Zoodango Relaunches, Ditching Social Networking for Location-Based Meeting Up

For James Sun, runner-up on season six of The Apprentice and CEO of Seattle-based Zoodango, it’s all about getting people together. And he wants to help them find meeting spots. Yesterday, he announced the launch of the re-tooled Zoodango, once a social-networking site and now a map-based service where users use a “geo-search engine” to find local businesses based on location.

Zoodango’s new angle to finding restaurants, shops, and other businesses is the way you search—by location instead of search term, so those with subpar Google-fu still have a chance. It also allows you to see multiple categories of businesses in one location, a task that requires several clicks on sites like Yelp and Citysearch.

“We help people plan their whole evening,” Sun said in an interview. “Say you want to go to a sushi restaurant, then round two, you want to go get some drinks, then later go on to a club.”

Yesterday’s launch includes sites for Seattle, Spokane, Portland, San Francisco, and Oakland. In two weeks, the company will add Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Reno, and Tucson. By February, Sun says, Chicago and the East Coast will also be on the map.

Like Yelp and other review sites, users create profiles, and then rank and score local businesses. But Zoodango comes with a social twist, keeping track of its users’ preferences to customize output and make meeting up easier. Say you want to grab dinner with five of your friends, all of whom are also Zoodango users (not likely yet, perhaps, but give it some time). You can choose a few restaurants and Zoodango will show you how much of a hit they’ll be—if one of your friends has only reviewed vegetarian restaurants, for instance, you’ll know not to suggest the latest steakhouse.

For picky types, the site also uses an algorithm to rank businesses based on Zoodango user scores and outside ratings from other review sites, so instead of facing a list of 30 four-star pizza joints and having to read through all their reviews, you’ll know exactly how your local pizza shop ranks compared to all of Seattle’s other pizza spots.

Sun, a University of Washington grad who previously worked at Deloitte Consulting, started Zoodango nearly two years ago, intending it to be a local social-networking site. But when Facebook opened its doors to the world outside college students, Sun knew he had some thinking to do. “I had to make the decision, do I stay and compete with Facebook, or do I go back to R&D and build something unique?” he said. “Some of my colleagues stayed in social networking and got crushed by Facebook. In hindsight, we made the right decision, but it put us back in R&D for another year and a half.”

Zoodango has nearly $1 million in funding from Seattle’s Alliance of Angels and other investors, including ex-Microsoft senior vice presidents and the founder of Classmates.com, Randy Conrads. The company will be profitable in 2009, Sun said, most of its revenue this year coming from licensing deals for its search engine technology. Sun wouldn’t say who is licensing the engine, but said that a lot of companies are interested and one deal is already closed. That revenue model seems crucial, as lots of local search sites have struggled in a tough advertising climate.

“The new offering from Zoodango appears to have a more unique and defensible value proposition than the run-of-the-mill Web 2.0 deal,” said Rebecca Lovell, program director at Alliance of Angels, in an e-mail to Xconomy. “From what I can tell, the Zoodango team has leveraged a strong foundation in technology and social networking, and has more clearly defined a niche within the location-based marketing space.”

Later this year, Zoodango will launch a premium coupon service, whereby users can pay to view good deals posted by other users, and an ad service through which local businesses can post their own coupons that will pop up if a user is searching in the businesses’ neighborhood. “I believe the next step will be using intelligent tools for all the data that’s out there,” Sun said. “There’s a lot of information, so how do you blend that and integrate it into an intelligent system that helps people make decisions?”

As for his stint on The Apprentice, Sun said it helped him realize the power of a small team. “Some of the projects we did on the show, a normal company would have put 30 to 40 people on them. But three minds did it very effectively.”

Zoodango currently has 11 employees, and Sun plans to expand to 15 or 16 by the end of the year. “A small company is way more agile,” he said. “In today’s down economy, agility is key.”

Rachel Tompa is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. She can be reached at rmtompa@yahoo.com. Follow @

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