepares to make his first public demo post-Startup Weekend and present at SAO Ignite on Thursday, March 15th. The things Al and his team have accomplished since Startup Weekend are nothing short of inspiring.

Below is the full, unedited transcript of our conversation which includes some great practical tips for making the most of Startup Weekend.

Jeff: Tell us about your company. What is the name and what does it do?

Al: WhatsCrowded adds a new dimension to your daily decision-making by providing you with a free and simple tool to see where the crowds are on the web or your smart phone, allowing you the choice of joining the party or a quieter place when you need it. By bridging the gap between the online and real worlds, WhatsCrowded allows you with a touch on an easy to navigate map to:

  • Join or avoid the Crowd and Save Time & Money
  • Take advantage of Flexible Happy Hours™ and Generous Special Offers
  • Let your friends know where it’s happening right now, where you are going or where the best deals are

WhatsCrowded is also a platform for busy restaurants, clubs and coffee shop owners to automate their demand-generation efforts and to drive customer traffic when they are least busy by setting basic occupancy thresholds, at which various timed-offers are made available to users just long enough to increase customer traffic, only when needed. Offering automatically generated deals to their patrons when establishments are not busy allows owners to level the flow, improve customer experience and increase revenue while they focus on running their business and servicing customers.

J: How has your product changed since Friday night of Startup Weekend?

A: When we joined Portland Startup Weekend, we were on a quest to find the fourth dimension which is still missing from our knowledge of the world today. We were brainstorming for that technology that will change our lives, just like GPS, online banking and smart phones did. The light bulb went off in our heads when we had an hour-long lunch break but wasted more than a half of it waiting for a table. We quickly realized what that dimension was and started thinking about ways to allow everyone the ability to save time by knowing how crowded a location is in advance. The fact that people wanted to join the crowds at times was also hard to miss. What was left was to figure out how to do that, in 56 hours.

We tossed several ideas around, and almost threw the towel due to all the regulatory and competitive limitations that made some logical solutions seem impossible.

At the end of PDXSW, we were determined to find a simple solution to count people at relevant facilities and display on a map. We made contacts with a number of companies in the US and overseas, and when we realized the gap in how far that market is from today’s technology, we went to work.

J: What milestones or successes have you had since the weekend?

A: In working with a company overseas, we developed an inexpensive appliance that uploads customers count to our cloud-based servers, where data is analyzed and updated on our map, in near real-time. We recently deployed our initial prototype at a couple locations in Portland in test mode and are achieving excellent accuracy. Our software is under development and a beta will be ready to launch to the public in a few weeks. We also identified many ways to make our solution social and entertaining.

Determined to keep it a free service to our users, we took to the streets and started talking to businesses about their needs and their willingness to pay for our solution. What we found was a lot of excitement about a tool that will generate demand when businesses are not busy, and right-size customer traffic when they are packed. So we built a coupon program within our solution that uses real-time data to generate timed, variable offers based on different occupancy thresholds set by the business. In effect, our tool is allowing businesses to automate their demand-generation efforts to increase their revenues and stay focused on servicing their customers.

Our team has grown and we acquired additional great talents which is keeping us on target to launch as planned.

J: What has been the biggest challenge since Startup Weekend?

A: Finding and making the right connections with hardware developers and manufacturers in the US was extraordinarily difficult. That was surprisingly much easier when we looked east! Making a cost-effective appliance used up a lot of time and efforts. And while we were advancing without external funding, our team members were unable to commit a lot of their time to our project, causing us to move slower than we could have.

J: What does the future have in store for WhatsCrowded?

A: Compared to similar companies, we built our growth projections very conservatively while we made realistic assumptions in developing our sales and go-to-market plans. Our target is to install our tool at 3,700 food and drink establishments on the west coast in the first year of operations, and to expand that number to 52,000 establishments nationwide by the third year. And by then, we will reach our 20M users target.

J: If you could rewind and do Startup Weekend over again, is there anything you would do differently?

A: A few things:

  • While we did most of the brainstorming at Startup Weekend, it may have worked better had we done our homework in advance and if our idea was better defined.
  • Identify technology and skills requirements first. Building a team from a pool of talented people that just met can’t be accomplished by simply stating that you need software developers. Be prepared for speed-dating and for clearly asking for the specific skill sets you want (SQL, ASP, Ruby, iOS, etc.).
  • Stake an office/desk as early as possible, and put a banner out to invite contributions. Prepare collaterals in advance if you can.
  • Start working on your brand from the first few hours. Brands that attract and excite weekend attendees are likely to interest the general public as well.

J: What was the best part about Startup Weekend for you and your company?

A: We could have done it on our own in a couple of years, or in 56 hours by laser-sharp focusing with a group of brilliant people! Some things are mindboggling for some, but are common sense to others. Mixing and matching people with different skills and backgrounds was key to finding solutions to what seemed almost impossible at times. Mentors and advisors often set you on track and bring you back to earth when your imagination is running wild with technology.

J: How can the Startup Weekend community support you going forward?

A: Come see our first public demo at the Software Association of Oregon (SAO)’s Tech-Ignite. Drop us a line and vote for or suggest your favorite features. Tell us how you want this technology to work for you: http://www.whatscrowded.com/vote.html. Stay current with us on Facebook and Twitter.