Today, probably the greatest puzzle that new tech companies have to unravel if they want to survive is how to navigate the intersection of 1) Big Data, 2) user engagement and 3) mobile technology. That is the Holy Grail quest that determines whether most new businesses fail or succeed.
Companies located in the tech hotbeds of Kitchener-Waterloo, Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal all have access to great pools of talent and resources, and still they struggle with solving that singular quandary, no matter what advantages they think they have in terms of VC, programming and design talent or brainpower.
And for companies that do have that great idea and the programming and design talent to help them achieve their goal, the problem of user engagement remains the sting in the scorpion’s tail. You can have the greatest idea in the world, designed and programmed beautifully, but what happens if people simply do not care?
App retention rates are not great. The rate of app abandonment, of people using an app only once or perhaps up to a dozen times and then neglecting it, is discouraging to say the least. Unless you’re providing an essential service with your app, like banking or weather or sports information, you’re working against strong odds, unless you manage a lucky fluke hit like Angry Birds. Even that level of success, however, can be a challenge to maintain.
Companies that do have a handle on how to harness the forces of Big Data, user engagement and mobile technology at least stand a chance of becoming big enough to IPO, or to continue to grow privately held, perhaps to be acquired by or to merge with a larger American company.
There is a company here in Canada, though, who have not merely mastered the dark arts of Big Data, user engagement and mobile technology, they did it almost 15 years ago. It’s a company that was founded by two friends who decided to try to answer a question they asked each other one night while talking on the phone. Why are gas prices so freaking different from place to place? And why do they spike up and down for no apparent reason?
From this idea, a company was built that defined its industry. And they are rarely acknowledged for doing so.
This is the story of GasBuddy. Perhaps you have the GasBuddy app on your phone and use it while driving around looking for the cheapest gas prices in your area. Lots of people don’t realize that GasBuddy is a Canadian tech company. Or that it furthermore achieved pre-eminence in its field way, way, way outside Canada’s tech hubs and incubators and venture capital funds. It came from Regina.
GasBuddy was conceived of in 1999 by two childhood friends, Jason Toews, a programmer in training, and Dustin Coupal, a budding ophthalmologist. The company remains based in Regina, and employs approximately 60 people.
Founded in the year 2000, GasBuddy has grown from a two-man operation to a heavyweight North America-wide industry player, working with the gas and oil industry on one side and convenience store chains and gas stations on the other.
Since 2000, GasBuddy has passed milestone after milestone. In 2013 alone, they recorded 2,491,011 new membership signups, with their total user base surpassing 11 million in October. On June 21, the GasBuddy app passed the 30 million download mark, the same day it accumulated its 125,000th “like” on Facebook.
And this is the miracle of GasBuddy. The users themselves supply data voluntarily and eagerly to GasBuddy’s database, with the community surrounding the website and app policing the information’s accuracy. A GasBuddy community has formed around a subject matter that unites North Americans as naturally as soccer unites the rest of the world. What is the price of gas today, and what will it be tomorrow?
That data is GasBuddy’s product.
So the three problems that every modern tech company operating today needs to solve in order to survive, Big Data and what to do with it, user engagement, and mobile technology, all sit at an intersection that GasBuddy has been patiently placing houses and hotels on, like in a game of Monopoly, more than a decade before most companies have managed to pass “Go”.
In 2009, they launched OpenStore, a SaaS convenience store platform, and have brought several significantly large gas station and convenience store chains on as clients, totalling 11,792 stores. The OpenStore apps receive over 50,000 downloads per month.
The GasBuddy app is regularly named on “Top 10” or “Top 50” lists of essential apps, or in breezy New York Times stories about essential apps to make your road trip more bearable. They are also regularly the first source of information for news stories that inevitably pop up in the media when gas prices fluctuate.
Finally, after almost 14 years of flying solo, of building up a mega-company from a two-man operation, GasBuddy was acquired by an American company, the Oil and Price Information Service (OPIS). Which in a way brings the GasBuddy story to an end, although an end with an incredibly bright future.
When today a five-year old company with origins in the start-up world can be referred to as a veteran, it’s startling to realize how far and how well in advance GasBuddy has basically mastered the challenges that are proving so difficult to solve for the brightest minds in Canada’s tech triangle, and in tech hubs from coast to coast.
