MyTime expands seamless booking platform nationwide, but may risk growing too fast

By Michael Carney , written on October 3, 2013

From The News Desk

Calling to book appointments is so last decade. Or at least it should be.  Following several years of success by OpenTable and ZocDoc – online and mobile booking marketplaces for the restaurant and medical industries respectively – consumers are beginning to expect everything to be this easy.

But until recently, this was hardly the case in many everyday industries like salons, spas, automotive care, and home care. Where businesses have offered an online booking option, it's most often been through a proprietary system that eliminates much of the convenience and familiarity that large marketplaces OpenTable and ZocDoc make possible.

Enter MyTime, the ambitious new startup from RedBeacon founder and former Google Search product manager Ethan Anderson that promises to make booking everything from a haircut to an oil change a frictionless experience. The company launched in Los Angeles in February and quickly grew to cover 2,500 merchants in the city's most populated areas. But today, the company is expanding nationwide and now lists more than 2 million businesses. It's also launching its first ever mobile app, available on iOS only today.

The experience using MyTime on the Web has been nothing short of fantastic. Key to this has been the fact that the company integrates with each merchant's calendaring system – something that required a ton of proprietary technology to accomplish – meaning consumers can see a merchant's availability in real-time and complete a booking regardless of the time of day and without every picking up the phone. The app even compares available appointments to a user's mobile calendar and only displays shared openings.

Not surprisingly, 44 percent of all booking to date has occurred during times when the corresponding business is closed – the service also solves the problem of busy signals and answering machines. The experience appears to be equally delightful within the new mobile app, although better because it eliminates the shackles of needing a PC or relying on a not-quite-there mobile Web experience. Users seem to agree, giving the app a 5-star average across 27 early ratings. MyTime is now the number one app in the Lifestyle category and was recently featured by Apple following the massive engagement

But the company is taking a big risk with its expansion strategy that could jeopardize what has up until this point been a fantastic user experience.

At the time of MyTime's LA launch, Anderson and his lead investor, Upfront Ventures' Mark Suster, both told me that the strategy was to prioritize density of coverage first, above geographic reach to ensure the best possible user experience. They wanted consumers to know that any merchant worth doing business with in their area would be on the platform and able to accept remote bookings. It's notable then how different the company's national expansion strategy appears.

To complete the leap from serving one city to serving them all, MyTime relied on places data licensed from Factual and additional publicly available data scraped from Web to create thin profiles for the majority of the business that it's added across the country – the company also layers in Yelp reviews alongside reviews from MyTime users. This means that the bulk of businesses on the platform have not opted into MyTime yet, and thus have not connected their calendaring systems to enable seamless booking. When a consumer wishes to book an appointment with such a business, MyTime acts as a concierge, contacting the business on behalf of the consumer to book the requested appointment. Naturally, it will also take the opportunity to invite the business to join MyTime.

This is a great merchant acquisition strategy for MyTime. It's far easier to convince a business to join your platform when you have more than just a promise of driving new customers some day in the future. In these cases, MyTime actually has a prospective booking ready and waiting. As a result, the company is seeing close rates north of 70 percent. But for the consumer, it's a major departure from the experience that MyTime has promised. What's worse, it's not always clear when browsing merchant listings on the platform which have already signed up for calendar integration and which will require the concierge waiting game.

While this may turn out to be only a temporary annoyance as MyTime builds out its roster of nationwide merchant partnerships, the company runs the risk of turning off many of its current and new customers in the interim.

Ultimately, I expect MyTime to overcome this transition period and emerge as a mainstay of the consumer appointment booking experience. The product is just too good and the alternative too inconvenient to see any other outcome. Also, while other companies appear interested in this space, none have come anywhere near offering the quality of solution that MyTime has built. But it will need to work quickly to move beyond this "awkward phase" and maintain the market lead that it enjoys today.

MyTime has built in a number of conveniences that should keep consumers coming back regularly, something that is a win for both the merchants and the company itself. For one, the app sends users reminders when it's time to book a regular service like a haircut or massage – the app uses standard timeframes on a per category basis, and learns from each user's booking behavior to better approximate frequency over time. The app also remembers the services that a user books, such as a "mens haircut, $35," so that it can suggest quick booking options when one returns to a previously visited location or another within the same category. Users can also favorite businesses to enable even quicker booking for those recurring services.

The company has updated its payment policy since launching eight months ago, so that users only pay for a service after it's been delivered, while early on it required pre-payment. This is a major improvement that will encourage advanced bookings, increase appointment flexibility, and allow consumers to include a tip based on the quality of service delivered. The company also added the option to book individual employees within businesses on its platform, such as a favorite stylist or housekeeper.

MyTime also offers its users exclusive discounts through what it calls its "dynamic pricing" model. Participating merchants tell the company when they are typically slow, such as "Wednesday afternoons between 2-5pm" and MyTime then offers progressive discounts on these appointments until they are booked. For merchants it means less idle time and the potential to attract new customers that will likely pay full fair for future services. For the consumer, it's an opportunity to save money.

MyTime now has 20 full time employees, including a European development team focused on adding support for additional calendaring systems. Today, the company's sales team is just 10 people, all of which are based in San Francisco, but it will need to grow significantly if it is to deliver the same level of service nationwide that it has in LA. Anderson has raised $3 million to date for MyTime, from investors including Upfront Ventures, 500 Startups, and several prominent angel investors. The CEO admits that while he still has "a good portion" of this early money remaining, he will need to raise another round "fairly quickly" to scale up MyTime's supporting infrastructure.

"I certainly underestimated how hard building this business would be," Anderson says. "There were things I didn't realize like the fact that every stylist within a salon offers diff services and has different prices. We've had to adjust our product and our approach to accommodate these things."

Anderson is looking to usher in a future where nothing separates a merchant and their customers but a few taps of a mobile device. This vision and reality are close to one and the same in a few markets and in select categories. MyTime is off to a good start to make it a reality on a broader scale. The next year will be a critical period for the company as it looks to overcome the inevitable growing pains, while massively scaling its marketplace in terms of both users and merchants.

As a consumer, I'm hopeful that he'll be able to pull it off. As someone who has covered plenty of consumer marketplaces, I'm realistic as to how hard it will be.