by Lisha Arino
Last month, Mayor Bloomberg announced the launch of BigApps 3.0, a contest that encourages developers to create mobile applications that help city residents, visitors and businesses, using data sets provided by the city. The contest is in its third year, and it’s bigger than ever, with $50,000 in cash prizes, four new categories, and about 750 data sets for use.
But as developers gear up for this year’s contest, three previous winners looked back at how the contest has affected them and their company.
Helping the World Find Something to Do.
MyCityWay was an idea borne out of frustration, said co-founder Sonpreet Bhatia. One night, she and two friends Archana Patchirajan and Puneet Mehta wanted to go out on the town.
“We were just wandering around in the city…and we were looking for some good events to go that night and we really could not find any one place where we could go and look for things to do in our city,” she said.
So they decided to build an app, she said. At first, they intended to build it for just themselves, but then they heard about the BigApps contest and decided to enter. Bhatia said that the app is intended for both locals and tourists. In addition to events, their app also gives users helps users find WiFi hotspots, apartments for rent, and restaurant information, among other services, she said.
MyCityWay eventually won the “popular choice” award at the first-ever BigApps contest. It also took home the “investor’s choice” award, which gave them $10,000 to help fund their company. In addition, they became the first recipients of the first investment of the NYC Entreprenueurial Fund, a seed and early-stage investment fund established by the city and managed by FirstMark Capital, according to a press release from the Economic Development Corporation.
She said that the contest was helpful in getting their business started.
“I won’t say that we would not have been successful, but it speeded up the process,” Bhatia said. She said they all quit her Wall Street jobs to start the company.
Publicity from the contest has helped them attract users and investors, said Bhatia. She said that 4 million users have activated the app. The company has also raised $6 million in venture capital funding, according to Crunchbase.
MyCityWay has also expanded to 66 cities around the world, with offices in the West Village and India, said Bhatia. She said that they were also planning to set up shop in Germany and Singapore.
A “Symbolic” Start
Adda Birnir worked at MTV with Kate Reyes, and she knew Jonathan Soma, a Ruby on Rails developer. All they wanted was to make an app together, said Birnir. They ended up winning third place overall at the first BigApps contest.
After looking at the city’s data sets, they decided on creating an app that aggregated city, state and federal data on schools in a user-friendly format. It became known as Big Apple Ed. Birnir said that contest gave them a chance to test out the team’s compatibility and the strength of their idea, at little cost.
“It felt very safe because the risks were very low and all we were going to lose was some time outside of work,” she said. She added that the team was also able to get feedback from the tech community, which she said was helpful.
Six months after winning, Birnir and Reyes quit their jobs at MTV and started their own business using their cut of the prize money, a move that she said was “symbolic” as well as practical. Soma decided not to join that venture, but became a partner for another business the two started five months ago, she said.
“Winning the contest helped push us, or encourage us to start our own business,” she said. Through the contest, she said the team realized that they worked well together. She also said that she was encouraged by feedback from the tech community.
These days, Birnir and Reyes run Balance Media, a company that develops interactive apps for news and media and companies. She said their clients included WNYC, ProPublica and their former boss, MTV. They have also started a tablet publishing company, which they run with Soma.
On a Road to the “Real Product”
It was a chilly, autumn night when Roadify’s founder, Nick Nyhan came up with the idea of his award-winning app, said the company’s head of marketing and design, Dylan Goelz. As Nyhan drove around Park Slope, Brooklyn, looking for a parking spot, he thought crowdsourcing might help drivers find empty parking spots.
Roadify eventually included bus and subway information, but its purpose is the same, said Goelz: to alert commuters about conditions on their route.
“Pretty much [users] just communicate to Roadify what’s going on and then we’re able to distribute it to everyone else,” he said.
Since winning the grand prize and snagging second place in the “popular choice” category earlier this year, Roadify’s downloads have tripled and usage has quadrupled, said Goelz. He credits BigApps with Roadify’s success. Goelz said that “there’s no way” the app would have been as successful without the competition.
“It put us in contact with an amazing group of developers here in New York,” he said, adding that he made “great relationships” through the contest.
He also said that the prize money is helping to finance version two of the app “which we think is the real product.” He said the new version will integrate Twitter and include more data sets, like commuter rail and ferry information. They plan to launch it in December.