"I gotta guy": Ex-Whisper CTO launches Knowzz mobile platform to unlock local recommendations

By Michael Carney , written on May 27, 2014

From The News Desk

“Don’t worry, I gotta guy.”

When it comes to finding the best businesses and service professionals, be it an auto mechanic or babysitter, the most valuable commodity is a trusted referral. All too often, however, unlocking this knowledge from one’s social graph is a manual and haphazard process of asking friends for recommendations or posting queries to social media in the hopes of striking gold.

Knowzz is a new friend-curated local directory platform which simplifies the process of making recommendations and sourcing trusted professional on a moment’s notice. The Los Angeles-based startup was founded by former Whisper CTO Steve Sobolevsky, a man who knows a thing or two about building highly scalable consumer applications. As a father who recently purchased a home in a new town, he also knows a bit about the frustrations of finding all new solutions to your everyday business needs.

“We only moved eight miles and more than 50 percent of our services won’t transfer,” Sobolevsky says. “I feel like I’ve been panhandling with soccer moms and soccer dads for referrals since we moved, things like a pool guy, a plumber, and a gardener. Even the thought of driving to our old dentist and ophthalmologist seems a little inconvenient now.”

For the user in search of a recommendation, Knowzz works a lot like Yelp or Angie’s List, except next to each business profile is the name of which friend recommended them and, in some cases, a detailed explanation about why. The platform can be searched by business type – dentist, gardner, hair salon, contractor, etc. – or by friend. That way, if you know the person whose recommendation you’d trust most in a given category it’s possible to surface that information directly. Users can place a phone call from within the app, but bookings are still made externally at this point.

In order to create an account and view local recommendations, users must connect Knowzz to their Facebook profile. In many cases this is a controversial decision, but in the instance of a friend-curated directory, it makes perfect sense.

Knowzz looks to make it as easy as possible for users to populate their own list of recommended businesses. When first creating a profile within the app, users are prompted to add recommendations from their phone’s contacts list – because where else do we keep our rolodex these days? The app automatically identifies businesses based on information within the contact card, such as business name, but also by cross referencing contact data with places and business databases like factual. The end result is a targeted list of the few dozen businesses in each user’s contact list.

The user can then select which of these businesses to recommend, sharing only the best or only those which they’re comfortable with their friends also patronizing. For example, busy parents may not want to share the name of their babysitter for fear that she’ll be booked by other families when they need her. But a recommendation for a piano teacher or a plumber is less sacrosanct. Users are asked to update this list of recommendations as new local services contacts are added to their address book

Knowzz currently supports more than 100 business categories, focusing on local services. The platform is not focused on restaurants or retail recommendations, although these are permitted nonetheless. The company is currently seeing an average of 12 recommendations per signup. Sobolevsky says that he’s not interested in traditional mobile metrics like how often the app is opened or how long users spend using it, but rather is tracking stats like recommendations per users, conversion from discovery to booking, and viral downloads.

“We focused on making the product easy to use and as a result, our conversion metrics are off the charts,” he says.

Sobolevsky and his sub-10 person team, who have raised only a small friends and family round, quietly launched MVP versions of Knowzz for iOS and Android in December and onboarded a few thousand people. Three weeks ago, the company rolled out a completely redesigned version of its iOS app, with the goal of making it more of a recommendation engine.

For example, in Sobolevsky’s case, the app would know based on his profile information that he’s a male who has children and owns a house, thus using use this information to recommend pediatricians, dentists, gardeners, and so forth. For a single woman living in an apartment, the recommendations would be different, but similarly targeted. A comparable Android update launches today.

In future updates, Sobolevsky promises features like chat (between users, not user and merchant)

Knowzz seems ripe for gamification such that the app acknowledges power referrers or experts in particular categories. For example, if one person’s recommendations for a hair stylist and a masseuse have been exceptionally popular, then their profile might reflect their expertise in the beauty category. Sobolevsky is hesitant to go this route, calling gamification kitchy. I don’t disagree, but would warn that this is more reflective of poorly implemented or non-value added gamification, whereas in Knowzz’s case, there would be utility in the additional context.

Sobolevsky has yet to turn on any sort of monetization, but the options are plenty. The company could charge merchants for promoted profiles or the ability to claim and personalize their profile within the app. The company will also find itself with valuable data around search and recommendation patterns that it can turn around and license to businesses for a fee. Figuring out how to sell these options to the millions of local businesses in America is another challenge entirely, but all those are obstacles for down the road, Sobolevsky says. For now, the goal is to grow usage and to bake as much utility into the platform as possible.

Local services is a highly competitive category with everyone from legacy search players like Yelp, to newcomers like bookings platform MyTime, to adjacent deals marketplaces like Groupon. Knowzz is unique in its offering and would seem to add real value in ways that these competitors cannot. But breaking through the noise and reaching a critical mass of users to unlock that utility will be a major challenge.

The Internet is such that no one places any weight on anonymous reviews anymore. And unless the person making the review is someone you know and trust, even named reviews might as well be anonymous. The best way to evaluate a product or service is still by way of personal recommendation, the issue is that we’re still surfacing these recommendations in a wholly manual and analog way. If you’re as tired of that as I am, I’ve gotta guy you should talk to.