Circling the Block? ParkMe Lets Drivers Reserve Spots—At a Discount

Xconomy Boston — 

Sam Friedman can thank Bruce Willis for the inspiration behind his parking technology company, ParkMe. Friedman and cofounder Alex Israel were straight out of college, with some spare time on their hands, when they headed to the movies to see the latest Die Hard sequel. But when they arrived at the Los Angeles area theater, there was nowhere to park. “We missed the movie,” he says. “For the next two hours, instead of watching Bruce Willis shoot people, we started a company.”

Neither co-founder had technology experience—Friedman was an econ major—but they knew the problem all too well. So instead of heading back to school or getting jobs, they set out to learn as much as they could about business, technology, and parking. “We had to build a team and bang our head about it until things stuck,” Friedman says. “The main skill set we had was persistence and thick skin and maybe a little delusion.”

The idea was to gather enough information to tell drivers in urban cores where parking spots are, whether they’re available, and how much they cost, and even to let them pre-book a spot before they arrive. After all, if Friedman and Israel had had a reserved spot outside the cineplex, they wouldn’t have missed their movie. It was a solution that could be applicable anywhere parking was a pain, from concerts and the beach to urban downtowns.

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Best ParkingAndroid | iOS
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Parker MobileAndroid | iOS

The co-founders started the company in Friedman’s parents’ garage four years ago, and now, ParkMe has a real office in Santa Monica, CA, about 25 employees, $7.5 million in venture backing, and a service that helps people find parking—and save money on it—via an app and a website.

To create its parking reservation feature, ParkMe developed relationships with individual parking garages, making it possible for users to pay for their spots in advance, either on a smartphone or via the Web. “What’s great is that it’s usually at a discount of the posted rate,” Friedman says. “It’s guaranteed free revenue so parking lots are willing to discount.” The lots also pay ParkMe for sending traffic their way.

ParkMe’s app for iOS and Android phones features a timer that shows drivers how much time is left on their parking meters, and a feature called Direct to Driveway, which gives users directions to lots’ actual entrances, instead of just their street addresses.

The company also offers a widget for businesses to feature on their own websites to help customers park nearby, and even reserve spots for them. “One of the biggest barriers to entry for local business is parking,” he says. “If people can’t find parking, they’re not going to go purchase stuff.”

So far, ParkMe has data for lots and spots in 1,823 cities, from biggies like New York and Chicago, to smaller places like Duluth, MN and Lexington, KY. They can even tell drivers in Antarctica about the one parking lot there.

The company first started marketing its app to users about eight months ago, focusing on Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Austin, TX. ParkMe actually had global parking data available when they started their first big marketing push into these cities, but they started with bigger, tech-savvy areas.

It takes a massive amount of data to keep users up to date about parking availability in so many different cities, but the company first gathered its information in a very low-fi way: by bike. Israel and Friedman first started the process in LA on their own bikes, then realized it was easy to replicate in other cities. “It’s much quicker than you would think,” he says. “You can do an urban core in a couple of days. We break the U.S. up into regions and have a couple people per region. It’s effectively a road trip.” ParkMe also works directly with parking lot owners and operators to stream spot-availability data directly from their systems, and sometimes relies on users to send along more information.

ParkMe makes some money from parking spot reservations, but its app is free. Most of the company’s revenue comes from licensing its data to third parties, like GPS manufacturers and mobile app makers. The company also has a flagship deal with Audi, where almost every Audi model comes with ParkMe’s parking app built in, so the in-car GPS can help its drivers find parking.

The data could also be useful to city planners and real estate developers, who could use it for planning purposes, or to prove the popularity of an area by using parking numbers to help back up bids.

Though there are certainly other parking apps out there, Friedman says, like Park Whiz and Best Parking, but they don’t have the same international footprint. ParkMe is global.

Not bad for a couple of guys who were just trying to get to an action movie.

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