Cantech Letter visited GasBuddy’s co-founder Jason Toews at the company’s headquarters, located at Innovation Place, near the University of Regina, to talk history, how to learn from mistakes, how to listen to your customers, and the future of mobile tech. And how two young men with nothing more than an idea and a problem to solve ended up building a Big Data mobile tech giant. In Regina.
You guys have really flown under the radar. For the last few years, businesses have been grappling with mobile technology, Big Data and how to use it, and user engagement. You guys have been working with all these things for years, long before the rise of smartphones, if you peg the advent of the iPhone at 2007.
Yeah, we’ve always tried to fly below the radar. It’s in the way the company started. Dustin and I each put in $2,000, for a total of $4,000 in seed funding, if you will. We didn’t have big money behind us, big VC. So we did try to fly below the radar, primarily because we didn’t want to invite competition. We weren’t trying to get on TechCrunch. As soon as you get on one of these websites, you invite a whole plethora of attention. And we didn’t want that. We didn’t want that kind of attention. If somebody came in with a couple million dollars, we didn’t have that, and they would probably crush us. So we intentionally flew below the radar. But we didn’t have the same kind of challenges that a lot of companies had. A lot of companies want to get out there and promote themselves, and let everybody know about it, and that’s how they do things, and get big VC. For us, we actually got free publicity through the media, because of gas prices. As prices went up, they would call us up and ask for our insight on gas prices. So we just got on the news naturally. The other side of things that helped us out was search engine optimization, because we had web sites for each city, like reginagasprices.com, or chicagogasprices.com, or torontogasprices.com. If you go to Google and type in “Toronto gas prices”, you come up with our web site.
But that’s search engine optimization by absolutely natural means. If you hear that term over the last couple years, it’s pretty much guru types trying to help you game the system through weird cheating techniques. But your thing is an absolutely organic, from the ground up, thing. But you guys started back in 1999.
Yeah, that’s when we came up with the idea. Dustin and I have known each other for years. We went to high school together. We were friends all along. And even after high school and university, we were still friends. I went to Minneapolis, after graduating in 1998. And around the same time, Dustin had moved to Ottawa to do a residency. And being from Regina, where all the gas prices were all the same, you drive down the street and every station had virtually the same price, it was eye-opening for us, when I moved to Minneapolis and Dustin was in Ottawa, where you drive down the street and prices varied a lot. Dustin and I would talk on the phone. We talked about lots of different ideas for businesses and websites and that kind of stuff, and we’d talk for hours about stuff like that. And then one day, we got talking about how gas prices were so different in these new cities we were in. And so we thought, “Well, there’s thousands of people driving by each one of these stations every day. Why not harness that power? Create a website where people can submit this information to?” And the idea was born. It was really one of the first instances of crowdsourcing that I know of. It was crowdsourcing before “crowdsourcing” was a term, right?
This is it. It’s just so far in advance of all that stuff. Did you not have people saying, “Hey, this is a great idea and all, but until people are driving around town with their laptops in the passenger seat, what are they going to do? Remember the gas price and drive home?” But now we’re in a different world, obviously. Time has caught up to GasBuddy, in a way.
Yeah, certainly mobile apps and smartphones, it seems like they were tailor-made for GasBuddy. It made GasBuddy far more useful, for sure. But we did get a pretty good following with GasBuddy, well before the era of the smartphone. I was able to quit my day job and move back to Canada, and we started hiring people.
Was this in the early 2000s?
Yeah. For the first five years, Dustin and I would work out of our respective basements or homes. Personally, I would go home after work, and work all night on GasBuddy and lots of times stay up until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. And then I’d go to bed, wake up again, and go do my day job at 9:00. Sometimes I’d push it a little bit, because I was up so late. So I’d work until 6:00 or so and then repeat, basically. I would also take my laptop to work, and during my lunch break I would go sit down in a Subway or an Arby’s and code away at lunch, and then go back and finish work. So we did that for five years. It was February or March 2005, I quit my day job and moved back and we opened a small office, 700 square feet in Regina. We hired two people. Dustin was still doing his ophthalmology fellowship in Salt Lake City, and he’d come back maybe six months later. So then he was working at least part-time in the office and at night. But it was 2005 when we started hiring people. Then we outgrew that office by 2007. We had seven people. So we moved to a different space, on Truesdale. That was about 1,700 square feet. And we’ve continued to grow the company, the whole time not taking any debt or anything like that. We got up to around 20 people in that space, outgrew that and then moved to this space here, which is 5,000 square feet. We moved here in 2010. And we started to outgrow this in maybe 2012 or so, and actually ended up taking up more space down the hall. And we’re kind of outgrowing that, so we’re looking at moving to another space a couple buildings down.
