Has the Sharing Economy Given Way to the Scalping Economy?

Wave upon wave of new consumer-facing apps are hitting the home screen of millenials’ smartphones. Uber and Lyft have harnessed technology to acquire and expand upon the cab industry’s inventory, extracting additional rents to meet true demand more efficiently. Airbnb piggybacked on excess inventory in people’s homes and rental properties, meeting lodging demand in ways that still confound Starwood, Hilton, and Marriott. Like Uber and Lyft, Airbnb was so successful that their service expanded the total available inventory of homes, rooms, couches, and air mattresses to rent.

Convenience, Delivered

New upstarts like Drizly and Instacart are following in the predecessors footsteps, but in different industries. These companies are tapping into consumers demand for convenience with other people’s inventory. Drizly delivers alcohol to your door within the hour, and Instacart delivers groceries from your local supermarkets to your door within a day or less. By creating a platform on top of someone else’s goods, these companies can focus on service and eliminating the hassle of high overhead costs (storing and showing products). The showroom is the app, and the goods are only in their possession en route to the consumers’ home. As time passes, I speculate that these services will do so much volume it will be more efficient to warehouse the goods themselves and cut the liquor stores and supermarkets out of the equation completely. AmazonFresh and others are already making use of this strategy in key cities.

Aside from a delivery fee, these on-demand companies often charge a premium on goods sold. While it might cost me $4.00 for a gallon of milk when I walk into my local Market Basket, Instacart might charge me $4.25 for milk in my digital basket. While it is completely fair to extract rents from consumers in exchange for near-instant gratification and convenience, I can’t help but draw light comparisons to scalpers who buy sports tickets and flip them to consumers at a premium. If you don’t want to take the time to buy tickets from Ticketmaster the second they went on sale, or if you’re just too lazy or don’t have enough time to buy groceries yourself, you pay the price. Drizly and Instacart are market economics at its best, benefiting the inventory-providers with higher sales, aiding willing consumers with convenience and speed, and allowing these new services to pocket the premium. In these scenarios, the proposition is often a win-win for all involved.

One Step Too Far?

Now imagine an industry where they offer their inventory for free on the promise they will be paid once a service is later performed. In this industry, everyone has an equal opportunity to avail of the inventory should they be able to afford the later service, and the most players in this space have followed tradition by not charging for their inventory…even though it is clear the best could. A new tech company arrives on the scene, starts capturing lots of inventory, sells this inventory to consumers at a premium, and even allows consumers to sell their captured inventory to others. The company directly benefits from this efficiency, and the industry doesn’t see a dime from the inventory value created.

That industry is the restaurant industry, and the company is ReservationHop. In my opinion, this practice is worse than scalping. Allow me to break down the challenges present at each step in their business model:

“If you have a reservation you can’t use, you can sell it on ReservationHop. The most attractive reservations are at prime times at the hottest local establishments, and we identify the high-demand restaurants that are booked up on other platforms.”

– Just as ticket brokers scoop up the hottest tickets the second they are released and immediately put them up on StubHub, enterprising individuals and groups will call to book as many reservations as possible at the hottest restaurants…only to post them on ReservationHop. They will use multiple accounts (should they be booking on OpenTable) or multiple names if they are booking by phone. All great holiday seatings will be quickly scooped up and sold to the highest bidder. There is technically no way to prevent this abuse aside from restaurants checking IDs before seating guests.

“Up until 4 hours before the alotted time, anyone can claim any reservation in the marketplace for a fee. Claimed reservations will be taken off the market immediately; don’t worry about overlapping. If a reservation is not claimed 4 hours before the alotted time, we personally call and cancel the reservation as a service to the restaurant, to prevent no-shows.”

– Assuming there will be excess inventory on ReservationHop each night, restaurants could be inundated with a flood of cancellations. Eateries currently have problems with short seatings, imagine the problems that could arise from guests booking reservations they had no intentions of filling. Four hours may be enough time to fill a couple open slots, but it’s definitely not enough time for the maitre’d to fill a large number of seatings.

“Upon purchase, we provide you with the name the reservation is under. 99% of the time you can show up at the restaurant, give them the name and grab the table, no problem. If you have any trouble, email us.”

 – As restaurants become aware of this service, some will move quickly to protect the integrity of their reservation lists by turning away anyone who’s ID doesn’t match the name on the reservation. Others, not wanting to turn away cash-carrying diners at their doorstep, will feel powerless and allow the practice to continue. 

“For Restaurants: We believe that we can reduce no-shows through a paid reservation system, without putting tables at risk. Alinea did it and dropped no-shows 75%. So let’s meet and talk about options.”

