Barney Pell is the CEO of QuickPay, which wants to disrupt the $26 billion parking industry. Formerly, Pell worked on AI for NASA and developed Powerset, which Microsoft acquired in order to make Bing. A chance encounter with a parking technology entrepreneur in a parking lot in San Francisco led to Pell taking the helm at QuickPay within a year. After launching in San Francisco, QuickPay has recently dipped a toe in new markets, including Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, and Denver.
In essence, QuickPay lets consumers use their smartphones and QR codes for frictionless, hassle-free payments with both on-street and off-street parking. That in itself is pretty cool, but as Pell explains to Fast Company, the biggest innovations could come next, as parking lot operators begin managing their assets differently after, in Pell's words, "putting a parking meter in the cloud." QuickPay could spur Big Parking to employ methods and pricing that have been used to great effect in other industries (hotels, airlines), but have yet to catch on in parking. Pell talked a bit about those methods—"yield management," in MBA speak—and the unusual effects that could result in your neighborhood parking lot soon.
FAST COMPANY: Airlines have entire departments figuring out pricing. Could your technology enable dynamic pricing?
BARNEY PELL: I’d say that’s one of the most exciting parts of this opportunity, really bringing yield management to the parking industry. It’s clearly exciting for operators, but also consumers as well, because lots of times in these lots, in the middle of the day, parking lots find themselves with a lot of empty spaces. So you’re looking for parking, operators know you’re nearby and in a choice-making mode, so they can try to compete and offer you a special deal, kind of like a Groupon for parking. Another example: say you’re a very loyal parker somewhere. Right now operators have no idea. We create a one-to-one connection between operators and users. We’re taking anonymity out of the parking industry and creating rich relationships.
I never thought of having a relationship with the parking industry. That only seemed like something in "Lovely Rita."
A lot of people transact with parking businesses as much as with local merchants. Wouldn’t you want to get loyalty programs, bonuses, rewards? You park more often than you fly or stay in a hotel.
I guess I just think of parking lots as places to meet Deep Throat to get tips on Watergate—dark, uncomfortable alleyways.
There’s a whole spectrum of parking locations, just like anything else, ranging from the cheap to the super high-end.
Do you envision parking lots that have trendy lighting like a Virgin America flight, or hand out cocktails?
I absolutely do. Already there are premium parking locations where you can get maintenance done on a car, your car detailed, a whole bunch of services. Just like you have high-end coffee. Coffee became special, chocolate became special, then yogurt became special, and now parking will become special. The high-end parking experience is going to go much more mainstream, to everyone’s benefit. There will not be one-size-fits-all parking. Imagine going into a parking garage and paying more to get a wider space. Imagine you’re in a hurry for a meeting, and you could pay extra for a special space.
You could pay a million bucks for the handicap spot!
Potentially, yeah. There’s a parking lot in Oakland near a BART station. Early in the morning, BART workers had been taking all the spots closest to the entrance and staying all day long, until evening time. All the other people coming and going weren’t getting to park in those spaces. The lot operator realized that QuickPay offered a new opportunity, and they gave the best spots premium QuickPay stations. It was great for them—they made a lot more money that way—and it was great for consumers, because you could pay a bit more for a better space. It wasn’t so great for BART workers, but they were okay, because they could pay low rates.
I was going to ask about that. It seems like you’re creating stratification, a class system even in parking lots.
It’s the same as stratification in hotels and in airlines. Stratification benefits everybody, because you can charge more for premium things, and you can also hit the lower end and lower prices there.
So the lavishness of the upper class subsidizes the cheapness of my class.
Exactly. Same as the rest of commerce works.
What’s the most luxurious parking lot you’ve been in?
At some airports, you can call ahead with flight details. When you drive your car to the curbside, a valet comes out, they take your car, and drive away, and you can go fly. Then when you come back, even if your return flight changed multiple times, you can come out, and they’re waiting for you with your car. There’s some malls where they give you exact guidance to where there’s a space. There’s some lots where if you say, "I can’t remember where my car is," they’ve scanned your license plate and tracked your car to where it's parked, and can show you the right way.
It sounds like, mainly, QuickPay will eliminate the plotlines of several Seinfeld episodes.
Yes, I think our system will enable us to reduce drama for parking.
Good news for consumers, bad news for Hollywood?
No, it’s good news for Hollywood, too, since they always have those awesome technologies that make neat stories. You could have a chase sequence where someone’s got to hide out from the bad guys, and QuickPay recognizes them as coming, and the good guy gets in, but the gates close in front of the bad guy.
I’m pretty sure you just described the plot of Exodus.
Absolutely, just like that.