The Entrepreneur Who Wants To Plan Your Evening

Sosh CEO Rishi Mandal wants to deliver cool, customized local experiences by analyzing what people are talking about online. Here's what he's learned about getting people interested in an idea.

By the time Rishi Mandal was 12 years old he was filing patent applications for a number of inventions, including a spring-loaded clothes hanger that won’t stretch out your shirts.

“Everything was a puzzle,” he says. His entrepreneurial streak was inspired by his father who, with his business partners, started a tech company at a picnic table in the family’s garage.

Today, Mandal is CEO of Sosh (as in, short for “social”). It’s an app that seeks to answer the question, “What do you want to do?” based on where users like to spend time, days they go out, how much money they want to spend, even taking into account the weather. Currently, Sosh is in five cities (San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.), with plans to expand into Boston and Los Angeles. We spoke with Mandal to find out how his curiosity and passion for problem solving has shaped his entrepreneurial spirit. Here are his three tips:

1. Create something people want and don't assume you know your demographic.

In college, Mandal studied astrophysics at Stanford University, but it wasn’t long before the entrepreneurial itch needed scratching. In 2008, he went to work for Max Levchin (cofounder of PayPal), then the CEO of Slide, a company that created games for smartphone users. Mandal and his team developed the game “SuperPoke! Pets,” which had 100,000 users in its first week of release and a million users within a month. Two years later, when Google acquired Slide, the app had more than 30 million users.

Mandal believed the game would appeal to kids who’d form an emotional connection to their pet, and would spend time building a virtual world for them. After investing time into it, the thinking went, kids would want to share their work with friends and the app’s popularity would grow from there.

Mandal says the team was surprised to learn that the audience they were after, young girls, were not playing. Instead, the majority of users were middle-aged women from the Midwest. While the research was surprising, the company created something consumers wanted, and they were willing (and able) to pay for it.

2. Solve a problem everyone has.

Mandal’s experience with apps led him to create Sosh. With smartphones, users have high expectations for the products they use online—they want lightning-fast speed, and an intuitive experience, Mandal says. But when users put down their phones or close their laptops to hang out with friends offline, they don’t have those expectations.

You may arrive at a restaurant on time for your reservation, for example, but be informed your table is finishing dinner and will be another 10 minutes. “[There’s] no expectation the experience will be seamless and delightful,” Mandal says. “What if we elevate [offline] expectations?” Enter Sosh. The app seeks to answer the question, “What should we do?” by structuring data about what’s happening in the city. It may suggest a new restaurant, a show, or an experience, such as a great drink. The Alembic Bar on Haight Street in San Francisco, for example, serves a small plate of Girl Scout cookies alongside a perfectly paired cocktail during cookie season.

Deciding what to do is a problem everyone has, Mandal notes. Using proprietary technology, Sosh finds what people are talking about online. “A large percentage of cool things to do in a city have some digital footprint,” he says.

3. Find Creative Ways to Turn a Profit.

Mandal stresses that Sosh’s mission is to be useful to people, and doesn’t make recommendations based on its relationships with vendors. While the site is free to users, Sosh is beta testing Sosh Marketplace in San Francisco. Local artisans are good at their craft but generally not so great with pricing and promotion, Mandal says.

Sosh Marketplace allows artisans to focus less on the common denominator and more on what they’re good at—creating an excellent product or experience, he says. For example, a restaurant approached Sosh about offering a six-course dinner with cognac pairings, but was unsure whether there was a market for such an event. Sosh handled the listing, pricing, promotion, and logistics, allowing the restaurant to focus on the menu. The event sold out in an hour.

Chef Anthony Yang was a line cook at Per Se, a Michelin-rated restaurant in New York City, who’d moved to San Francisco with dreams of opening his own restaurant. He hosted pop-up dinners and brunches around the city, but wasn’t getting the traction he’d hoped for.

Yang teamed up with Sosh and, within the first five weeks, held seven pop-up brunches, making $12,000 and introducing 400 new diners to his black truffle waffles. Sosh Marketplace seems to be a natural extension. “Turning creative moments from cost centers to profit centers benefits everyone,” Mandal says.

[Image: Flickr user pinguino k]

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