People started to want to contribute, especially when gas prices went up in summer. People got really upset by that and they felt it was kind of their way of fighting back against Big Oil, which they felt powerless against.
How many employees do you have right now?
Around 60. We have this office, and seven people down in the States. We have one guy in Wall, New Jersey, who works 50-70% on GasBuddy stuff. We have a new software-as-a-service product that we launched in 2009, OpenStore. It’s basically apps and websites for the convenience store industry.
Yeah, is it a white label type thing? You can brand it according to your own needs?
Yes, it’s a white label solution. So we custom brand everything to the individual convenience store chain. We launched that in 2009, and now have almost 80 customers. I think 74 customers, convenience store chains. We have several sales people that work out of that same office in New Jersey, specifically for OpenStore. On the GasBuddy side, we have a media office in Tampa. We have an office in Chicago, one person in a media office. And we have a fellow working out of San Diego, who does advertising sales, and he has a couple people underneath him. One of our employees in New Jersey does data sales. We have a new product called Price Pro. He’s always been involved with selling gasoline price data with OPIS, so we kind of merged their data sales and our data sales. The other guy represents us in the media.
You guys have already got pretty good PR in the sense that your app regularly makes the Time “Top Whatever” app lists, and the media regularly mention you in any article that has to do with the price of gas. While a lot of people may have the GasBuddy app on their phone, they might not realize that it’s a Canadian company, never mind that it’s based in Regina. So whereas companies based in Toronto or Kitchener-Waterloo have access to large pools of tech and design talent, this really was just you guys building this thing with no outside help.
Yeah, and there was never any point where we got a big influx of money or infusion of capital, where we wanted to hire 50 people at a time. We did have more money after 2005, and it kind of grew over time, and even up until 2009, when we started developing OpenStore. By that point we had a little bit of extra money to reinvest in the company and to grow the company. Even still, we weren’t hiring a bunch of people all at one time. It was just kind of one or two, here and there. It was pretty constant. We’ve pretty much had an open recruitment policy for around seven years now.
I’ve noticed you use billboards to hire here. Are you mostly hiring local people?
Well, the billboards are there to attract local talent. It seems like when we put postings on the internet, we get a lot of foreign nationals applying. Which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a lot more complicated getting them in. Say if they have to come in from India, you have to go through a whole process. We’ve done it once or twice before. A fellow from the Philippines, we sponsored him to come here, and it turned out really well. It’s just, you have to be prepared to be in it for several months before they actually start work. Versus somebody local, they come in for an interview, and you say, “Yup, we agree that we’re right for each other.” We make them an offer, they give their two weeks’ notice somewhere else, and two weeks later, you’ve got somebody new working for you. It’s just way more easy to recruit locally. We’ve had billboards for some time now across the city, and we’ve tried to establish ourselves as the employer of choice, the place where people want to go to work, the cool, fun company, the coveted job. There’s a bit of a mentality in Saskatchewan, at least historically there has been, that the government is the place you want to go. If you get a job at SaskTel or SaskPower, take your pick, then you’ve made it big, right?
Well, those are probably the only jobs with security and a pension and all that.
Right. So we have to wrestle with that a little bit. But that’s essentially who we’re competing with. When we first opened our office and hired our first two people, around that time we found it a little difficult to attract talent. Especially because we intentionally tried to fly below the radar. I think some people had some concerns about working for a small company. Granted, when we first opened our office, it was 700 square feet and we had two people. For somebody coming in for a job interview, it just didn’t instil a lot of confidence. If somebody wants job security, they probably weren’t getting it.