– Alinea’s system is quite different. Instead of charging extra for reservations, Alinea, Aviary, and the like charge tickets as deposits towards the meal or the total value of a prix fixe meal. This strategy was meant to reduce no-shows and cancellations, not to drive additional dollars per meal. They are of the thought that the customer should not have to pay a premium for access…even if the customer is willing to pay more. Through their ticketing system, revenue has popped and no-shows have dropped. With ReservationHop, there is nothing tying a customer to their initial reservation…so short seating will inevitably rise.

Where Do We Go From Here?

ReservationHop will certainly not be the last company to take an industry’s inventory and force them to adapt. MonkeyParking is an app that allows drivers to sell their parking space through an app to the highest bidder. The negative externalities of this app jump right off the page. Enterprising drivers will hop to dozens of parking spaces each day, preying off those who need city parking. Fewer open parking spots will be available for normal drivers, forcing them to use the app and pay this 3rd party service layer a premium for metered parking.

Will the proliferation of apps targeting supply/demand inefficiencies cause inventory holders to launch their own technology and pricing schemes to close the gap? How will regulated spaces like municipal parking authorities use their power to control variations? Will these new apps grow fast enough to leverage their user bases against the inventory-holders? 

I believe the impact on each industry will be unique. Efficiently matching supply and demand is the inevitable result of technological influence, and these battles will be played out across every line on a consumer’s credit card bill. Welcome to the app “optimized” economy.

Has the Sharing Economy Given Way to the Scalping Economy?

Hacking your Credit Score

As someone in his late 20s, I’m continually shocked by how little my peers know about their credit score, how it’s comprised, and why it’s important.  Credit agencies use a number of different factors to distill your creditworthiness down to a number between 250 and 850.  Just as colleges give scholarships to those who score high on their SAT, lenders give lower interest rates to those with high credit scores.

First thing’s first: I am not an accountant, a money manager, or a financial planner.  If you have questions about anything financial, I suggest you see a professional.  The tips I’m about to dispense have come through my own analysis of credit score criteria and not through any traditional learnings.

Those with the highest credit scores are not necessarily richer or more intelligent; they have simply achieved high marks in many of the factors that produce a high credit score.   If you follow these tips, you’ll be on the road to credit score excellence in short order.

1.Have 2-3 credit card accounts open

Credit agencies show favor to those who have multiple open revolving credit accounts because, if those accounts are used correctly, it indicates reliability and organization.  Don’t feel any pressure to sign up for credit cards with annual fees.  I’d suggest opening a Visa, Mastercard, and an AMEX.

2, Never close older credit cards

Credit agencies strongly weigh age of credit history.  If you have had one card open for 10 years and a second open for 5 years then proceed to close the first card, your “age of credit history” will drop from 10 years to 5 years.  Please, keep the first credit card you ever opened.

3. Lower your debt-to-credit ratio

Credit agencies look for debt-to-credit ratios under 20%.  That means your credit score will suffer if you carry balances that are greater than 20% of available credit on your cards.  If you have $10,000 in total credit on your cards, make sure to keep running balances under $2,000.  If you carry heavy balances, the best thing you can do is to pay that down over time.

4. Spend on each card every month

I have three credit cards, and I only use one for day-to-day purchases.  The other two generally lie dormant at home.  Since credit agencies like to see some sort of activity on each credit line every month, I put autopay my credit card bill each month with one of my formant cards, then autopay the credit card with my checking account.  I put my gym membership on the second card and autopay in the same manner.  This method allowed my two dormant cards to get activity without me consciously remembering to use them.

5. Bump up your credit limits

Most credit cards have a stated limit, an available balance they are allowing you to spend.  Anything higher and your card will be rejected.  One great way to improve your debt-to-credit ratio is to increase your credit limits or “credit” part of the equation.  Every six months, call the number on the back of each card and ask to be connected to someone who can discuss raising your credit limit.  There are many reasons to request an increase: a promotion, a pay raise, buying furniture for a new apartment or house, needing more credit because of more business travel.  They will give your limits a bump as long as you have been paying your credit card bill on-time and have an improving credit score.

6. Don’t miss a payment

Nothing will destroy the goodwill you’re building with credit agencies than missing payments.  Lenders don’t typically report delinquencies to agencies unless they’re 60-90 days overdue, so you typically have time to correct the problem.  If you can, put as many of your bills on auto-pay to reduce the chance of forgetting a payment

7. Keep your spending in check

The sad truth is if you carry a balance on your credit cards, you are paying way more than the sticker price in interest.  Overspending can put you in a world of hurt, and you’ll have bigger challenges than your credit score.

8. Once you open your credit cards, stick with them

You may get a 20% discount off your purchase for signing up for a Macy’s card, but your average credit history takes an immediate hit.  I know some crafty people who keep two credit cards with a long history, sign up for a new credit card to realize the benefits, cancel it, and repeat the process.  The intricacy of credit card signup bonus strategies is another piece for another time.

