Brandon Gutman: How are users finding HopStop?
Joe Meyer: As amazing as it might seem, it’s been almost entirely via word-of-mouth. For example, a current HopStop user tells another person who’s never heard of HopStop before and 9 times out of 10 that person will highly recommend HopStop. That said, our users are our best form of marketing and their real world testimonials are better than any advertising or PR campaign that we could ever buy. We’re very fortunate to have such loyal users who are true ambassadors for our brand. This is how we’ve grown since day one, and it’s how we will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.
What’s the benefit, if any, from having Google Maps as your primary competitor?
Having Google as your primary competitor is a double-edged sword. To start with, being compared to Google is an amazing compliment. That said, we’re proud of how we differentiate ourselves from Google Transit and how we continue to attract-and-retain users in spite of having Google Maps as our primary competitor. As with most markets that Google enters, their presence not only validates the market but often time grows the market as well (thereby allowing competitors to share in that growth). Prior to Google Transit (which is deeply integrated within Google Maps), HopStop was the only company to offer real-time, point-to-point mass transit and walking directions in a large-scale way. Now, Google Maps and HopStop are the only two companies to offer such a service, but there are many companies who are trying to replicate this user experience and finding it quite difficult to do so.
How have you achieved so much brand penetration on a shoestring budget?
By offering a superior service. But underneath that, we’re solving a real problem and doing so in a way that’s not easily replicable. Prior to HopStop, commuters and travelers were dependent upon physical maps and hard copy transit schedules to figure out how to navigate the myriad of mass transit systems within major cities. And within any one major city there are several different transit agencies, and as a result if someone wanted to get from one part of a metropolitan area to another, they needed to compare and contrast multiple hard copy maps and schedules in order to do so and make sense of them all. HopStop made this experience much easier for commuters by automating the entire process and aggregating all of the disparate transit agency data and in doing so creating one, seamless online user experience. Needless to say, when HopStop launched its first major city (New York City) five years ago, people were extremely happy that someone had finally come-up with a solution to the mass transit maze.
What is your advice to brand builders who need to do more with less?
Wow, that’s a tough question because each company and each situation is so different. The best advice I can offer to other brand builders (whether it’s a b-to-c brand, or a b-to-b brand) is to focus on solving real problems, and if you’re fortunate enough to come-up with a viable solution to a real world problem then do everything possible to build upon the solution and make it better with every passing year so that it’s that much harder for your competitors to catch-up to you. The other piece of advice I would have (for start-up brand-builders) is to be as spendthrift as possible and use your funding wisely. Every spare dollar should be re-invested in the business with the goal of hiring great people who can build a great product, and to run the company with an eye towards profitability. All too often start-ups are dependent upon venture capital to meet payroll. But when the venture capital dries-up, there needs to be a real business underneath the covers and one that can meet payroll every two weeks in the absence of outside capital.
What is an example of a recent partnership?
HopStop had been very fortunate to have some great partners and long-term customers including Citysearch, CareerBuilder, LimoRes, MenuPages, Village Voice, New York Daily News, Time Out New York, Duane Reade, Corcoran Real Estate, NY Times and Dunkin Donuts. But one company in particular that comes to mind as being a great “win-win” partner is Connect-by-Hertz (CBH). HopStop and CBH recently launched a co-branded partnership that truly benefits both brands. In a nutshell, HopStop is in the business of providing its users with as many alternative forms of transportation as possible, with the primary one being mass transit. But public transit isn’t always the best way to get from point-A to point-B. This is exactly why we partnered with CBH, to offer our users with an alternative to mass transit. Similarly, CBH is all about offering their users convenience and options. Part of that convenience involves getting their users to-and-from their local CBH parking lots and cars. This is where HopStop comes into play (in that HopStop powers local directions on ConnectByHertz.com). And to make the partnership even more of a win-win situation, HopStop and ConnectByHertz are offering complimentary services that appeal to the same demographic – i.e., vibrant, on-the-go urbanites who value convenience. It’s been a great partnership to date and we look forward to expanding the relationship ever further in the months and years ahead.
What is your secret to remaining innovative?
The key to remaining innovative is listening to your users instead of trying to replicate and follow competitors. We receive several hundred e-mails from our users each week with each one of them telling us what they like about HopStop and what they don’t. And if it’s something on which we can improve, they tell us exactly what we can do to make our service better. Too often start-ups get caught-up in what’s happening around them (and as a result they try to replicate what other “successful” start-ups are doing instead of doing what’s right for their own business). Fads and whims will come-and-go, but start-ups like HopStop can’t be distracted by the “external” market. Instead, we have to remain focused on what our customers want and implement whatever it is that will make their lives easier. If we continue to do that then we’ll continue to grow, and the rest will take care of itself.
Brandon Gutman is a founding partner of FOCi Group, a Digital Management Consultancy building and optimizing digital practices for the Fortune 500 community. Brandon and FOCi Group are helping brand innovators utilize emerging technology and new media in order to achieve ultimate performance. Follow Brandon on Twitter at http://twitter.com/brandongutman.