Urban Airship Powers Mobile Subscriptions–to Anything

Brought to you in part by people who pioneered online bacon sales, Urban Airship knows a thing or two about monetizing the improbable.


Urban Airship, a mobile app infrastructure startup from Oregon, wants to change the way people think of subscriptions. Not only does it want to rescue magazines, by powering subscriptions on the iPad and other mobile devices–it wants you to subscribe to things you never even thought of subscribing to before. And with a recent round of venture capital funding that garnered a fresh $5.4 million, they’re well on their way.

The company, which was started with the help of a unique Oregon unemployment fund and revenue from an online bacon business they built in just 21 days — called — helps improve apps in three ways. It offers back-end infrastucture, helps implement push notifications (which build a relationship with users), and now subscriptions (which monetize that relationship). Last week, Newsweek became the first magazine to offer in-app iPad subscriptions through Urban Airship. The Atlantic is also on board, as is the NBA.

Wait, the NBA? That last example may surprise you, but Urban Airship wants to make it the new norm of content providers. Right now, we think of subscriptions as applying to a relatively small list of media–cable TV, internet service, publications. But Urban Airship wants app developers to broaden their horizons. Video games could offer subscriptions for add-on content, such as additional levels. Investment banks and analyst firms that charge for their reports could move into the app market. And there is untapped potential in entertainment–consider the artist whose loyal fans would pay extra money for first looks, exclusive pictures, and advance ticket sales. “We’re brainstorming with a lot of customers how they could use this monetization model,” Urban Airship’s Jessica Davis tells Fast Company.

The start-up also has access to lots of data. It has sent 1.2 billion push notifications and counting, and can correlate that data with customer behavior, helping developers learn what makes their app develop loyal users willing to pay up. The ideal frequency of push notifications, and ideal time of day to send, may vary from one app to another, depending on what the user wants. “We can look at the data and see what are some best practices,” says Davis.

A Portland-based company with 17 employees, Urban Airship intends to use the new funding to expand the business and build out the engineering team, making some of their services more user friendly for folks with less tech know-how. The company retains its start-up culture; bacon remains popular around the office. You can learn more about how to build a small fortune out of online bacon sales by reading the new book by two Urban Airship team members.

[Images: Wikimedia commons]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.