Launched in 2010, the MyCityWay app provides users a unique way to navigate their world with just one tap of their mobile screen. By partnering with brands such as BMW, Macy’s, and the New York Daily News, to name a few, MyCityWay enables marketers to connect with customers via mobile technologies, such as smart phones and tablets. At the helm of this partnering evolution is chief revenue officer Steve Rowe. He knows a thing or two about transforming the power of relationships into solid results. Before joining MyCityWay, Rowe was head of sales and marketing for Zagat Survey, where he helped develop mobile and web marketing programs, as well as custom content and brand licensing for global corporations. Rowe recently sat down with writer Heather Chaet to share his insights about the critical importance of creating partnerships, and the impact of mobile technology on small businesses.
HC: Tell me a little about MyCityWay and how it all started.
SR: MyCityWay started when three long-time friends—all Wall Street banking technologists—decided to enter the first-ever NYC Big Apps competition, run by Mayor Bloomberg and the City of New York. The challenge was basically: ‘Here’s all of our data, come and get it, and build a guide to the city.’ Subway information, transit alerts, weather, food ratings, all of it was open to anyone who wanted to enter. So, these friends said, ‘Why not? Let’s give it a shot.’ They actually built it on nights and weekends because they were working during the day on algorithmic trading systems, which is all about the predictive nature of the markets and how do you serve up what is happening in the markets to a non-techie trader for them to be able to read the data and understand it.
The MyCityWay app they created was a hit and was selected as both the People’s Choice and Investor’s Choice, and the mayor gave them an honorable mention. As part of the competition, the mayor took them out to dinner, where he suggested they focus all of their energy on MyCityWay and said that he would invest with them. They thought about it for while, and when the City of New York became one of their first investors, along with FirstMark Capital (known for Pinterest and StubHub) and IA Ventures, they quit their day jobs and started MyCityWay.
HC: What exactly does MyCityWay do and how has it evolved?
SR: We started by doing guides to cities—New York, Boston, Philadelphia and over 100 others—with the whole idea of having an app where people can go to one place, instead of 30 different apps, and get everything they wanted in one shot.
Basically, we use all of the data that is available in the public market, both free and licensed content, and we pipe in all of that data and content. The next layer is when all of this information talks to each other. Let’s say you are going out to eat. The MyCityWay app lets you know not just what else is near the restaurant, but how to get there, if you can park on the street, or where there is a nearby parking garage. Via our partnership with Open Table, you can make a reservation. We don’t just tell you where the closest subway is; we also have an alert from the city that says if it’s delayed or on time. All of this is in our one app.
We took it one step further with MyCityWay Now, which personalizes the experience even more. You get to pick what you see on your home screen: your favorite traffic camera that you use every day, the price of the grade of gas you use, you pick whatever you want. We learn more about you because you are telling us these are the things you care about.
We use that information as aggregate data to get an anonymous picture of you so we can give you other information that will be most relevant to you. So that is where all the know-how from Wall Street and the algorithmic data gets combined with mobile. We try to figure out what you will want to know next. Say you like street fairs, and our data shows that there is a street fair four blocks away. We don’t think you’ll get that upset if we tell you that through the app.
HC: As part of your job as chief revenue officer, you cultivate strategic partnerships for MyCityWay, and you've managed to do that with companies including the New York Daily News, Calvin Klein, and MasterCard. Why did you first think about approaching companies and how did it blossom from there?
SR: When you have a small business or even a young business, you are constantly working to grow as fast as possible. Every day counts. We are always asking ourselves, ‘Where’s the need in the market for something that we might have?’ At first, it was consumer guides for cities. Then, we realized we had this group of people using our app, we know where they are, where they are going, and what they are interested in. Someone really interested in shopping may want to know there is a Lacoste sale near by, so why not work with retailers that are looking to experiment in mobile.
