Start a business, build an app
Eric Meyer, founder of Haystack. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Start a business, build an app

For Maryland app companies, survival in outreach and diversification

Think basic human needs, like finding food, and specific needs, like accessing infertility resources.

No matter where a particular function falls on this spectrum, there’s probably an app for it.

That translates to endless opportunities, and entrepreneurs all across Maryland are creating apps that expand the reach of their businesses.

Take Baltimore-based Order Up, which allows users to peruse local food options in small urban settings.

“What distinguishes us from other players in the industry is our hyper-local approach,” said Jason Kwicien, co-founder and chief operating officer.

Order Up, which recently raised $7 million in venture funding, has expanded its approach from providing on-demand food delivery to helping restaurants create a delivery service using mobile technology. The company started with a web app, but now about 40 percent of its users come from mobile devices.

“We’ve obviously moved into mobile because that’s the future,” said Kwicien.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy money.

“Creating the technology is just one step out of many,” said Nick Miller, CEO of Parking Panda. “One of the hardest things is getting it out there.”

Parking Panda, founded in Baltimore, has a mobile app and website that allow users to reserve parking spots in advance or on-the-go. It now serves more than 100 U.S. cities, with parking at 300,000 locations and counting.

Miller came up with the idea after years of winding down countless Baltimore streets, searching for a place to leave his car during a Ravens game.

Now he partners with the Ravens and various other organizations so he can directly help the fans with their own parking woes.

Eric Meyer also found inspiration while circling the block. He saw room for improvement in the city parking situation, but on a day-to-day basis. So he worked with developers to create Haystack, which launched in January.

The app, in which users can find an open parking spot on the street in real-time, has 5,000 users in Baltimore, said Meyer, and plans to expand to more regions and other types of technology.

Haystack addresses a similar problem to Parking Panda, but the two do not compete, said Meyer. However, he knows that simply creating the app won’t keep it ahead of the game.

“There are a couple of other mobile apps that have tried to start out on the West Coast,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot more success than they have because of our outreach … the app is completely worthless if you don’t have an incredible marketing strategy.”

For example, prior to its launch, Haystack invited people to download the app, which was inactive with a countdown to the launch date. It was an unusual strategy, said Meyer, but it meant that the app already had a large group of users that could interact immediately once the app was live.

Unlike Parking Panda, which does all of its development in-house, Haystack hired a Maryland-based company to code its app.

“It was very expensive … in the six figures,” said Meyer. “That’s what it costs to develop something that’s very intricate, very advanced.”

But it’s a strategy that allows an entrepreneur with a solution in mind to bring that idea to life.

It’s how Lisa Drouillard was able to create a fertility organizer app while working full time at UMBC.

Drouillard is no techie. But she was motivated to create a resource for women with infertility problems, so she launched a fertility organizer desktop and mobile web app through her website, My Hopeful Journey.

“It really came out of a personal need that I had because I had gone through infertility treatment,” said Drouillard. “The No. 1 thing was about reaching the people that needed it, and it wasn’t about the million-dollar idea.”

She worked with developers to bring the concept to life in late 2010. It took her about two more years to launch an iPhone app, the Infertility Survival Kit, and she just recently launched a version for Droid.

Drouillard’s app has been recognized in Fertility Road magazine and at business competitions like Towson Global and the Lifebridge Entrepreneur Challenge. She has expanded the business by licensing the application to other brands like fertility resources and doctors.

But she enjoys her current job, so her only financial goal has been for the app to be self-sustaining without using institutional funding. So far that’s been the case. Still, she said, now that the app has been developed she spends much of her free time marketing it to users and reaching out to potential licensees.

“It’s a little bit more glamourous looking than it is as far as the money goes,” she said. “The Angry Birds phenomenon, that’s a hard thing to reach.”

For Order Up, the food delivery technology company, working with restaurants to set up delivery systems is time consuming and goes far beyond the task of selling an app. But it’s key to the business model.

“The restaurant relationship is very important to us and it’s probably our strong suit,” said Kwicien. “It’s worth the time that we’re spending because we’re bringing significant value to our restaurant partners.”

Forming an idea and creating the technology might be the biggest hurdle, said Miller, but it takes considerably more effort to make a splash, especially with so many apps at consumers’ fingertips.

“It’s certainly harder to stand out above the rest at this point,” he said. “The apps that are really successful are the ones that solve a real problem.”

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