At Baltimore’s first Startup Weekend in April 2011, 23-year-old Nick Miller had an idea: what if people could pay to use someone else’s unused driveway, and what if he got a cut of each transaction?
He pitched the idea and met Adam Zilberbaum, 29, a computer programmer at the event. After 54 hours of work, the duo had assembled the first prototype of Parking Panda, a peer-to-peer parking service that allowed driveway owners to rent out their unused spaces for a fee, while allowing drivers to avoid the hassle of driving around aimlessly looking for open parking spots. They won the weekend, snagging first place and $2,000 to incorporate the business.
After spending the summer at an accelerator in New York City, Miller and Zilberbaum returned to Baltimore, officially launched Parking Panda over Labor Day weekend last year, and helped 100 people park downtown for the city’s inaugural Grand Prix. Now they’re going about the business of scaling. What’s next?
One year later, Parking Panda now collaborates with parking garages interested in renting out empty spots, while still allowing for homeowners with driveways to sell their spaces. In June, Parking Panda expanded to Miller’s old stomping grounds of Washington, D.C., the city’s empty parking spaces being the original inspiration for Parking Panda while he studied at Georgetown University. In two weeks, people in San Francisco will able to use Parking Panda. After that, it’s on to Philadelphia and Chicago.
Technically Baltimore sat down with Zilberbaum and Miller to find out what they’ve learned, if they’re hiring and why they’ve stuck around Baltimore.
TB: What are the three things about Baltimore that you think are advantageous to your startup being here?
NM: There are ups and downs to the community being small, but one of the ups is the support and attention that you can get. In San Francisco, we would’ve been one of 10 million small startups. Here we were able to get the community behind us, get a really strong support structure [and] get everyone in the Baltimore tech community interested in helping us out.
The cost of running a business here. Everything is less expensive, [so] our money goes further. Cost of living is lower, so you don’t need outrageous salaries to be comfortable and live a decent life. Office space costs less money. When you have a finite amount of dollars to spend, it’s important.
Launching our product in Baltimore … was a great test for whether or not it would work. It’s not like San Francisco or New York [City] where you have this super techy community that will be early adopters for anything. It’s the normal American person [in Baltimore]. And if we could have this product that worked really well in Baltimore, that the people here supported, then we know that when we go to San Francisco we can get people on board quickly.
TB: What sort of outside help have you had, in terms of mentorship?
NM: Adrian Fenty, the former mayor of D.C., is an adviser to the company.
TB: How do you go about getting a former mayor to be an adviser?
NM: A little bit of luck and, at the same time, selling the vision. He was an adviser to Neil [Kataria of New Brand Analytics, who is also an adviser to Parking Panda]. [Neil] introduced me to [Fenty].
It definitely helps to add credibility to what you’re doing especially when you’re a small startup and you’re trying to create a relationship with city government. It’s notoriously slow-moving to begin with and if you have to navigate 30 levels of bureaucracy before you get to the remote decision maker, it’s even more difficult. But with him coming and sitting down with us and advocating for us, it allows us to skip way ahead and make those conversations much easier.
TB: Last year, it was the two of you. Now Parking Panda is five people total, plus some interns. You’re a young startup—how have you hired people?
NM: Hiring is hard. Easy to get a resume, hard to find good people that you’re comfortable bringing on, especially in an early stage that are really going to help the company out. Of course our company makes some money, but raising capital is really what’s allowed us to hire so quickly. We’ve hired three people and we’re looking to hire two or three more.
TB: You’ve done one capital raise so far?
NM: We raised a total of three-quarters of a million [in intervals]. Not for any reason other than the fact that it allowed us to get money in the door more quickly and start hiring right away versus waiting to have it all wrapped up, get it all in one giant wire transfer, and then start moving forward.
TB: OK, so, 750 grand. You’re doing parking for the Grand Prix here. You’re in D.C. Did you expect Parking Panda to be this big a year later?
NM: Yeah. I mean, we always knew there was a lot of potential behind what we were doing. And at the same time I don’t know if we anticipated how much our business would have grown and shifted. We’re now really focused on building more of a parking management platform instead of the purely peer-to-peer model. We’re in a unique position to sort of bridge the gap between garage and events or shows or dinner or whatever parking is a natural value-add for.
TB: Are you guys tired?
NM: I think there was a minute there right after we got back from the accelerator when we had been working seven days a week—90, 100 hours a week—where it was just exhausting. We were really in the throes of trying to raise money and it was just—it wears on you.
AZ: Also, because we have a consumer-facing product—in the beginning you have very little usage, you’re grinding, there’s long hours, you haven’t raised money, you’re burning into your savings and no one’s using your product. But once you start seeing those thousands of people booking, it’s exciting.
TB: It’s the end of a long week, where are you guys going drinking?
AZ: In the office.
NM: A lot of times Friday afternoons, we’ll have beers in the office. It’ll be even better when our office moves over to 1111 Light Street—we’re right next to every bar in Federal Hill.
TB: 1111, huh? Are you guys going to be in new incubation space Betamore, or just the same building?
NM: Our company is already getting too large and that’s bigger than what Betamore is meant for. Being in the same building will be really great. We’ll be able to participate, teach, take classes, go up and hang out with all the other companies, so we’re looking forward to that.
[Full Disclosure: Betamore co-founder Mike Brenner is an adviser to Technically Baltimore.]