That mentality you might not have wanted to hire anyway. In any case, over the last few years, with the rise of start-up culture, the paradigm has kind of shifted a little bit. There’s a bit of a mania around working for start-ups now.
Yeah, and I think what we do is unique for Regina. People get to work on an app that gets downloaded by millions of people. It’s kind of customer-facing, it’s kind of fun. Versus working for the government or one of the insurance companies in town, where you’re writing reports or something or working on some back-end system. It’s just not fun. And it’s definitely a lot cooler to work for a start-up than to work for the government.
There are a lot of start-up companies now, one-year-old, two-year-old, five-year-old companies, for whom the Holy Grail is the intersection of Big Data, user engagement, and mobile technology. Converging those three elements is the thing that any start-up right now is wrestling with. And a decade before anybody was even using the term “Big Data”, working with large data sets and making sense of them in a way that you can monetize, you guys had already been working this intersection professionally for over 10 years before these guys even clued in to its importance. Did you see that coming?
When we started out, we had a chicken and egg problem. We had no data. If somebody came to GasBuddy and they didn’t see any gas prices updated recently, they’re going to go away and say, “This website is crap. I’m not going to contribute, because there’s nothing going on here.” And if they leave, there’s going to be nobody to contribute the data. We did wrestle with that for a little while. I would say, by 2001 we started to get decent enough data, where it seemed like the chicken-and-egg problem was not really a problem. Yeah, we didn’t have great coverage in every city, especially in rural areas. But there were gas prices there. It did seem like there were things going on, because of the local websites that we had, like boisegasprices.com. It felt like a local website and if you saw it on the website, it felt like there was something going on there and that people started to want to contribute, especially when gas prices went up in summer. People got really upset by that and they felt it was kind of their way of fighting back against Big Oil, which they felt powerless against. So we had been collecting a lot of data on gas prices. And now our databases are terabytes in size. But it wasn’t really until the app that the amount of data started accelerating, almost exponentially.
Right, because until that point you’re still relying on people going home after driving down the street, sitting down at their computer and entering the information.
In hindsight, it’s almost amazing that people would remember the gas price, go back to their computer and enter it in. It takes a lot of effort to do that. But we were able to get some success from that and some pretty hardcore followers over the years. They felt like it was a grassroots thing, where they were contributing and enjoying it. They still enjoy it today.
The improvement in search engine technology, Google for example, certainly helped us, because it gave us better results and our name floated right to the top. Even today, all of our websites float right to the top.
At some point, you had to figure out, though, how to work with that data, how to build a community. As far as user engagement goes, how to incentivize people who think they’re taking part in something, as opposed to just people you’re trying to extract information from.
We have a few different types of user on GasBuddy. There’s the casual user, who uses GasBuddy as a service, whether it’s the app or the website. They use it to find cheap gas prices. And the app has encouraged casual use. Then there’s the really hardcore person, who needs to get their gas prices entered in every day. They can earn their points, we give away prizes. Today, we give away $100 per day. They can use their points to get an entry in the prize draw. It’s completely random. We started off, I think it was $250 per quarter that we were doing previously. Then we went down to monthly, and then weekly, and then daily. We reduced the size of the prize, but we do it every day. But there is a group of people who are really attracted to the idea of winning a prize. They submit their gas prices and contribute for a chance at winning gas. I think that’s a nice-to-have for a lot of people. It’s not the driving force. Especially with the app, it’s fun. Even for me, with the website, I kind of stopped submitting gas prices because I found it to be just too much of a hassle. But when we launched the app, I’ve essentially barely missed a day submitting gas prices. It’s just so easy. You tap on the big button in the middle of the screen, “find gas near me”, it shows a list of stations, and it’s just a couple taps and you can enter in the prices. It’s really easy to do and it’s kind of fun, too.
So what you had developed, basically, was a mobile app waiting for mobile technology to happen. And then you had a readymade database, and a community around it.
Yeah, we were in a perfect position when we launched the app. In my opinion, there’s almost not a better application for an app than GasBuddy. When you’re in your car and you look down at your fuel gauge, that’s when you realize you need gas. You’re not sitting in front of a PC at home. You don’t typically have your PC with you in your car. Now everybody has their smartphone with them. So when you realize you need gas, you open up the app, tap “find gas near me”, it shows the closest and cheapest gas stations to your current location. It’s location-based, taps into the GPS of the phone, so it makes it super easy for the user. You don’t have to type in a city, state, postal code or zip code. You just tap on “find gas near me”. So it makes it really easy.
