"How do you break into NASCAR—the most successful spectator sport outside of the NFL—especially when you’re sitting in Desert Storm in the Middle East?" That was the question Banjo CEO Damien Patton asked himself while serving in the first Gulf War. He had seen his first NASCAR race during his years in the military. He saw the speedy crews servicing the racers and told himself he was going to do that one day. "Everyone made fun of me and said 'How are you going to get into that? It’s like getting into the NFL.'"
A year later, Patton was working at NASCAR.
He spent the next eight years servicing cars, working his way up to head mechanic for a team that he assures won a lot. More than any of his other varied life experiences, which include living in a freeway underpass in L.A., commuting to MIT graduate school from Las Vegas, and fighting a war, changing tires (in lighting speed) taught him how to succeed in Silicon Valley, where he now runs social-discovery startup Banjo.
Like the startup cliché, NASCAR moves fast. His team had 13 seconds to service a car without making any mistakes. A tenth of a second meant the difference between a hundred thousand dollars and millions of dollars. "And I wanted to win," he says. Not only did he learn to function in high-pressure situations, but he adopted a "testing mentality."
In attempt to shave off valuable milliseconds, Patton's team would measure the data from previous races and use driver feedback to test new, faster tune-up methods. "When you would find that advantage, that nugget, you would literally come back to the race shop, where you have a couple hundred employees, and tell them everything must be changed immediately." And days before a big race, the team would oblige, because it meant winning.
"We do the same thing here, at Banjo," he added. We all know the Silicon Valley adage made famous by Facebook: move fast, break things. Banjo moves at a "ridiculous pace," Patton says, and tests new things every day.
Because of that NASCAR ideology, his company has evolved from a copy-cat app to something more useful and unique. When it first launched, Banjo was essentially a friend discovery app that pulled in various social networks—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, etc.—to tell a person when their friends were nearby. He soon realized his idea wasn't too novel: "The 'here’ technology is going to become a commodity," he told Fast Company a year ago.
Since, Banjo has harnessed its original technology—location services plus social media—to relaunch as a supercharged event finder. In its current iteration, the app aggregates all the social media happenings from a specific location in one searchable place.
Having mapped out every single entertainment venue in the world, the app knows about (almost) every single event on Earth. If you want to see pictures and videos from a Miley Cyrus concert in Amsterdam, for example, Banjo culls all the Instagrams, tweets, and other social shares from that location into one easy-to-find place.
Banjo's interface may prove itself particularly useful for journalists. Searching by location will surface first-person accounts and imagery from primary sources via their social networks. That means reporters get on-the-ground reports from places they can't immediately get their cameras, like the Philippines during and after the recent typhoon, for example.
Patton misses his days at NASCAR, the "different kind of intensity," he said. But, he thinks his current venture has wider-reaching potential. "What we’re doing with Banjo, we’re literally affecting the lives of millions of people and it has the possibility to go to billions of people," he said. "You could never do that in a professional sport like you can with technology. You couldn't effect change."
[Image: Flickr user Darryl Moran]