Updated 2:19 p.m. 8/13/12: Corrected information about placing advertising inside the CrowdStitch app.
Really what Howells has created is a “popup social network” for event organizers and venue owners. Available in the fall, CrowdStitch is an Android and iPhone app that attendees at events use to talk to one another, similar to how the hashtag feature on Twitter works. Not all that revolutionary for users, but Howells says it’s the businesses that benefit more.
“You go to concerts, festivals—there are a lot of people there, with a great tool in their pocket, the smart phone. Organizers could connect directly with each of those people on a one-on-one basis,” says Howells, which would, for instance, allow venue owners to poll CrowdStitch users on what they liked most about a particular event, or enable event organizers at, say, a wine festival to sell advertising that’s presented to users on the CrowdStitch home screen.
Moreover, it’s a universal app that’s dependent on geo-locating programming. Upon clicking into the app, as long as a specific venue is using CrowdStitch, users will automatically wind up on the appropriate home screen.
There are three main features Howells thinks will make CrowdStitch valuable enough for event organizers to justify its purchase. The home screen is similar to the Twitter home feed in that messages from all event attendees are populated by chronology. But at the top of the home screen is a dedicated space for event organizers to place messages (for which they control the timing and how long they’re displayed), or to sell the placement to what Howells calls a “sub account.”
Return to the wine festival example: the organizer of the festival might not want to speak directly to attendees, but the organizer could sell that space to individual winery owners, who could then have their messages displayed to CrowdStitch users.
Organizers can place their own advertisements inside the app for a small fee. These ads are different from the messages at the top of the app’s home screen. Where organizers can make money is by reselling that ad space and charging a similarly small fee to third-party groups or companies. (For example: if Ron Schmelzer decides to use CrowdStitch at a Baltimore TechBreakfast, and a company planning to attend is in need of web developers, Schmelzer could have the option of charging a fee to have said company advertise its job on the CrowdStitch app.)
Finally, Howells and his team (two developers, one designer) have built in a feedback option into the CrowdStitch home screen, broken down into voting, rating and scoring. Users can give ratings (up to five stars), score events on a number-based system, and vote on questions event organizers send out. The event organizers can collect analytics data on CrowdStitch users based on the feedback it receives.
“You can find information you wouldn’t find on Twitter, like sales of beer,” Howells says. “It’s two-way communication, [and] can be a really good thing from a business standpoint.”
Of course, Howells knows what he’s up against. It won’t be easy to pull loyal tweeters away from an app they’ve already been using for years. His plan is to do some “forced viral”—get organizers and venue owners signed on as CrowdStitch locations, and then notify attendees that CrowdStitch is the app they need to use to be electronically connected with that event’s happenings.
But running a startup is what Howells, 34, has wanted to do for some time, even if that means taking on Biz Stone. A native Australian born in Singapore, Howells—who is now a permanent resident in the U.S.—ended up in the town of Sparks in Baltimore County by way of Towson University, where he studied business. After a stint at Thomson Reuters and time spent as a training manager at a financial services company, Howells found himself out of a job after his last company cut half of his department.
Last August he began work on CrowdStitch at a Startup Weekend in Delaware, and he has been handling the sales side of the operation since. Last month, CrowdStitch joined the Greater Baltimore Technology Council’s On Ramp mentorship program. Howells’ project is bootstrapped from the ground up.
“I’m not looking to raise money. I don’t want to,” he says. “To me there’s too much importance placed on … raising a seed round.”
Howells’ plan is to build up CrowdStitch using revenue. The beta test planned for September 29, he says, is to gauge users’ enjoyment of the app. Once that is done, he plans on taking meetings with event organizers to figure out just how much he should charge for them to use CrowdStitch.
“I’ve always wanted to do my own tech-related business,” says Howells. “[I’m] much happier now than I was. And hopefully it works out for the long term.”