9. Pay your installment loans on time

Your student loans, car loan, and mortgage payments may be through the roof, but all credit agencies general care about is that you’re paying them in a timely fashion. 

10. Be patient

Playing one thousand hours of Halo on XBox is likely to improve your player rating dramatically.  The same can’t be said for credit scores.  Much of their criteria measures reliability, and you can only show that over long periods of time.  The best time to start building credit is now, so get started and watch your score rise!  CreditKarma.com has done an awesome job of gamifying the credit score.  Their service is free to use and the user interface is beautiful.  To see your full credit report for free once a year, head over to annualcreditreport.com.

Hacking your Credit Score

Are You a Consumer or a Producer?

America has always been known as a consumer society, and evidence is everywhere.  The subway car, airport waiting area, household, and corporate workplace are bastions of consumerism.  People on the subway listening to music on Spotify or iTunes are consuming.  People ordering takeout and watching movies are consuming.

As I booted up the web this morning and browsed my favorite sites, I realized I was being inundated with producers.  Programmers build websites and writers provide content.  Seth Godin has an incredibly popular blog, and he produces a post almost every day.  Professional athletes and coaches wow fans with their on-field production and are written up on ESPN (by producer journalists).  Startups building products to change the world raise funding, sign deals, get traction, and are praised on TechCrunch.  Corporate titans compete fiercely in the marketplace, and their decisions affect stock prices.  Recording artists spend months in the recording studio to produce songs millions of fans revere.  These people are doing things.  I’m just reading about them, watching them, and listening to them.

Successful people are always producing…and they embrace it.  When Jim Cramer discovered his love for the stock market, he put stock buy/sell recommendations on his voicemail recording.  After a few months, he developed a steady following of strangers calling him just to get through to his voicemail.  Those voicemails turned into a $500,000 check and a chance to break into the money management industry.

Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, started with the Colts as a $25-per-week assistant, a jobs hundreds have around the NFL and college programs.  He produced great work at every stage in his career, earning himself better positions and preparing him for success on football’s biggest stage. 

New advancements in technology make it easier than ever to consume.  It’s way too easy to lay in bed for an extra couple hours watching drivel on TV or zoning out of work for a while on Facebook…but it feels kinda dirty afterwards.  Most of the time, I can’t even remember what I just watched or heard.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly derive a ton of happiness from a nice dinner with the family, sharing a moment with my fiancée while laying on a park bench in Boston Common, or cheering on the PC Friars at the Dunkin Donuts Center. While these events are technically filed under “consuming,” they produce certain intangibles that provide a foundation for a fulfilling life.  They make me happy.

Stop for a second the next time you boot up Chrome and prepare to type “fa” into the browser then hit enter.  Spend less of your life consuming low value content.  The future belongs to the producers.  Get after it.

Are You a Consumer or a Producer?

The Disruptive New Wave of Student Loan Consolidation Companies

In today’s credit environment, student loan lenders have been exiting the practice of student loans in droves.  You can’t blame them, the percentage of borrowers who defaulted on their federal students loans within two years of repayment has increased again, from 9.1% to 10%.  The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that over 200 schools had default rates of 30% or higher.  As college costs continue to spike higher and the job market absorbs fewer and fewer new graduates, default rates won’t be dropping anytime soon.

Capture ONE

The problem with student loan consolidation isn’t any better.  I, like thousands of other law school graduates across the country, took out far too many Grad PLUS loans with fat interest rates to match.  My bar loan interest rate was 10+%, and other loans came in at 7.5%, 8.15%, 6.5%, and 7.75%.  A passion for debate and writing and blind faith in the prospect of a $100k+ lawyer position at a solid firm has made me Sallie Mae’s bitch.  I’m paying the equivalent of a house mortgage payment each month for the next ten years.  Naturally, I began looking for ways to consolidate or refinance my law school student loans.  My main goal was to achieve a lower interest rate than my mishmash of student loans with Sallie Mae.  I had a couple consolidated loans from undergrad under 5%, so I wanted to leave those out of the consolidation.  Here are the options:

Direct Consolidation Loan – Federal Loans Only

The federal government offers the Direct Consolidation Loan to combine your existing federal education loans into one payment.  The main advantage they tout is the ability to make one monthly payment instead of making payments to potentially several different lenders.  This doesn’t seem like much of an advantage to me, as I have no trouble staying organized and paying the various lenders on time.  Also, Sallie Mae combines my federal loans into one grouping already, and I’m making one payment to them anyways.  The interest rate for Federal Consolidation Loans is the weighted average interest rate of all loans considered, rounded up to the next nearest higher one eight of one percent.  In essence, they are increasing the total payment under the guise of providing an actual service to the loan holder.  Another disadvantage to this option is losing the ability to fully pay off your highest interest rate loans if you come into some money.  In my opinion, this option provides no advantages.

