In a major update, the Now iPhone app turns live public photo streams into a travel discovery tool
Now is an iPhone app that takes advantage of live public photo streams—such as from Instagram—and helps users find the most exciting parties, concerts, restaurants, and other events at a destination in real-time.
The live city guide launched on May 17, 2012, detecting trending events in a few major cities. It analyzes feeds of photos made public by users of sharing services like Instagram, looking for clusters of photos taken at the same place at the same time.
Last November, the app expanded to cover more than 50 destinations in the US and another 50 worldwide. It also began letting users create their own events happening near them, and letting users explore other destinations outside of their hometown or current location.
At the start of February, the app was featured in the iTunes App Store, which drove many downloads. As of today, it’s been downloaded 50,000 times by users in more than 30 countries, according to the company.
This week, Now received a major update.
Friends notifications is one new feature, showing you if you know people at the events of the app.
A user who connects their Instagram account to their Now feed can discover out if their friends are at cool Now events, kind of like how Foursquare tells you where your friends are but only with Instagram visual data plus Now’s filter on cool trending locations. Receiving notifications about your friends’ activities is optional.
One other new feature is “Social Activity Search.” Users can now also scan for up-to-the-moment social activity at their favorite places, searching by name to see if anything is happening. The app also suggests popular venues at a particular time.
It’s as close to real time as possible with APIs. The app find top events happening nearby now. If your Instagram friend snaps a photo at a popular event Now is covering, the app will silently notify you with push notifications — in an optional feature.
Similarly, if another Now user uploads a photo via Now itself to share that they’re at an event, that news will also be covered. Once an “event” like that is created by a user, Now will pull crowdsourced photos from other social networks like Instagram and add them to your post.
Plus, if anyone else creates the same event or replies to your event with photos, they will all be added to the same photo album.
The company is currently made up of three people working full time on the product. Ben Broca, CEO and founder, is responsible for the front-end iPhone development. Conall O’Callaghan is CTO and handles all the backend. They recently hired a community manager, Chris Pulliam.
Q&A with CEO Ben Cera:
Describe what your start-up does, what problem it solves and for whom?
Now is an app that let’s you see what is happening now based on public photos taken by others around you.
A lot of information is available over the internet on what is happening and a lot of public photos are available but we compile everything in an easy to use app to let you know what is happening now.
We really see Now as a live city guide. Not by recommending places that might be cool, like Foursquare or Yelp would do, but by knowing what’s actually happening in thoses places right now, and being able to show you exactly what’s happening through the photos taken there and a social activity layer (friend notifications).
Competition includes Foursquare, TimeOut, Thrillist. But they don’t operate in the last-minute space. Unlike those tools, Now doesn’t recommend places, but instead simply lets users know what’s happening through a mix of photos and maps.
Around 50% of users in major cities check the app at least once a week, with a peak of 60% of users in New York City. We are worldwide, but the algorithms currently do the best job of covering 40 US cities and 25 international cities, including London, Paris, Barcelona, Bangkok and São Paulo.
The app creates 1,000 events a day, a big jump from 250 a day six weeks ago. Our top markets are New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Paris and Bangkok.
Are you making money? How are you going to make money?
The site says it doesn’t make profits yet but it is talking to big venues in New York City about how we might help them bring more customers through their doors.
Venues are particularly interested in the last minute sales and mobile sales, which are a growing trend that they don’t have the technological expertise to tap into (see the success of HotelTonight and other last minute hotels apps).
Also, we want to provide venues with solutions to cover their social media exposure in the photo world. Thanks to our new update, if users click on a venue they haven’t heard of before, such as Terminal 5 in Manhattan, they’ll see what experiences and events have happened their in the past.
This will accrete automatically, without the venue manager having to supply content to us or Now having to author descriptions or other structured content.
Our mission for the customer is to “find fun nearby.” We are getting our customers accustomed to receiving updates about what events are happening in venues in their city. It will be a natural progression to go from what is happening now in their vicinity to actually make that action actionable into a purchase without hurting the user experience.
We have also created a very tight relation between events at venues and customers with Now, at least in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Globally, the market size for local business advertisement is estimated at billions a year. The share taken to digital and mobile advertisement is growing each year, too.
Tell us how you founded the company, why and what made you decide to jump in and create the business.
Now started up as a side project. I’m from Paris but studied engineering at Columbia University in New York. After school, I worked in banking for a few years but got tired of it, so started hacking on nights and weekends.
I launched Now while still working on Wall Street. Given its early success (it was featured on Apple AppStore, received great feedback), I decided to quit and work on it full-time.
It was an easy decision to work full time on the project. Photo sharing was and is on a upward trend and the service is more and more powerful as time goes by.
I raised a little south of $100k short after that from friends and family as seed. We are now building the app with Conall (backend guru) and Chris (growth hacker) out of our Lower East Side office in New York.
Other than going viral and receiving mountains of positive PR, what is the strategy for raising awareness and getting customers/users?
We have a good usage base already, and we hope there’s a word-of-mouth effect.
We are working on making the app more viral by giving a social context to where you want to go out. Eventually you go to events with friends, so this makes sense.
Also, we’re working with venues to make their social media job easier. We hope to reach out to a wider audience by communicating to their customers.
The site does not have an Android version, and something that it isn’t a priority. But that could expand the user base.
How did your initial idea evolve? Were there changes/any pivots along the way? What other options have you considered for the business if the original vision fails?
The initial idea was that the public photos being snapped every second can give you a lot of information on what is happening around you.
We haven’t pivoted yet from our initial idea but we’re definitely trying to make the app better and more personal by bringing a social layer to it.
Where do you see yourselves in 3 years’ time, what specific challenges do you hope to have overcome?
In 3 years, I see Now as a tool to know about any place before going. Literal ubiquity.
People share more and more photos online of where they are, and by connecting these photos together you can know what is happening everywhere.
I forecast it will feel natural to people to have this information before going to a place in the future, whereas it sounds very futuristic right now.
What is wrong with the travel, tourism and hospitality industry that requires another startup to help it out?
The issue with travel guides is that the information is never up to date by definition, since it has been written by someone in the past.
What we do is gathering local information happening right now to tell you about places, so you’ll always have very current information on where are the places to be in a city you don’t know.
Second: What an app name to communicate what the product does in a way users can grasp right away.
Now is also a good example of startup founders avoiding premature scaling, which studies and anecdotal evidence suggest is a leading cause of startup failure.
Given that a user of Now is trying to find the latest hot event, a key metric of success will be how well the it helps the user get this job done. Tracking how many people are actually using the product, and keeping that number growing from month to month is another key metric.
A worrisome point is the scalability of the business side. If it turns out that venue relationships are going to be a key to monetization, will Now be able to scale up its business development team without proportionally increasing its cost base?
So far, that’s unclear. Dealing with individual businesses, such as, say, a Lower East Side concert venue, that is not familiar with mobile ad sales, could require high-touch salesmanship. Will the contracts produce reliable, recurring revenues?
And if some celebrity starts using Now, will its systems be ready to handle the crush of adoption from viral network effects?
All in all, still early days. But another impressive example that many people would be better off skipping their MBA and starting a Web-based business instead.
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Sean O’Neill is a New Jersey-based reporter for Tnooz. He is also a daily contributor of consumer news to LonelyPlanet.com.
He used to work for BBC Travel, BudgetTravel.com, and Kiplinger's, and used to live in London, New York City, and Washington, DC.