Urbanspoon Unveils Restaurant Sites in All U.S. Cities; Co-Founder Ethan Lowry Talks Strategy

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number of new sites. So Urbanspoon used Citysearch (an Internet form of Yellow Pages) to “pull in data wholesale,” says Lowry, and is adding data from other sources like newspapers on top of that. It will take some tweaking to get the quality of those sites up to par with the first 71, he adds. And then there’s a whole separate system for updating all the sites and pulling in new reviews on the fly. Despite the technical challenges, Urbanspoon has managed to grow without adding staff. “We’re about simplicity,” says Lowry. “We have no funding and three guys. Expenses are incredibly low.”

Urbanspoon’s revenues come from several sources including advertising, and promotions from restaurant owners. And of course, its iPhone app—which lets you input food criteria, shake your phone, and get a randomized list of nearby restaurants you might want to hit—has been huge for the company. So I asked Lowry for his thoughts on the Apple partnership.

He says Urbanspoon was motivated to pursue the iPhone deal in part because they came too late to Facebook’s application platform in the summer of 2007. “When a new platform launches, there’s a ton of hype. If you’re not there on Day 1, you miss out,” Lowry says. “We thought, ‘Let’s build something fun and clever. If this catches on with the press, it’s a success.'” Sure enough, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other media ate it up when Urbanspoon launched its iPhone app in July. “It had legs as well,” Lowry says. “There’s a danger that it would be a gimmick. But people use it again and again as their restaurant tool on the go.”

Being featured in an iPhone TV commercial, starting last month, has been particularly good for business. “We shot up to 3x [in traffic] what we were before on the iPhone,” Lowry says, adding that they get about 5,000 shakes per minute while the commercial is running in prime time.

“Apple is very secretive, but they’ve been incredibly friendly and generous,” says Lowry. “In part it’s because we showcase a lot of the things Apple has been trying to do with the iPhone”—services that use the camera, GPS, and accelerometer, for instance. “Also, it’s nice to have a very practical application, for a normal, real-world problem,” says Lowry, to complement all the gaming apps. “They’ve been really good to us. They’ve helped us define a brand. With the iPhone, people have heard of Urbanspoon.”

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