Wells Fargo/CuGrad Student Loan Consolidation – Private Loans Only

There are a couple options on the market for consolidating private student loans, and Wells Fargo and CuGrad are two of the more popular options.  I went on their website, selected my law school, and they produced the following options and associated rates:

Wells Fargo Student Loan Consolidation Rates

Variable rates offered were from 3.75% (for high earners/credit scorers) to 8.75% (for higher credit risks).  Fixed rates varied from 7.24% to 12.29%.  Since I was looking specifically for fixed rate loans, and most of my loans sat around the 7.5% range, Wells Fargo was not saving me any money at all.  The high consolidation interest rates were starting to weigh on me.  The LIBOR was so low, but Wells Fargo is protected themselves against a rising rate of default.  My rate is higher than it could be because of the high average risk and the fact that there is no collateral on student loans.  I made a mistake and was certain to pay the price.  Consolidating with Well Fargo or CuGrad would provide no additional savings for me and my fellow legion of graduate students.

SoFi Financial Services Student Loan Consolidation – Federal and Private

As a professed tech geek, I was surprised to find a student loan refinancing company pop up on TechCrunch…then on a banner ad…then on US-93 South on my way from Boston to Providence.  SoFi, you got my attention.  I dug into their history and mission, and I discovered a very unique value proposition.  SoFi helps you consolidate all your federal and private loans with one monthly payment.  In addition, they provide a host of service never seen before in the student loan industry.  SoFi has a career services team that helps you find jobs when you get laid off or fired as well as a calendar of events to promote networking within the community.  Alumni from 100 eligible schools can offer their funds for loan to alums from their school, and they can participate in the success of the borrowers.  One distinct downside to the program is that it’s available to what some would consider 100 of the top schools in the country.  Without a doubt, SoFi is limiting their pool of applicants intentionally to lower default rates, drive margin, and even afford their borrowers a better rate than the competition.  Here are the interest rate ranges for variable and fixed loans as of the publishing of this article:

SoFi Fixed and Variable Interest Rates

This chart immediately opened my eyes, because even the highest interest rate offered by SoFi is lower than the lowest interest rate offered by Wells Fargo or any of the other consolidators.  I applied, got an interest rate in between 4.99% and 6.75%, and executed the consolidation.  Everything went smoothly, and I am now the proud owner of a loan for the same total amount, but with a shorter payoff time frame and lower interest rate.  I had finally won.  The benefits were just too great: (1) I had the opportunity to consolidate private and public loans into one monthly payment, (2) I locked in a rate below every loan I held, and (3) I feel like I’ll get assistance in finding another job instead of incessant calls from the lender if something happens with my current position.  In other words, check it out.

If you found my article helpful and you would like to receive $100 if your loans get fully funded, use this link to fill out your application.  I know, it’s basically just enough to take your sweetie out on a nice date, but hey, when was the last time dear old Aunt Sallie Mae left enough money in your checking account for a steak dinner?

The Disruptive New Wave of Student Loan Consolidation Companies

Why Mobile Payments Will Take Off


On July 3rd, Felix Salmon wrote a piece on why he thinks mobile payments will never take off.  As a consumer in the current marketplace, it might be easy to agree with his thoughts.  Haven’t we been talking about mobile payments for years?  Shouldn’t I be able to pay with my phone everywhere by now?

In technology, there is always an assumption that change and disruption happens quickly.  When you’re dealing with fragmented POS hardware providers, VARS, banks, ISOs, smartphone carriers, smartphone hardware manufacturers, and more, change is a process.  ISIS and Google Wallet went all-in on NFC and later realized, like the rest of us and TechCrunch, that Nobody F***ing Cares.  LevelUp started with non-integrated scanners and local merchants in a few cities, and have now integrated with the major POS companies like Aloha and Micros.  Pay With Square is limited in scope because of its pairing with the Square Register, but they have found scale in with large partnerships with Starbucks and others.

But along with these tests come realizations: the QR code is the least common denominator and therefore best current use case for mobile payments.  Mobile payments without built-in offers, loyalty, incentives, or rewards will struggle to gain adoption because the status quo, cash and credit cards, is not an inherently broken experience.

Salmon uses the following arguments to shovel dirt over what he perceives to be a mobile payments casket:

1.  Paying with your phone is harder than plastic.

To argue this point, he uses sparse anecdotal evidence of failing to get Square Wallet to work a couple times.  I find it more tedious and time-consuming to whip out your loyalty card, then your credit card, and then wait for the receipt which you put in your pocket.  Most mobile payments offerings combine payment, loyalty, and receipt into one action, saving the customer time.  Through research, we have found that closing a transaction with a credit card takes 11 seconds, while a QR code-based mobile payment takes on average 7 seconds.  QR can achieve speed and simplicity.

