Twist’s App Spells RIP for OMW—But It’s Really About “Selling Time”

It would be easy to glance at Twist and conclude that it’s just another rinky-dink location app for the iPhone. “Twist is the easiest way to let your family, friends, and colleagues know when you will arrive,” the description in the iTunes App Store languidly asserts.

In operational terms, that means it monitors your progress as you drive, walk, ride, or bike to a destination. If you’ve got people waiting for you there, it can send them a message when you’re approaching, or when it looks like you’re going to be late.

Sounds fairly humble, right?

Well, after spending some time with the co-founders of Twist and Shout, the San Francisco startup that makes the app, I’m ready to award them this year’s prize for startup modesty. I’ve rarely seen a bigger vision hiding behind more unassuming claims.

Twist is starting out by helping to automate one of those annoying real-world tasks: messaging people to let them know you’re on your way. It’s such a common problem that there’s even a text-speak abbreviation for it: OMW. “No one wants to be the first person to arrive at a restaurant for dinner—or the last person,” says CEO Bill Lee. “Twist is a great solution for that.”

But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If you interrogate Lee what the company is really doing, he’ll eventually come clean: “We want to be the guys selling time.”

Twist CEO Bill Lee (left) and CTO Mike Belshe (right) in an appearance on Bloomberg TV.

Twist CEO Bill Lee (left) and CTO Mike Belshe (right) in an appearance on Bloomberg TV.

And they just might manage it. The big vision here is about tracking almost everything that moves, in order to extract intelligence about when it will arrive where it’s expected. Say you’re a cable TV customer waiting for the cable guy to show up, or a restaurateur wondering whether the person who reserved your prime table is ever going to arrive, or a Zaarly or TaskRabbit or Instacart or Seamless customer wondering if your food order is coming soon. Twist wants to be the location-and-logistics layer providing the ETA in all these situations.

You might call it putting the time back into spacetime. Lee, a prolific and successful angel investor, says he started sensing a while ago that “there was an exhaustion around social-local-mobile startups”—those capitalizing on the location-finding capabilities of smartphones to help people search for local businesses, or share geotagged photos, or become the czar of their local Starbucks, or whatever. “The space was way overcrowded. To be a successful investor and founder you’ve got to be ahead of a trend. All these other apps are about where. Twist is about when.”

The proximate cause for Lee’s idea, as usual, was an everyday pain. In his life as an angel investor, Lee met with founders from 200 companies in 2011 alone. “Invariably someone coming to the meeting was either running early or running late or e-mailing to confirm it or telling me they were in the lobby waiting,” he says. “I thought there had to be a way of getting rid of all of these e-mails and phone calls and come up with a better solution.”

Fortunately, Lee was pretty well connected in the Silicon Valley technology world. Back in the 1990s he was the founder of RemarQ, a provider of message-board services that was acquired by Critical Path in 2000 for $300 million. Since then he’s invested in companies like SpaceX, Tesla, Yammer, HootSuite, Tweetdeck, Posterous, and about 25 others, meaning he knows quite a few software engineers.

To build a company to fix his meeting-notification problem, he recruited former RemarQ colleagues Mike Belshe (now Twist’s chief technology officer) and Frank VanZile (its head of software engineering). The fourth Twist co-founder, Edward Marks, previously started Inedible Software, which published iPhone games with a combined 13 million downloads.

Twist raised $6 million—Lee himself put in part of the money, alongside Bridgescale Partners and eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll—and released the 1.0 version of its app in mid-July. Today marks its 60th day in the iTunes App Store. Lee says “uptake has been great”; the app has thousands of daily users and is getting hundreds of new signups per day. That puts it way behind Seattle-based competitor Glympse, which has 2.5 million users, but the two startups’ visions are somewhat different (Glympse lets users show their locations to others for a specified period of time).

Here’s how Twist works. Before you leave for your destination you set up a new “Twist” in the app by giving the app the address of your destination. (If the address is already in your address book, your calendar, or your list of previously visited destinations, the app makes it especially easy to find.) Then you specify the recipients for your updates. They don’t need to have Twist on their phones—the app just needs their phone number, so it can send text messages. Then you specify whether you’re traveling by car, public transportation, bicycle, or foot.

