And God said, “Let there be an ambience search engine for restaurants and bars,” and there was an ambience search engine for restaurants and bars.
Entrepreneur Steve Dziedzic was disappointed to not get accepted into the TechStars New York last year. He was starting a new personalized search engine for dining and drinking, and all the pieces had been falling into place. He had received nothing but firm affirmation from his friends, associates, and mentors. But TechStars wasn’t interested. Dziedzic didn’t even get past the online application stage. It was probably too early in his business’s life, but he was, as he now admits, “a bit bummed.”
But he did have another option. He decided to follow the way of the Redeemer. Dziedzic entered a business competition for an unconventional incubator in New York City that goes by the name of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
Last year, Redeemer’s competition, which started four years ago and is only open to Christians, attracted about 60 entries, from which 15 companies were shortlisted on the basis of a three-page submission. That list was then whittled down to five finalists, who each gave a 20-minute presentation to the Redeemer board. The winner would get $20,000 and access to the members of the church, who had relevant technical, business, and strategy expertise.
Redeemer’s mission statement reads: “To build a great city for all people through a gospel movement that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, to the world.”
So Dziedzic’s search service, Hoppit, which launched last week in 25 US cities, won the competition. Hoppit offers a Yelp-like search experience for restaurant and bars but allows you to filter by “vibes” (such as “classy and upscale,” “hipster,” and “Mad Men”) and who you’re with (“friends,” “family,” or “a good book”).
The slickly designed service, which Dziedzic sells as “your personal concierge,” has received $200,000 in funding from investors in New York and San Francisco, family and friends, and Aimee Higgins, Pandora’s vice-president of strategy, who, along with YouTube’s head of sport for North America, Frank Golding, is also an advisor to Hoppit.
Through Redeemer, Dziedzic and his team also got access to Cathedral Consulting, which helped build the company’s financial model, made their balance sheets, and developed their income statements. The church also provided Hoppit with advice from the accountants and lawyers it counts among its members.
“Some tech startups are really wary to associate themselves with churches,” says Dziedzic, identifying a phenomenon that sometimes marginalises rock bands that are labeled “Christian.” “Winning a Christian business competition could make Hoppit seem like a Christian company. So I think for tech founders who are wary of that association, I would tell them not to do it.”
But Dziedzic was confident that Redeemer’s role wouldn’t mean people would see as Hoppit as a Christian company. “If they were interested in my personal life, I would tell them about it,” he says, “but Hoppit is first and foremost an innovative, for-profit company.”
Despite the assist from the Almighty, Hoppit will face a stern challenge. For instance, it would be easy for Yelp to add extra filtering to its offering, letting users sort by ambience, potentially overwhelming Hoppit.
Dziedzic is aware of the threat and says he wants to move quickly to establish Hoppit as the go-to ambience search engine. In part to achieve that goal, Hoppit will soon be adding Yelp ratings to its search results and rolling out a machine-learning component that harvests public data such as Likes and check-ins to further personalize the service.
Well, if there’s one way to beat Yelp, it’s through omniscience. I wonder if the Redeemer can help Hoppit with that.