We started to do campaigns with brands such as Lacoste, MasterCard, and Tommy Hilfiger. BMW came to us to do marketing for their BMW “i” brand of vehicles. They were interested in our technology and intrigued by our philosophy on connected devices. We believe it isn’t about what device you are on, but about you. BMW is a lifestyle, and they saw the strategic fit and, invested in us through their BMW i Ventures. Currently, we are working with them on specific technology for their car-sharing program.
Companies started saying, ‘We really like your platform, and we wish we had something like it.’ We realized instead of just being a B2C business where we provide information to consumers, we could empower businesses to reach consumers through our technology. It’s B2B2C.
HC: One of your more interesting and successful B2B2C partnerships was with Macy's for a Thanksgiving Day Parade app. Can you talk a little about how that came to be and what it led to in terms of future partnerships and revenue?
SR: Macy’s wanted something mobile for the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade. We had a platform that helped people get around town, and the biggest thing about parade day is getting around town. We licensed our platform to Macy’s—that’s the B2B—and now they are giving it to the consumers, which is the B2C.
Our whole philosophy is ‘Do that extra thing—or three,’ which often pays off in big ways, and especially did with this partnership. Macy’s asked us to follow Santa down the route with a GPS chip. We knew we could do something even better and suggested we use social media to track Santa and all of the marching bands so that grandparents and aunts and uncles at home can follow their nephew in the marching band. Macy’s was thrilled, and suddenly, we had them saying amazing things about us on The Today Show. Our idea was great for them, and, in exchange, they rewarded us immeasurably with publicity and partnerships for their next two major events.
HC: How do you keep that momentum going and move from that one partnership into others?
SR: The key is to figure out how much money is available to do it again after the first one. You may think you want to do it again for three more, but you have to be honest with yourself if you can pull that off in a way that you can produce and manage them. If those next three work, then the question is: can you scale that? You have to examine if you can go from three to eight relatively easily. If you can’t, you won’t be able to turn it into a big opportunity or profit. No matter how cool the deal or partner is, you need to know if the ROI will be there.
SR: I think there are five steps. First, if it’s a big brand and you are really excited about it, don’t get too caught up in the hype. At the end of the day, you have a good business. They are working with you, and they have chosen you over a lot of other businesses. They find your business or what you are providing interesting, so don’t sell yourself short.
Second, make it clear what the exchange is—what you are giving and what they are giving—whether it is money, promotion, or maybe something else like introductions to the rest of their business arena. You may have to come down in revenue for this opportunity, but get something in exchange. For instance, if it is a big event, make sure they do a press release with you.
Third, cover yourself. You have to get paid and cover your expenses. There are often a lot of promises of what PR will bring you, but it’s hard to measure that type of ROI, so be conservative about the expectation of that.
Fourth, be critical. Take a step back from the day-to-day to be sure the effort you are putting into is still on target to get those benefits. Our work with the Daily News was a good example. The results are fantastic. People are using the app more than they ever did before.
Then, right after the deal is done, take a look back at it. Figure out what you would do differently so, when you go into the next one, you are writing the contract or approaching the program in a better way. What was your ROI? Maybe you got all of this press and what does that mean to you? Are people going to be running into your cupcake store because of that press? Maybe for a week, and maybe that will turn everything around and off you go. But evaluate it with a critical eye.
HC: Why do you think it’s important for small businesses to get into the mobile space?
SR: Mobile today is where the web was a bunch of years ago. It used to be you just wanted a website. But now, it has to be a great website. The same thing applied with mobile. You have to have an app that is a great app backed up by systems simple enough for any business owner or marketer to use. We are seeing that how your app works affects how well your store performs.
The main emphasis about your app is that you want to package it in with something more than just your business so they open it every day. For example, add relevant content, blog or social media posts. Most folks don’t think to open the Home Depot app every day, but when you package it with something like the MyCityWay app, which offers more information and content, your customers now have a reason to open it even when they aren’t thinking about your business.
The other essential element to your app: give lots of options for people to share. When you are building that app, get in that share button—either one-to-one via email or text, or through Facebook or any social media. People who are friends with your best customer could be your next best customers. It’s free, highly targeted advertising every time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.