By Juan Rodriguez
Late in 2010 my partner’s wife found herself increasingly frustrated with the inefficiency of valet parking. Her job required her to valet park up to 40 times a week, which meant frequent trips to the ATM to withdraw cash for payment and tips, plus a great deal of time waiting outside for her vehicle. After expressing frustration to my partner and his colleagues (all with backgrounds in mobile payments), there was a light bulb moment . . . and in 2011we launched a new company.
Initially, we only solved two of the parking customer’s pain points: expediting the vehicle request using SMS technology (text messages) and allowing for mobile payments. But as the team set out to understand the valet industry, there was a discovery on how to solve the parking providers’ pain points. As a result of understanding both the industry perspective and the consumers’ issues, an all-in-one solution addressing the operational needs of a variety of venue types emerged – be they hospitals or hotels, restaurants or shopping malls.
Educating an Industry on Mobile
Converting an industry historically operating with pen & paper and cold hard cash to a mobile app requires trust, training, patience, and time. Many parking operations process over $100,000 per month and although operators could quickly see the value of technology, especially when it came to revenue control, getting potential clients to feel comfortable managing a business from a phone is a significant challenge.
Today’s smartphone can be even more powerful than a five-year-old computer. However, clarifying the misperception that a phone is not robust enough to run a business is a key part of the education process. Concerns about data capacity (“Will all my data fit in that phone?”) invite conversations about cloud storage and the power of the Software as a Service (SaaS) model. Fears about equipment loss or damage are common but quickly allayed by explaining the preservation of data independent of individual devices.
On the other hand, the guys on the ground parking the cars – most in their early twenties and raised in the digital age – adapt quickly to the technology. And the parking customer? They are already immersed in an increasingly mobile consumer landscape and were ready to bite.
Making Early Decisions – Android or iPhone? Mobile Web App or SMS?
With two distinct user types (the parking customer and the parking provider), the first step was finding the best interaction method for each. The valet parking customer needs to be able to request their car and pay with their phone; and the valet attendant on the street curb needs to accept vehicle requests and payment, clock staff in and out, and pull reports.
For the parking customer, the clear choice was SMS, commonly known as text messaging. The process is simple – the customer sends a text requesting their vehicle the same way they might text a friend about lunch plans. Since most people know how to text and nearly every phone is equipped to do so right out of the box, this interaction method was easy to implement.
The parking provider interaction method, however, proved far more complex. The system needed to be fast, responsive, and functional even in poor bandwidth conditions. At the time, Blackberry was losing market share, so that was not an option. That left Android and Apple’s iOS as the last two platforms, and they each have their share of pros and cons.
With no formal approval process required to publish to app stores such as Google Play, and a variety of inexpensive phone models available, Android was an attractive option. Unfortunately, the same reasons which made Android appealing also presented numerous challenges in development. With too many phone types, sizes, form factors and operating system flavors (Samsung runs one version, Motorola another), Android lost to the more expensive iPhone despite the strict scrutiny to which Apple subjects potential new apps. Developing an app for the iOS platform simplified the process because of the limited variations between models (i.e. iPhone3GS vs. iPhone4 vs. iPhone4S vs. iPhone5 and their respective operating system versions), and the availability of mature and quality-tested barcode scanning and card swiping peripherals was a big bonus.
The Nuts and Bolts
Mobile development is very different than web or desktop work because the magic appearing on the mobile device often relies on the back-end infrastructure. Investing in a specialized mobile development team thinking far in advance of the present and able to analyze all possible outcomes became crucial. Here’s advice I can share based on my startup experience in mobile:
In the next decade more and more businesses will be managed with a mobile phone or tablet providing convenience and efficiency. The mobile-savvy population is rapidly growing and diversifying, making this one of the most exciting sectors to work in today.
Juan Rodriguez, Co-Founder and CEO of Klever Logic, created Flash Valet in Austin in 2011.
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