Thursday, March 3, 2011
Interview with Spike Stevens, The MeNetwork
One of the fastest growing industries in recent years has been mobile access, and associated with that, mobile marketing. Today, we talked with Denver-based The MeNetwork (www.themenetwork.net), which has built out a mobile search service built around SMS. We spoke with founder Spike Stevens.
What's the whole idea of MeNetwork?
Spike Stevens: The Me network, in its simplest terms, is a mobile search and marketing platform. Unlike most mobile companies today, we're not app-based, we actually built an entire ecosystem that runs off of text SMS searches. The way a consumer or end user uses The MeNetwork, is they send us a text, tell us where they are, either something broad like Denver, or a specific neighborhood like LoDo, and tell us what they're looking for -- whether that's a happy hour, steak, seafood, sushi, or even services like a spa, salon, or hotel. Once the text message is sent off to us, our system consumes it and says -- there is a guy in Denver, looking for sushi, what offers do I have in Denver with sushi as a keyword or other search terms. Once it makes the match, it sends an offer back to the phone via text message. It's all done over SMS, and takes four or five seconds for our system to make a match, and return offers. Of course, the carrier network traffic can adversely affect the response, but a typical offer comes back in five seconds.
What's the story behind the company and how it came about?
Spike Stevens: My background is I spent 18 years at advertising agencies on the creative side of business. As my career went along, I had two mantras I was starting to adopt--which is a message must be timely, and it must be relevant. If it's only one of those, no one will do anything with it. Lots of my clients--which ranged from very large, multi-billion multinationals to small local companies--were throwing a bunch of money at mass media, and getting no results, or results they couldn't measure. One day, I was having lunch at Proto's Pizza on Platte Street, and saw they had a sidewalk chalkboard. I thought that was very interesting--if you've been to Proto's, they do not get a lot of foot traffic in that location, and there are not lots of passers-by--but they had some amazing specials. I was thinking that there had got to be a way to take that chalkboard, and make it available on demand via a mobile phone. Clearly, there are lots of people who now live their whole lives around their mobile phone. I thought that also, it needed to be technology that no one had to learn anew. The problem with apps is you have to learn how to use them. Instead, we decided to make it the simplest transaction it can be, which is to use a text message to say where you are, and what you are looking for, and return results via text message. The impetus behind it, which really resonated with me, was it solves both of those two big issues--it makes the message relevant, telling people what they want, and it makes it timely--it's a good assumption is you're looking for something now, you're in the market for it now, and you're ready to buy.
How long has the service been running?
Spike Stevens: I started working on the alpha prototype in March of 2009. We did a beta test, in a large scale test with Visit Denver, the Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau in January of 2010, at the SIA convention. That was our first, real public, large scale test. There were 20,000 attendees to that show, which promoted it heavily, and it was the official mobile search platform for the convention. It performed beautifully. Past that, working a deal with Visit Denver, we launched in Denver in May of 2010. Since then, we've been rolling out to different cities in stages. We launched a beta pilot in San Francisco in December of 2010, Omaha Nebraksa two weeks ago--which might seem an odd place to start, but our early angel investors live there--and we are rolling out in New Orleans and Austin in April.
Speaking of investors, how are you backed?
Spike Stevens: We attracted a little bit of angel investment to get off the ground. The first round came in late fall of 2009, and we attracted another small round of angel funding in November of 2010.
What's the reason for those particular markets?
Spike Stevens: There are two problems to solve in going to market. One, is do you have enough merchant mass, so that you have enough offers in the system. Two, is you have to build up enough consumer awareness so they use you to find what they are looking for. We figured out that to solve the merchant issue, it would be too hard to go door to door. Instead, we looked for partners, and we partnered with another Denver company, Weaver Multimedia Group. They do all of the publishing for convention and visitors bureaus in large cities. They have relationships with the convention and visitors bureau (CVBs), and they now have the MeNetwork in their tool chest of things they can sell. So, we are going to New Orleans, because the New Orleans CVB can bring on 1200 visitors at one time. The way we choose rollout cities, is they are the great travel and tourism cities. Austin is following that. The good relationships with CVBs helps us build an immediate mass of merchants, with a 98 percent search fill rate. On the other side, for consumers, the CVBs have a good media relationship, and are able to get the word out to consumers.
Are there any particular kinds of offers you find people respond to best?
Spike Stevens: Typically, things like20 percent off your bill for restaurants when you show a text. Those redeem well. Also, things that include a price point. There is Jack's Seafood in Denver, and they offer $1 oysters, which is an example. Anytime you can put a compelling price point it draws very well. The beauty of the system, is the merchants can log in using our web-based tool, and log in and create their own offers. It's not like Groupon, which puts an offer out there forever. The merchants have 24/7 access to our merchant tool, and if they are having a slow day they can put out a buy one, get one half off offer by just picking keywords and launching. It takes two or three minutes, that's all. There is lots of flexibility in the system, which allows them to respond directly to the market and changing conditions. That's versus the Groupon and daily deals sites, where deals are locked in ahead of time. The MeNetwork takes the daily out of it, and provides deals all the time, on demand--with fresh offers every day.
Finally, what's the next big move for you?
Spike Stevens: Our goal this year, is to get up and running in 10 major cities. Once we get New Orleans and Austin up in April, we will have five more cities. The next cities are most likely Seattle, Chicago, and Philadelphia, with Los Angeles a good possibility, and a tossup between maybe Vegas or maybe Orlando.