Once you leave—that is, when you cross a virtual “geofence” around your current location—Twist sends your ETA to your recipients, based on current traffic conditions. You can see your progress on a map, and so can the recipients, if they have the Twist app. Once you cross another geofence around your destination, the app tells your recipient that you’ve arrived. (I’ve embedded a Twist video below that explains all of this better than I can.)

While you’re en route, there’s a lot happening invisibly. “We have to take traffic into account, and whether you’re walking or taking public transportation,” says Belshe. “If an accident occurs and you’re stuck in traffic the ETA will dynamically shift. The amount of attention we put into getting an accurate ETA is very important to us.”

The "active Twist" screen shows a user's ETA.

The "active Twist" screen shows a user's ETA.

As is ease of use. “We define beauty as simplicity,” says Lee. “As a key example of what we are talking about, we have the best destination selection on the market. It had to be better than what you get in Google Maps and better than what you get on the iPhone. We auto-suggest based on geolocation and the string you’re typing—if you type ‘s-t-a’ it’s going to fill out ‘Starbucks.’”

After a major update to the app coming in the next week or two, the app will become even more deeply integrated with users’ calendars and e-mail accounts, and more useful for groups of people coming together for a meeting. The idea is to schedule all of Twist’s activities in advance, using a calendar appointment and all the invited parties as the organizing point.

Say I’d been using the updated app while on my way to Twist’s Mission Street office yesterday. In that case, “This meeting could have been magical,” Lee says. “By e-mail we could have confirmed this meeting between Mike and Bill and Wade. It would have told you when you needed to leave, based in your location. When each of us had left, it could have sent each of us a twist saying ‘Mike is on the way, Bill is on the way.’ When you arrive it would have said ‘We’re all here.’ That is what we envision for scheduled Twists.”

How does Twist monetize all this? It doesn’t. The app is free, and Lee says the 16-employee company deliberately raised enough money to give it a cushion while it focuses on acquiring users. At a certain critical mass, the theory goes, Twist could start showing location-based advertisements inside the app, and start offering its ETA-forecasting services to partners through a paid application programming interface, or API. “I believe the way to get people to care about your API is to build your own violently passionate user base and build on top of that,” Lee says.

An Android version of Twist is in the works; for now, though, the app is iPhone-only. Which led me to ask Lee and Belshe the “big A” question: what will Apple do? With Siri and the upgraded maps interface in iOS 6 (released today), the company clearly wants to provide built-in apps and services that help people with their daily tasks and travels. Is there a chance Apple could build Twist-like features into iOS? Or is it Twist’s plan to get acquired by Apple and save them the trouble?

“I’ve never told any founder that a company’s mission was to be acquired,” answers Lee. “I don’t think that’s healthy. Do I worry that Apple could one day do this? Yes, of course, but it’s not something I lose sleep over.”

And yes, Lee says, Twist would make sense as a built-in feature for iOS. “It would be great if they reached out to us. But at the same time I see so many great services coming out of this—letting restaurants know when people are going to arrive, letting cable customers know when a technician is going to show up. You are still going to have to write apps on top [of Twist’s ETA layer] to cater to these needs, and I don’t see Apple doing that.”

If Twist stays independent and then finds itself running low on capital before its user base hits critical mass, there is at least one way that the startup could hit a “single,” in Lee’s words. Companies have already been approaching Twist about using its technology for fleet management. A take-out delivery business, for example, might commission Twist to write a custom plugin for its dispatching system, so it can notify customers when their meals are about to arrive.

But for now, that’s just a backup plan. “The big opportunity is to capture a habit and replace OMW with Twist,” Lee says. “We aren’t here to hit a little single. The name of the game is to become the next big infrastructure play in Silicon Valley, where people are thinking ‘time equals Twist.’”


Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “Twist’s App Spells RIP for OMW—But It’s Really About “Selling Time””

  1. Leanne says:

    Haha, sounds like a creepy stalker!