As much as we were fascinated by the innovative parking approach of the city of San Francisco through SFpark, we still believed that the problem was only partly solved at a very high cost. Also, we realized there was a major drawback in the solution: information provided by the sensors were public via SFpark’s mobile app, so the optimization of parking search time for drivers was only partial. For a given spot which is free right now, 3 or 4 drivers might cruise right to it and only one of them would eventually have saved time searching for a spot.
From our small bedrooms in a shared house in Ashby while finishing our entrepreneurship program at UC Berkeley, we started looking into the open data provided by the city of San Francisco to figure out patterns in spot occupancy. We thought at first that we could better solve the problem if we could provide drivers an indication on their chances of finding a spot at destination before they started their journey, by crunching the city’s data. We developed a first prototype, put it online and went to test it with drivers. We were wrong and were stroked by a comment a driver gave us: “When I’m looking for a spot, I want it now and I want to be sure to get it!”
Then the idea of getting information from drivers themselves was back on top of our agenda, but still we knew that it was a tough sell to get drivers to contribute to the system. We had also heard of a similar solution KurbKarma which had failed in late 2012, the mobile app was providing karma points to drivers reporting and taking them away from drivers getting information about spots. We then thought, what if we introduce money? Would that work?
On a sunny Saturday afternoon of November 2013, we went out on the streets of the Mission District for an experiment. We had no idea that we were about to have a lot of fun in a couple of minutes! We were 5 in total and we split in 2 teams of 2 and the remaining one would be in charge of driving the Zipcar rented for the experiment. The plan? Have a team look into the demand - drivers looking for parking - and a team look into the supply - drivers freeing up their spots.
For the supply part of the experiment, we had prepared roughly 200 flyers with different messages “text us when you’re leaving to help someone park” and iterated the same message with different financial rewards $1, $2, $3 and up to $5. We distributed those flyers on cars windshields on Valencia between 15th street and 17th street as well as on adjacent streets where parking is free all-day.
For the demand side, nothing more crafty than a Trader Joe’s cut cardboard box with “Parking Spot” written on it. Our Zipcar was also parked somewhere at the beginning of the experiment.
As soon as team demand started waiving the cardboard signs, the experiment had started. Five minutes later, a first driver stopped on 16th and Valencia asking us whether we had a spot for him. We said yes, guided him to our Zipcar and asked him for only 1 thing in return: let us know 5 minutes before he leaves his spot so that we can help someone else park. In the meantime, team supply was flyerizing the neighborhood and no later than 30 minutes after the first flyer was distributed we got our first text “15th and Valencia…5 mins left on meter” and we identified which flyer he had received, the $5 one.
One of our guys ran to meet the driver to explain the experiment we were running while team demand had 5 minutes to find an interested driver. Unfortunately, we did not find anyone for him, he left. 15 minutes later another text, same $5 flyer and this time team demand already had someone! Again, one of us ran to meet with the driver leaving the spot and we directed the driver looking for a spot to his location. Once there, we attended something magical: 2 random drivers who didn’t know each other exchanged spots thanks to information they had both received. We explained to the driver parking that we had promised some money to the driver reporting his spot and asked him how much he would pay him: the guy gave us $5 to give to the other driver and tipped us $1!
In that same afternoon, we did 8 spot exchanges in two hours redirecting drivers to other drivers. We learned 3 main things from this experiment:
1/ drivers were only willing to report they were leaving for $5, we didn’t get any text or call from drivers who had received flyers with lower amounts
2/ drivers looking for spots were willing to pay $5 if you save them time during busy hours and especially if they know that they can get them back.
3/ if you don’t make the drivers pay for the spot, they don’t report they are leaving, indeed losing something has more psychological impact than the opportunity of earning something.
We were so excited by the outcome of that afternoon but we wanted to hold our excitement back until we were sure we had something. We reiterated experiments on different days and times, both a weekday experiment during dinner time in the Mission and an experiment during a Bears’ game in Berkeley showed similar traction.
The main accomplishment of these experiments is that we had tested new business concept with literally zero lines of code. The 3 of us heavily involved in this project were thinking about launching a company based on this field validation, we had a name in mind something mixing switching spots and making parking a sweeter experience…Sweetch was born.