The many companies vying to be the “Uber of X” are not just trying to find a sector of the real world left to disrupt. They are trying to find an inefficiency that bedevils us on a regular basis. It’s hard to think of something more common, basic, and annoying than waiting in line.
The potential of this hit Patrick Edgett – a Riverside-based economist that has drifted into tech – while he was visiting San Francisco with his wife late in 2012. He says they pulled up at a restaurant to meet friends and saw a long line. He remembers his heart sank thinking of how impatient his friend was and how annoying he would be. “I found myself really dreading it,” he says.
Eighteen months later, Edgett is launching WaitLess with his co-founder David Langley. The company has four full time staff, all working for free, and three interns. It has spent just $4,500 getting its product out. “We’ve really learned how to stretch a buck,” Edgett says.
Talking to Edgett, you get the impression that WaitLess’ company history has been a good news-bad news story. The good being that its recently launched app, which is focused initially on the wider Inland Empire area east of Los Angeles, is a workable solution to the problem of dodging real world lines.
Through a simple, map-based interface a user can see the wait times for service at participating places in their surrounding area. The service has three separate “legs” to it as Edgett describes. There is crowd sourced data, where I can enter in the wait time myself or report back on how accurate the described wait time is. There is host data, where companies can input their own sales and trends information. And there a company-built algorithm, which combines the first two inputs to produce an estimate for how long the wait may be at a time in the future.
“If this goes well and we get the right data coming in, we’ll have analytics to help us know so much about, who, when and why people wait,” Edgett says.
The bad news for Edgett and WaitLess is that this idea has been tried before and failed. And it may still fail again. The most obvious pain points– like standing in line– frequently are still pain points because they are hard to solve, not because no one has tried yet.
Building a network effect is the first challenge. The company is individually recruiting 100 participating companies in the Inland Empire region before it will let stores sign up independently. Edgett hopes each of those companies will bring in 100 users separately. “But we’ve been getting them one-by-one at the moment and that leg work is really not scaleable,” he says. Yep.
The second part of the equation is compelling users to take part. “Even with a really solid use case, it’s still hard to get someone to take out their phone, open it up and look at an app and enter information,” Edgett says. Yep.
The riddle here, is getting social traction without becoming a social network, he adds. He hopes rewards are the answer. Like a loyalty card, users will use it ten times and get something for free. But across vendors that may be a challenge. Does everyone have to offer a reward for WaitLess points?
But at least WaitLess is indeed trying to tackle a problem, which is more than we can say for some pitches we see. And not just for those standing in the lines. “Maybe using us, a Mom and Pop coffee store will see the times where they are busy each day and then maybe they should look at staffing someone else,” Edgett says. There are potential partnerships between WaitLess and a company like Yelp, showing you how long a wait is likely to be not just whether the restaurant is open. It’s possible OpenTable could offer WaitLess as an add on for places that only take walk-ins.
But there will continue to be competitors, as long as people hate lines. A company like NoWait, which allows people to put their name down for a table at a restaurant via text message, is already in the market with an adjacent product and could block WaitLess’ path if it expands its applications.
And of course the company could simply just run out of money. Local, feet-on-the-street network effect businesses are crazy expensive to build. WaitLess has been meeting with VCs but hasn’t signed any deals yet. “My wife isn’t going to put up with me being cashflow negative forever,” Edgett laughs.
[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]