SquadUP launches with Millennials in mind to reshape mobile event planning

By Christopher Goscinski , written on July 15, 2014

From The News Desk

We’ve all been there: You’re out with a few friends and one of them decides that an everyone-is-invited barbecue is in order for next weekend. Everyone agrees it’d be great, but now what? At the very least you want to know what everyone's bringing to the table, maybe even charge them; you’ll want to formalize a date and time, making sure everyone is on the same page and nobody is left out.

Enter SquadUP, which hopes to solve all these problems in the way Eventbrite, Meetup, and other event-focused services have failed to do so.

Led by co-founder and CEO William Litvack, SquadUP prides itself on being mobile first. Its Minimum Viable Product (MVP) was a responsive webpage “held together with rubber bands and bubble gum,” Litvack tells me. Today, the company is coming full circle by officially announcing the launch of their iOS app, which has been in public beta for the past year.

With $1 million in funding to date, the company has been able to grow to over 100,000 users, a number Litvack aims to increase five-fold by 2015. A native mobile version should help, but that kind of growth is hardly a sure bet. Investors, in the meantime will want to see millions of users, not hundreds of thousands, before getting excited about SquadUP's potential to disrupt a highly competitive space.

One thing the service has going for it is that it’s particularly popular on college campuses, and also has a following with young professionals. This is a demographic that rarely uses legacy services like Eventbrite, but which remains a desirable audience with no shortage of growth potential. The result? SquadUP looks a lot like an event-planning app built for, and by, millennials.

SquadUP is an advertiser's dream: the app focuses on mobile, integrates with social media, and offers native messaging; all buzzwords we’ve come to expect in an ad-driven platform. But, somewhat surprisingly, Litvack doesn’t come off as focused on rapid growth or near-term virality.

When he and his friends (now co-founders) launched SquadUP, they were simply looking for something that suited their needs: a “super simple platform that tied in closely with what they we're already doing in terms of our social lives and that was principally mobile-first,” he says. Eventbrite wasn’t cutting it, nor was Facebook’s Events platform; Meetup wasn’t as robust a service as they were looking for and StubHub was more a marketplace than anything else. Litvack and his team launched an MVP in March of 2013 and, as he describes it, “saw some really interesting things right out of the gate," chiefly, high user engagement. (That said, he didn't provide any  specific metrics to back up that claim.)

Part of SquadUP's reported high engagement rate may be due to the app’s focus on social media. By aggregating posts mentioning a specific hashtag of the event planner’s choosing -- before, during, and after said event -- the app provides a feed of event-specific content. Posting things on social media is a nice option, but it's hardly novel. As such, the app doesn’t demand it from users, but rather positions it as another potential means of engaging around offline events. Litvack notes that we (Millennials) are quite social already and there isn’t much point forcing users to take pictures or tweet about their lives: “It’s how we live our lives right now but we didn’t want people to feel like you had to put more content into this.” This makes sense. Why ask someone to take a picture if they’re going to anyway? (Conversely, why force users to post something if they don’t want to?) It’s a hands-off approach that seems to have driven healthy levels of engagement while giving users a reason to come back days after an event is over.

SquadUP’s aggregation of external media is coupled with an internal messaging feature. Litvack beams when he shows me the chat feature within the app, which allows attendees to stay in touch with one another. It’s a simple, group message format at present, but Litvack assures me they’re working on an update that will allow for one-to-one communication between individual attendees.

From a utilitarian standpoint, the chat functionality is perfect for day-of communication. Forgot a tablecloth for the aforementioned BBQ? Need someone to pick up utensils? The chat feature gives everyone attending a platform to reach out, solving the age-old problems of last minute coordination and “I brought the same dish as you to the pot luck" embarrassment. It’s easy to scoff at the “messaging app” pitch but with SquadUP the feature is inherently useful within the core use case of the platform.

From almost every angle, SquadUP is re-imagining event planning means in the mobile era. But when asked about attendee management, however, Litvack concedes that the service needed something all big players in the space have: A ticketing system. He refers to ticketing management as the “table stakes” and he isn’t wrong: If you want to play the event management game, you’re going to need a system that manages attendees and payments. In SquadUP’s case, the attendee management has been done in-house, whereas third party payments processors (Braintree on the web product, Venmo on the app) keep the money flowing.

The silver lining? Because the app (and the MVP for that matter) couldn’t be built without a way to conduct transactions, SquadUP was forced to monetize its product on day one, making it somewhat of a rarity within the mobile-social sector. The company collects a flat 3 percent cut of ticket sales, no matter the price. And though SquadUP has yet to make a profit, the revenue from sales “keeps the lights on and things moving," Litvack tells me.

When I ask about SquadUP’s “mobile-first” mantra and what of users without an iPhone that want to purchase a ticket, Litvack assures me that the mobile-Web version of the product has all the same functionality as the native iOS app. That’s hugely useful, but will be there be an Android app? “We’re seeing more people use Android and are working on an app now for later this year,” Litvack explains, “but SquadUP is New York focused and there are more iPhones here.” I press him about problems with Android’s fragmentation across devices. “I think fragmentation is overblown and we don’t think it’s as bad in development as some think it is,” he says.

Litvack and SquadUP are starting small and moving forward at a moderate pace. The robust Web product allows for tickets to be bought, sans app, and its chat and social media features keep SquadUP in a category all to itself. But things are still small and the company's biggest hurdle remains attracting more users and keeping them coming back for more.

As I leave, Litvack explains that there are two types of people: Event planners, and event attendees. After the interview, I go through the app one more time and it’s clear that SquadUP was built with both in mind. The only thing left to do is get the word out.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]