By Kim Hart
Monday, January 19, 2009
Tomorrow's inauguration will officially kick off the 44th presidency, but it is also serving as a launching pad for a District company trying to capture the attention of about 1 million smartphone users pouring into the city.
PointAbout, a six-month-old firm, teamed up with public relations firm Qorvis and law firm Patton Boggs to build an iPhone application to guide inauguration-goers around the city. Using the phone's GPS capability, the application senses visitors' location and helps them navigate the capital by foot or Metro train, make reservations at Zagat-rated restaurants, find free WiFi hotspots, locate inaugural balls to crash and pinpoint the shortest route to the nearest Starbucks.
The idea for the free application was conceived by Qorvis to help people figure out Washington, which isn't the most intuitive place to navigate. The company enlisted PointAbout to make the application work on the Blackberry. Mapping company FortiusOne, based in Arlington, joined the effort to power the applications' map tools. Qorvis said it's been downloaded "several thousand times" since it landed on iTunes a month ago.
What makes the inauguration app even more interesting is the scrappy start-up behind it. PointAbout was created by four tech-savvy entrepreneurs, all of whom have been involved with successful companies in the past -- so successful that they can afford to work at the company for free. Since forming in August, the firm has spent a grand total of $7,400. Talk about a tight budget.
Chief executive Scott Suhy spent 16 years at Microsoft, and left more than a year ago with plans to start a company. He met Chief Operating Officer Daniel Odio, who also runs a real estate company, at an event put on by tech networking group Tie-DC. Isaac Mosquera, the firm's head coding guru, and Sean Shadmand, the strategy genius, met at George Mason University and moved to San Francisco to start FamilyOven.com, a recipe exchange site. They recently moved back to Washington to be closer to family.
All four work out of a large Eastern Market rowhouse. White boards with brainstorming notes cover the walls in the living room and kitchen, and Odio and Shadmand live on the second and third floors. They want the space to become something of a haven for entrepreneurs who want to drop by, hang out and toss around ideas.
At first, the four of them met every week at a coffee shop to try to come up with a business idea. They decided they wanted to focus on mobile, which they see as the largest untapped market.
PointAbout's goal is to help brands interact with customers on mobile phones via easy-to-use applications. Most smartphone applications are typically labor-intensive to create because they have to be coded separately to work with each phone's software. PointAbout says it's found a way to develop applications for the mobile Web, and then connect it to the software, so the applications have access to the phone's camera, address book and GPS function.
So, for example, you can find the closest bar, take a picture of the beer selection and send it to all your friends.
The inauguration application is a "way to show the world what's possible," Odio said.
By using a smartphone's camera, Web browser and GPS function, the applications "make everyone into an on-the-scene-reporter and an in-the-moment content provider," Shadmand said. He envisions an application that lets people take pictures of graffiti in their neighborhood to report it to the police department from their cellphones, for example.
PointAbout has teamed up with other companies with the need for similar tools. It's launched an application for real estate broker Long & Foster that displays all listings and property photos within three miles of where a homebuyer is standing. It created another one for Baltimore-based 1st Mariner Bank to help customers find the nearest ATM that doesn't charge a fee to get cash.
After a couple of hours of showing me everything their apps could do, Mosquera and Shadmand bundled up against the cold night air and headed to a poker game. They invited me to come along.
It turns out another inaugural event was happening at the Dupont Circle loft office of Nclud, a Web design start-up that was hosting the first GeeksLovePoker game. About 15 guys from a cross section of area tech firms -- Clearspring, Raytheon and BearingPoint, to name few, were there. Martin Ringlein, co-founder of Nclud, said it would likely become a regular event.
"I just thought it would be fun to get a bunch of guys together to talk -- maybe about companies and business plans, maybe not," said Scott Mendenhall, senior vice president of technology at IXI Corporation, a McLean company that analyzes markets for the financial industry.
They struggled through their first few games of Texas Hold'em-- about half admitted they didn't know much about poker -- with a Will Ferrell movie playing on the big-screen TV in the background. But eventually there were winners.
The prizes: one gift card for iTunes and another for Subway.
They were all much more excited about the prospect of free sandwiches.
Kim Hart writes about the Washington technology scene every Monday. Contact her at email@example.com.