by Ingrid Lunden, TechCrunch | Original Post

KurbKarma: A Social Network, And App, To Find Parking Where And When You Need It

Monday, May 21st, 2012
kurbkarma logo

We have all been there: you are in your car, you need to park, and you cannot, no matter how much you try, find a space. You see cars pulling away, but it’s too far for you to get there before another car swoops in. You see people walking and you trail them, hoping they’re heading to a vehicle. It’s a frustrating state of affairs, but a new startup, KurbKarma, is launching today at TC Disrupt New York to try to solve it.

“Parking where and when you need it” is the basic idea here: you have people who have spaces they are about to leave; and you have people who need spaces. The app (available for iOS) works like an ad hoc social network to link these people up. Those who have a space can post their status on an app, those who need a space find one on the map. The app integrates with Google Maps to plot spaces near you, and lets you send messages — several sendable with the touch of a button — to let the space owners know how far away you are.

Spaces are “sold” with KarmaKredits: people who donate their spot pick up one KarmaKredit. People who need a space use two KarmaKredits to buy them.

Like many of the best ideas out there, KurbKarma came out of the immediate needs of its founders. Neha Sampat and Matthew Baier are friends with longstanding backgrounds in tech, who are both also qualified as sommeliers, and they had a plan to get together to scheme for their next enological activity. Arranging to meet in the North Beach district of San Francisco, they drove around, looking for a place to park — which can be an impossible task in that part of town. By the time finally found a place to park, they knew what they had to do next: try to solve this problem for themselves and others.

What’s interesting about the app is that it has both a practical and a moral twist to it. “There’s an element of paying it forward,” says Baier. “It’s a community effort to make parking easier; you are adding additional parking spaces to the public domain.” He also points out that the app helps aid the “peace of mind” of the driver, allowing them to focus on driving rather than looking off the road for a spot.

But it’s not all about charity and goodwill: KurbKarma has also started to work a revenue model into the business, in the form of a virtual currency. You can always use the app free of charge, but if you have not had the chance to pick up KarmaKredits by offering spaces to the network, you can buy some through the App Store, with each credit costing $0.99. The app is free in the app store, and every new user gets 10 free KarmaKredits for signing up.

The pair have been picking up a mailing list of users for launch with a bit of viral marketing that has clearly struck a chord in the traffic-choked streets of San Francisco: they went around a few areas of town — including the financial district and Dolores Park — and put what looked like parking tickets under the wipers of various cars.

Then they stepped back to watch: people would pick them up, thinking “Oh no, not another parking ticket,” said co-founder Matthew Baier. Inside: a note about how annoying parking can be with a link to a fun domain offering a solution for how to improve it. (example: parkingisabitch.com) They’ve collected 2,500 names this way so far.

In the future, there are some exciting developments planned for KurbKarma. They include an Android version to complement the iOS app coming out today. And there are also discussions with other device makers (eg GPS system producers) to integrate with some of the other tools that drivers already use to get around. (The reason that the pair went with iOS first, says Sampat, is because they are launching in New York and San Francisco — both cities where people use their smartphones for navigation; in the future, when the company expands to other markets, especially in regions like Europe, where GPS in-car navigation systems are very popular, other hardware will need to come into play.)

Baier also says that KurbKarma is working on expanding the kinds of spaces that they will integrate into the app: right now it’s geared at public parking, but down the line there will also be options to take private parking, in the form of garages, driveways and other off-street spaces. And, crucially for the business’ scale, it is talking with some large third parties that already focus on car-based city travel to help market the offering.

I have to admit when I first heard the idea for KurbKarma, I had my doubts: it puts too much weight on the goodwill of other people, and being able to plan and stick to commitments with total strangers — and there are so many variables: traffic that can delay you; people needing to rush away and leave the space before they said they would; and people changing their mind and staying longer than originally intended.

There are some elements already worked into the app that should help discourage flaky behavior, such as user ratings after a transaction is completed (or not, as the case may be): “It will happen from time to time that people leave,” notes Sampat. “But if they do that they will see negative ratings. The ratings will weed out those who do not follow the rules.”

And sometimes it is the most unlikely — and original — of ideas that really take off. Just think of Airbnb and the idea of people who had never thought of themselves as ad hoc hoteliers suddenly giving up rooms in their private homes: that, too, sounded like a big leap for people to take. And yet today I think it’s miles better than most of the hotel options many cities offer. “Sharing models are becoming more mainstream,” says Baier. “The idea is already out there.” I’d put a few KarmaKredits on KurbKarma striking a similar chord.

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