2. I get self-conscious or embarrassed to pay with the phone

While it is true that one mobile payment experience with an awkward, untrained cashier can create apprehension in subsequent visits, I challenge anyone to watch a line at sweetgreen or Starbucks for 20 minutes.  At Starbucks, 10% of their customers pay with the phone.  At sweetgreen, they have achieved twice as many people paying with their app.  Those paying with their phones are almost always excited to do so, as if paying with the phone is a holistic, positive experience.   I’ve talked to Starbucks app users who now go out of their way to visit Starbucks because of the app’s ease of use.  Still, the uneven experience needs to be tackled.  Deeper POS integration and ubiquity will do a long way towards solving any stress people may have flashing their phone at a register.

3. There is no incentive to switch – a few cents off a macchiato isn’t enough

If a caramel macchiato costs $4.00 at Starbucks, a 10% loyalty construct could save Felix $0.40 per day if he becomes loyal to that coffee shop.  If he gets a macchiato every morning, he would save around $100 each year from the loyalty program.

Surface-level discounts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to savings over time.  Merchants can now target customers for discount, so paying with your phone just once at your local coffee shop or regional fast casual chain can put you in line for a re-engagement offer or birthday gift down the road.

4.  In less developed Africa, paying with M-Pesa and Zaad is becoming popular because they are more convenient and more reliable than paper currency

I respect this argument.  In less developed countries where paper currency fluctuates and building a credit card-based infrastructure is too expensive, mobile payments will certainly drive faster adoption than in developed countries with more stable currencies.  Money transfer is difficult and even broken in many countries, in stark contrast to the United States.

Good enough isn’t good enough.

Five years ago, purchasing books at your local Borders was seen as “good enough.”  Ten years ago, having a Nokia brick phone was viewed by many as being “good enough.”  If the status quo in payments is being deemed “good enough” by the public, it’s a clear indicator of opportunity.  Innovating payments is naturally difficult and slower moving, but as success is found scale will occur.  For a taste of what’s to come, check out this infographic on the near future of mobile payments.

Why Mobile Payments Will Take Off

On Clinkle

Opening Graphic

The average preferred stock seed funding round in the US is $1,360,000.  Andreessen Horowitz, Accel Partners, Intel, Intuit, Peter Thiel, Diane Greene, Jim Breyer, Marc Benioff, Owen Van Natta, Mendel Rosenblum, Ross Perot Jr., and more bestowed $25MM on Clinkle, a super-hyped Stanford-bred startup with a college beta test under its belt.  Clinkle just raised the largest seed round in Silicon Valley history.  Some will chuckle at the raise and make immediate comparisons to Color, but the one thing this investor group smartly realizes is that the mobile payments war is not going to be won by a small, scantly-funded startup making the likes of PayPal, Square, Apple, and Google sweat.  The mobile payments war is going to be won by a company with a war chest.  $25MM qualifies.

Just as VCs picked their horses in the LBS space (Foursquare, Gowalla, SCVNGR, Loopt, Whhrl, Where) and the public transportation space (Uber, Hailo, Lyft, SideCar), mobile payments has finally come into focus.  The current players, in one way or another, are:

LevelUp – Google Ventures, T-Ventures, Highland, Balderton, Transmedia, Deutsche Telecom
Lemon Wallet – DFJ, Maveron, Lightspeed, Social+Capital Partnership
Square – Citi Ventures, Crunchfund, Starbucks, Branson, Kleiner Perkins, Visa, Sequoia, Rizvi Traverse, Khosla, First Round, Angels
PayPal – Self-Funded
Google – Self-Funded
ISIS – AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile

Clinkle – Accel, A16Z, Intel, Intuit, Angels
MCX – Merchant-funded
Apple, Facebook, Amazon (potential entrants) – Self-Funded

The space is still in its early days, and as Google Wallet, PayPal, ISIS, and MCX have proven, there is no slam dunk win.  When news of Clinkle’s funding surfaced, I decided to try to wrap my head around what features might be included in Clinkle’s app.