I just want to go back to this particular detail. Before the app, with the website, you guys had opened up a lot of individual urls, like boisegasprices.com, and I guess that was a bit of insight on your part, to make it seem local. People felt comfortable inputting their data from wherever they were.
Yeah, you know, we had the local urls for a few different reasons. The primary initial reason was that, if somebody comes to the website, they’d get local information, local gas prices without having to do a search. It instantly gave the information. Versus if we had launched it with Gasbuddy.com, the website, and that’s it, you would have to type in your city, state or postal code or zip code, or select your location somehow. That’s an extra step.
And it makes it seem like you’re giving your local information to this central authority, as opposed to, “Oh, look, here’s a website with Boise gas prices.”
Yeah. So, the initial reason was to make it feel local and to give instant access to local information, to feel like a local website. I think especially at the time, if you went to, I don’t know, “GasPal” or something dot.com, and you didn’t find any information, it felt like it was dead. And that’s the thing that we wanted to avoid, was it feeling like it was dead. But it allows you to localize a lot of the content, makes it more relevant. It’s like going to a weather site and having “national weather”. Well, that’s not useful. Versus going to reginaweather.com and, bam, getting weather. There’s not that extra step to do. We wanted to make it easier on the user. We were talking about usability back then. Granted, we’ve learned a lot about usability since then. Usability, that’s a whole rabbit hole we can go down. But I want to talk about the domain names and having local websites. So it gave them that content right away, but also having that search engine optimization. Which I don’t think we fully appreciated right away. It didn’t take long for us to fully appreciate that, because we were at the top of all the search engines. At that time, Google wasn’t even that popular just yet. There was Yahoo! and HotBot and Lycos.
Yeah, I remember something called Dogpile.
Dogpile! Yeah, so it’s almost impossible for anyone to compete with us, from a search engine perspective. But you also pull in a net of larger searches with it, too. People type in “Boston gas prices” or “Boston weather”. It’s localized and you try to get as close as possible to the search terms you’re looking at. And I think the improvement in search engine technology, Google for example, certainly helped us, because it gave us better results and our name floated right to the top. Even today, all of our websites float right to the top. One of the other nice things about having the local websites was that media would use that a lot in their stories. Because it had local content, local averages, local statistics, local everything. For them, if it’s at least like a website that seems super busy, lots going on, lots of activity, lots of data, they’re going to use that.
There’s a few other apps out there. A lot of them license our data. And if they don’t license our data, they don’t have any data. So that’s a good position to be in.
So at a certain point in the mid-2000s, you reached a point where information became not just data, but you were being taken as a kind of authority on gas prices, to the point where the media was contacting you.
They were even contacting us in 2001. I don’t remember when the first interview was. I’m not sure if it was in 2000. We didn’t have much of a following, really. Things started to pick up in 2001. Right from the start, we wanted to get a version of the website out ASAP. So we started, the best I can tell, April 24, 2000, we started development and released it six weeks later, on June 11, 2000. We just wanted to get it out there as soon as possible, a minimum viable product, essentially, and continue development on it. Right from the start, we wanted to get a point structure in there, giving away prizes and stuff like that. So, on January 28, 2001, we launched out a members area, where people could win free gas. That’s when we started off with the quarterly $250 prizes. After we released the members area, and incentivized people to submit prices, we started seeing the number of prices going up substantially. Couple that with some of the media attention, and some of the more volatile gas prices in 2001, with prices going up in summer and down in fall. When gas prices are flat, we don’t get nearly as much media attention. But if they go up or down, we tend to get a lot of media attention. So couple the user engagement, the incentivization, of entering prices for points and prizes, with the media, we started to get pretty decent traction in 2001. We got a fairly decent number of news stories from 2001-2005, and that’s continued to today, really.
You’ve moved from being this independent player to being an authority on the subject. Almost a tech player within the oil and gas industry itself.
Yeah, I would say so. We’re trying to position ourselves even more so. In the States, our primary competition is AAA. It’s not competition in the traditional sense, like we have the same kind of product. We’re competing for media attention. And there’s a few other apps out there. A lot of them license our data. And if they don’t license our data, they don’t have any data. So that’s a good position to be in.
At what point did you realize that the data itself is a product that you could monetize?
I don’t remember the exact point, but I know for sure it was before 2004. We had some discussions with a sign manufacturer, where they’d license our data. How convenience stores set their prices is they have their managers drive around to survey all the competition, then they come back to the store, and if they’re an independent location, then they set their price right then and there. They say, “Okay, Shell is at 1.259.”
Literally, they’re eyeballing it? Each store just has somebody going around?
Yep. So, after we launched GasBuddy, we didn’t have these insights at the time of how the industry worked. But if they’re a larger size company, like if they have 100 stores or 500 stores, what they do is, their manager has surveyed the competition, they send this in to headquarters, and they have a pricing manager there, who sets the prices. He basically communicates to the stores by email, fax, phone call or whatever they do, and say, “Set your price to this.” They have all their competition, A, B, C, and D, this is what they’re all charging. And you might want to beat Shell by two cents. So they say, “Okay, set yours lower, two cents lower than Shell.” So this sign manufacturer had some software to change the price on the signs remotely, and they wanted our data, so they could use that without having to drive around and do surveys. And I have to say, I don’t think our data was comprehensive enough, to rely on that to reduce or eliminate managers surveying the competition. It depended on the market. But that’s certainly changed today. We have substantially more data today, and it’s been growing year over year over year. So we came up with an agreement with this company, called Skyline. And I know we had thought about licensing or selling our data prior to that. But at the time, in 2004, it was just Dustin and me. At the time, it seemed fairly far off, where we are today, really. And I guess it has been 10 years since then.
For me personally, I get a lot of gratification from knowing that millions of people are using the website and app that I co-founded and developed.
Has the OPIS acquisition been a good fit for you guys?
Yeah, it’s been really good. It seems like a natural fit. They have some data, too, that can augment what we’re doing. We have a new product, called Price Pro, that we’ve developed, and OPIS is selling it for us. We’re one and the same company now. But back to our original vision of selling the data, we developed a tool that takes our data and helps convenience stores visualize what their competition is charging and how they fit in the markets, and set their prices. We just launched that. We were in beta late last year, and we’re live with it now. We’re setting up new customers, but it’s a software-as-a-service. We charge monthly licensing fees on a per-store basis. Our data set alone, it’s pretty awesome, but it does have some gaps, particularly in rural areas, if you don’t have good cell phone coverage there, or if there’s not many people there. And the nice thing about adding the OPIS data to it is it kind of fills in some of those gaps. But it’s certainly getting better and better all the time. Even from the beginning of this year, we’ve increased the amount of data by 20-25%. We’re continuing to grow it. For the base of data we have right now, it’s pretty good to grow it by 25% over six months.
Yeah, that’s quite a bit.
But we’re focusing a lot on usability in the app, trying to encourage more people to enter in more prices. We’re working on some things, like price hike alerts, so we notify people when prices are jumping, and a whole bunch of different things to get people to come in to the app and use it more often.
Yeah, well, it is kind of a perfect storm. It’s something that people naturally, every day wonder about. What’s the price of gas?
It’s water cooler conversation. It’s good. And for me personally, I get a lot of gratification from knowing that millions of people are using the website and app that I co-founded and developed. I think the novelty has worn off a little bit, but to have a website or an app that a lot of people are looking at is pretty amazing. Especially the way we did it, too, all bootstrapped and not your traditional way.
Not to mention, and I feel like I can’t emphasize it enough, in Regina. Do you know what I mean? If you’re in Montreal or Kitchener-Waterloo or Toronto, you can develop amazing things. Some not so amazing, but anyway, they have access to the talent pool, the resources, the financing, and you guys came up from nowhere, really.
And we chose to live here from a quality-of-life perspective. Not that the weather’s awesome, but more from the perspective that family is here, and friends, of course. I was gone for around seven years or so to Minneapolis, until I moved back. But it was nice to move back. And it’s been all right. It’s definitely turned out well for us. And I think the way we grew the company made it more feasible to be in Regina, because we recruited slowly but surely, over time, instead of needing 50 people at once.