Rumored Features in the App
1. Send money to any person, on any phone, at no cost (Venmo functionality)
2. View store menus on your phone and skip the line by pre-ordering (OLO functionality)
3.  Pay with your phone using a credit card funding source at stores, gain loyalty points, and unlock deals at your favorite places (LevelUp functionality)
4. “Clinkle Cash,” a separate bank inside the app (PayPal functionality)


Do One Thing, and Do It Well
Clinkle comes to the mobile payments table with amazing advisers, a growing team of developers bred in Stanford’s computer labs, and a sizable chunk of change in the bank.  In the Jim Collins book Good to Great, he encourages businesses to ‘do one thing, and do it well.’  In his well-documented Hedgehog Concept, the fox keeps launching new ideas to kill the hedgehog, but the hedgehog evades him by doing one effective move…rolling into a thorny ball.  It seems like Clinkle might be attempting to be everything to everyone in the mobile payments space, and therein could spell its downfall or rapid adoption.  Are smartphone users looking for simple, easy payment, or are they looking to use one app for everything currency-related?  Will Clinkle be able to execute on all these ideas at once?  Only time will tell.


Growing Payments Networks
The difference between growing a social network on a college campus and growing a payments product on-campus are the layers of infrastructure inherent in payment systems, software, and hardware.  Mobile payments players are swimming in a sea of entrenched payment processors, POS companies, issuers, hardware manufacturers, and more.  Unless you find channel partners, merchants acquisition is 1-by-1.  There are hundreds of POS systems sitting on local merchant counters, and integration is both costly and time-consuming.  The rumored ‘Aerolink’ concept and their partnership with Verifone may be step 1.

At this point, there are more questions than answers with Clinkle, and we await their official launch to learn more.  The recent funding shines a bright light on startups in the space, but also pressure to perform quickly.

On Clinkle

Conference Networking Strategies for Sales Teams

As I sat on the plane on my way back to Boston from the Restaurant Leadership Conference in Scottsdale, AZ, the things I did right and wrong washed over my brain.  Why did I spend too much time sitting in the second general session?  Should I have spent more time in the dining area?  Why didn’t I set up more meetings before I left for the conference?

Sales teams come to conferences with one goal in mind: pitch as many people as you can.  The restaurant industry, like many others, is a tight-knit group that needs to see a company’s representatives face-to-face for multiple years to have confidence the company will be around and innovating for many more.  The first year, you attend, shake hands, and collect business cards.  The second year you get a booth, reconnect with the industry, and close a couple deals.  The third year you lead a panel and close the early majority.  The best way to ensure you get to speak with as many potential clients as possible is to build a cohesive strategy weeks before landing at the conference site.


1. Get an Attendee List – If you’re a sponsor of the conference or getting a booth, ask for a list of attendees.  Once you get that list, Google their email addresses using the most common email structures: John@thelevelup.com, JValentine@thelevelup.com, John.Valentine@thelevelup.com, John@thelevelup.com, Valentine@thelevelup.com.  One of those email structures will hit the Google jackpot about 80% of the time.  Shoot these attendees an email letting them know what your booth number is.  Tell them to stop by.  Ask for their cell number so you can text them if you miss the prospect’s booth visit.  Let everyone know you simply want to shake their hand and meet them in person.  There is no better sales driver than face-to-face meetings.

During the Conference

1.  Send Prospects an Email Mid-Conference – Half the conference has passed and you still haven’t connected with a bunch of your prospects?  Send them a 2-line email letting them know you want to shake their hand and say hi.  You’ll be surprised by the quick, positive responses you get back.  Even the biggest industry stars have downtime, and some conferences are a bore.  Email them right before a scheduled break.

2.  Do NOT Sit Through Educational Sessions – The biggest mistake any salesperson can make at a conference is to sit through entire sessions.  Let’s be honest, over 90% of them are not even tangentially related to your business.  The only sessions you should completely attend are those of your competition.  Competitive intel is always important to know for prospect objections.  Walk into the session 10 minutes before it is scheduled to start, sit down next to a potential prospect, and have a short conversation to learn more about them and their business.  When the session is about to begin, politely excuse yourself to the bathroom and head out.

3.  Eat Twice During Every Meal Period – Dining areas are the #1 place to start a good conversation.  Why waste a meal period with one just one conversation?  Fill up your plate with half the food you would normally eat, sit down and chat up your table-mates, exchange business cards, excuse yourself, grab a clean plate, fill it up half way again, sit down at another table, and commence conversation number two.  If you’re eating dinner, you can squeeze in a third conversation with desert.

4.  Always Have a Pen On-Hand – You MUST write notes on every business card you receive.  Suggested notes are as follows: location you met the prospect, date, interesting tidbits, names of other decision-makers in the company, where her daughter is attending college, and anything that could bring a positive memory to mind.  Trust me, you’ll quickly forget who most of the people in your card stack are by the end of the conference.  Don’t get caught without material for a follow-up email.

5.  Bring More Business Cards Than you Think You Need – Business cards are like money in the conference industry.  Without a thick stack of your own, you won’t get anything back.  Oh, and have a business card that stands out.  Square cards, metal cards, and cards with creative fonts tend to be memorable.

6.  Hang out at Meeting Places During Downtime – If I’m not supposed to be anywhere for a while, I’ll hang out in the lobby or at the lobby bar (if the conference takes place in a hotel).  These locations and other landmarks are where people gather for meetings.  One person will inevitably arrive before the other, and they don’t like to appear lonely so they’ll make small talk with whomever is around.  You.  Take advantage.

7.  Remember, Your Product Comes Second – You will get absolutely nowhere if you pitch the product before introducing yourself and sharing something interesting about yourself.  Business owners are in [insert exotic/awesome location here] to kick back, learn a couple things, and connect with their industry friends.  You want to become a friend rather than another sales guy at the conference.   I sometimes spend 10 minutes befriending owners and let them ask what company I work for without prompting.  That way, you know they’re truly interested.


1.  2-Day Rule – Don’t send emails or make calls to conference prospects until a couple days have passed.  Let the amateurs bombard the prospects with emails as they hit ‘delete’ without ever opening them.  A well-crafted email a few days after the conference with an eye-catching header will elicit a read.  That’s all you can ask for.

Conference Networking Strategies for Sales Teams

Top 5 Restaurant Mobile Payment Apps

In 2012, QSR, Fast Casual, and full serve restaurants had no compelling reasons to build an iPhone or Android app.  The key design elements featured in most of the current food service apps on the App Store and Android Market are: (1) location listings, (2) a non-integrated loyalty program, (3) store contact information, (4) directions, and (5) basic social media links.  Consumers can find these elements with relative ease online, so why download an app for that functionality?  The simple answer: they won’t.

To Build or Not To Build?
Building a basic, run-of-the-mill mobile app is worse than not building one at all.  Every restaurant strives to boost their image on online review sites, seeking the maximum number of stars possible.  The Apple App Store is just as unforgiving.  Each app receives a rating from one to five stars depending on the reviews given by the app’s users.  A 1-star or 2-star average not only discourages your customers from downloading the app, it tarnishes your brand’s image.  All restaurant brands need to start thinking about building an app experience they can be proud of, an experience that delights their customers.

Why is 2013 different?
2013 is ushering in a new wave of restaurant mobile applications pairing the basic information provided in first generation apps with innovative in-app ordering and mobile payment features.  A simple smartphone payment mechanism that integrates directly with a straightforward loyalty program is the new gold standard in mobile apps.  Customers interact with this new generation of apps every single time they enter the store.  Restaurants have an exciting new opportunity to build seamless interactions between the customer, their smartphone, and their physical assets.  The “second screen experience” lauded for television is coming to the cafe, cupcake shop, and late night burger joint down the block.

Mindshare is Moving Mobile
As Americans spend more and more time staring at the 3-inch screens they take out of their pocket, a new advertising medium is being created.  Those little app icons on a smartphone’s home screen are like billboards on I-95; those logos are all smartphone users see.  The first page of search results on Google sees 94% of the impressions.  Although Apple won’t release equivalent stats for the iPhone home screen, I can imagine the results are similar.  The more you use an app, the closer to the home screen is gets.  Restaurant brands have a short time window to stake a claim on their customers’ home screens.  These 5 innovative restaurant brands are being rewarded for building and launching their own mobile payment apps:

1.  sweetgreen (60 ratings, 5 out of 5 stars)

sweetgreen app store review sweetgreen pay screen sweetgreen splash screen

sweetgreen, the DC-based salad concept and healthy living thought leader, has big plans for national expansion.  After raising $7MM in March 2013, Founders Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru, and Jonathan Neman have plans to take their 16-location chain nationwide.  sweetgreen engaged the team at LevelUp to build a mobile payment and loyalty app to serve as a foundation element connecting payment with their POS, loyalty program, and customer analytics.  In the two months the app has been live, paying with the sweetgreen app has become part of their culture.  Customer response has been overwhelmingly positive, as highlighted by the 5-star rating and the tweets below:

Tweet1 tweet2 tweet3

Highlighted Features:
1. QR code mobile payment (funds transferred through credit/debit card)
2.  Automatically accruing, custom loyalty program (Spend $100, earn $10)
3.  GPS-enabled store locator
4. Animated rewards tab
5. Built-in charitable giving element
6. Status progression
7. QR code scanning feature to add promotional credit
8. Interactive menu

To get in touch with the team at LevelUp and learn about how they can build your restaurant brand a customized app, fill out this form.

2.  Starbucks (72,802 ratings, 3.5 out of 5 stars)

Starbucks App Store ReviewsStarbucks Empty Rewards Screen  Starbucks Card

The Seattle coffee giant launched their mobile payment apps in January 2011.  Conceptualized as a mobile version of their Starbucks card, the apps currently see 3 million transactions a week and have over 10 million active users.  By the end of 2013, they expect 10% of total transaction volume to run on mobile.  Starbucks has more customers paying with their smartphones than any other brand in the country.  Starbucks built in Apple Passbook integration in late 2012 to allow iPhone users even easier access to Starbucks in-store.