I guess the rationale behind that is that if you feel the opportunity is there, let’s say it’s Hootsuite or something like that, where they raise $165 million in one swoop, you need to scale in order to take advantage of the opportunity that will otherwise disappear if you don’t take the big VC money.
Yeah, and you need to scale quickly, too. You can’t take three years to recruit the people you need. I think one of the things that recruiting slowly over time has been good for is to pick and choose the right people. Even with a highly selective criteria for hiring people, we still got a few people who maybe weren’t right for the team. And I can’t imagine what it would be like, hiring 50 or 100 people at once. You’ve got to figure that recruiting that many people so quickly, probably half of them are not going to be right for the team. And that really has an impact on the quality of the product. You really need top talent in order to be able to do that. To use a sports analogy, you could have the most talented hockey player in the world, who can score goals until the cows come home, but if he’s not passing the puck, come playoff time, you’re not going to win the Stanley Cup.
Yeah, that’s kind of who I was thinking about. An amazing talent, but…
So you’ve built this up from a two-man start-up to an industry player. What do you see happening for GasBuddy in the next five years?
I think that a lot of people who develop apps or websites think that adding a whole bunch of features will make it better, and even we fell into that trap. Websites have gotten fairly cluttered over the years. They’re busy. And that doesn’t help usability, it doesn’t help user experience. When somebody comes to the website, their mind wants to explode because there’s so much stuff going on. The trouble is, it’s hard to remove things after the fact, because you have users that are using it. And when we launched the app, we learned a lot about usability and we kept it very plain and simple, and resisted the temptation to add features, like the message forum or the voting poll and this kind of stuff, because we knew that everything we added was going to make it more complicated and harder to use. It’s not going to make it better, not going to make us more money, not going to get more gas prices being entered in. That being said, that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to change the app. The usability, it’s primarily a navigation problem. If you want to add a new section, you have to add some way of navigating to it. I think we’re going to add coupons, to be used at convenience stores, to the app. And we’re highly interested in mobile payments. Aside from that, we’re not likely going to be adding too many features to the app. We want to maintain that usability. We’re going to redesign the website, of course. But in five years, I think one of the big things for us is to monetize the data better, through Price Pro but also getting more convenience store chains to sign up to OpenStore. We want to continue to bring value to OpenStore customers. Part of the initiative to get coupons into GasBuddy is to get more coupons for convenience stores. And this brings value to consumers, too. If you get a good deal on something, it helps people. I think we want to focus on the opportunities in front of us and try to do them well. We may look at expanding internationally, with GasBuddy, into other markets and possibly other verticals, other than gas.
With convenience stores, too, you’ve got changing technology around the EMV Europay chip technology and the mobile wallet.
Yeah, in my opinion, mobile payment has got a ways to go. There’s got to be a reason the consumer wants to use it. It has to be easy to use. And I find that a lot of the solutions out there right now, like you’re scanning a QR code or entering the pump number or something like that, it’s just not easy to use. Consumers aren’t going to use it. And there’s no value proposition for them either. It depends on the company. But there has to be kind of a spiff back to the consumer. But also, it has to be easy. The way it has to work is, I take my phone and maybe don’t even turn it on, hold it up to some kind of sensor, it might be a Bluetooth low energy beacon, and it comes up with the payment automatically on your screen, instead of having to open the phone, go back to the home screen, find the payment app, scroll to the right credit card that you want to use, and type in your PIN. If I could hold my phone up there, and come up with something, “Which card do you want to use?” Tap, and done. That’s super easy, and I don’t have to pull my credit card out of my wallet. So I think it’s got a ways to go, but it’s got to be super easy to use, and even better if it has a value proposition. If it doesn’t have a value proposition, it needs to be more convenient.
Maybe it’ll be a wristband that uses your heartbeat for a password, or a Pebble watch. But, yeah, it all feels a little clunky right now.
Yeah, it does, but they’ll get it figured out. But if they’re using Bluetooth low energy, there’s a significant portion of phones on the market that don’t support it yet, especially the Androids. And even if they support Bluetooth low energy, the Bluetooth needs to be turned on. But also, it’s not baked in natively, where it just pops up, and I really think it needs to do that.
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