Highlighted Features:
1. Bar code mobile payment (funds transferred through loading and re-loading a gift card)
2. Information on all coffee roasts
3.  Store locator
4. Rewards tab (with free beverage on your birthday after one purchase)
5. Ability to gift credit to others
6. Interactive Menu

3.  Dunkin Donuts (464 ratings, 3.5 out of 5 stars)

IMG_3024 (2)Dunkin ScreenDunkin Offers

Dunkin Donuts followed Starbucks by releasing their own mobile payment application in August 2012.  The app features a similar gift card funding feature to enable payment along with Apple Passbook integration and the ability to gift drinks to friends.  Touted as “the app that keeps you running,” the Dunkin app has seen many early adopters start using it for their coffee everyday.

Highlighted Features:
1. Bar code mobile payment (funds transferred through loading and re-loading a gift card)
2. Offer listings and redemption
3.  Store locator
4. Ability to gift credit to others
5. Interactive Menu and nutritional information

4.  Pinkberry (128 ratings, 2.5 out of 5 stars)

Pinkberry App RatingsPinkberry App Account Balance  Pinkberry Store Locator

Pinkberry released their Sweet Rewards App in October 2012, allowing customers to get their frozen treats faster and receive accumulating rewards int he process.  They feature a simple “purchase 10, earn 1” loyalty construct that works well for them considering their limited menu and similar purchase prices.  To encourage their customers to download the app, Pinkberry is giving away a free froyo with toppings when customers use the app to pay for the first time.

Highlighted Features:
1. Bar code mobile payment (funds transferred through loading and re-loading a gift card)
2.  Automatically accruing, custom loyalty program (Buy 10, get 1 free)
3.  GPS-enabled store locator
4. Sliding flavor-finder
5. eGifting option to send friends gift cards
6. Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare sharing feature

5.  Freshii (Not Yet Rated)

 Freshii App Ratings Freshii Main Screen Freshii Pay

Freshii released their mobile payment app to the iTunes App Store on August 3, 2012 and have been making various iterations since.  They haven’t yet done a major marketing push with the app, and the app hasn’t received any ratings.  The app is full-featured, and has a wide array of special features like: veggie collected, rankings, a locator for charging stations, QR code scanning, and more.  Their challenge now is to roll out a marketing program to get their customers excited and motivated to use the app.

Highlighted Features:
1. QR code mobile payment (funds transferred through loading and re-loading an account)
2. Features with specials of the week and workout tips
3.  Store locator
4. Rewards tab (with free beverage on your birthday after one purchase)
5. QR code scanner /charge stations listing / rankings for “veggies collected”

Top 5 Restaurant Mobile Payment Apps

#RaiseTheRim, Or $272MM of VC Money on a Basketball Court

Last Wednesday was an amazing day in the Boston startup community. Around 150 people in the startup industry came together at Basketball City to support TUGG and work up a little sweat.  Thank you to Harvey Simmons and the rest of the EverTrue crew for putting on one of the best events of the year!  We were even treated to a defensive clinic put on by MA’s own Scott Brown.

As I looked around and took in the atmosphere, I came to the realization that the entire event, and to a bigger extent everyone’s livelihood, is funded by venture capital.   Many of the startups are funded by VC, the service providers are paid by startups, and investors and incubators dish out the cash and debt.

The 28 startups represented at #RaiseTheRim have raised about $272MM in aggregate.  Venture capital not only gives startups who need capital to scale a better chance to succeed, it also allows the brightest young minds to work on the most challenging and  innovative ideas.  Incredible.

Service Providers

HB Agency, Invest Northern Ireland, StartUp Institute, Cambridge Innovation Center, Willis, GCAi, Bridge Bank, Smashfly Technologies, and TUGG.


Healthbox and Atlas Ventures.


Jana – 9.18MM
DataXu – $45.8MM
Simple Tuition – $17.9MM
CoachUp – $2.2MM
Dailybreak – $8.51MM
Yesware – $5MM
InsightSquared – $5.5MM
Rakuten Loyalty
Abine – $5MM
Promoboxx – $2.25MM
VSnap – $750K
PerkStreet Financial – $15MM
RunKeeper – $11.5MM
Social Betworks
The Motorsport Lab
StarStreet – $600K
ConnectEDU – $24.7MM
Silicon Valley Bank
Rue La La – $22MM
LevelUp – $40.8MM
EverTrue – $6.5MM
Uber – $49.5MM

#RaiseTheRim, Or $272MM of VC Money on a Basketball Court