After a long week of classes and hacking at Johns Hopkins, Stanley Ho, Sunyan Lee and Yiran Zhang wanted to chill in Charles Village on a Friday night. Being poor college students and computer science majors, they looked to apps like Groupon and LivingSocial for places to grab a bite to eat, and deals they might find.
“I would get like 15 notifications from Groupon, but all of them would require driving,” said Lee. That was a problem for the Johns Hopkins senior because he doesn’t have a driver’s license, let alone a car.
"We use machine learning to understand the users' usage patterns over time, and send them a push notification when they walk past a business that is running promotions they may be interested in."
At the time, the three were in an entrepreneurship and innovation course, so they used some of the time to ask small businesses in the area about why they didn’t use the promotion tools. They found that for the most part, businesses were convinced that poor college kids like them didn’t really use the apps.
“Everyone who was coming [via Groupon or similar services] was not from Hopkins, whereas their primary target market is actually college students,” Lee said.
The three don’t think college students are an entirely lost market, though. In fact, they’re building a new app that’s designed to make online promotions better for everyone.
Promotious seeks to make building campaigns quicker and cheaper for the small businesses. Unlike the bigger services, there’s no charge for releasing the promotion. And with the platform’s capabilities, businesses can upload and release the campaigns instantly rather than waiting for the lag time involved with Groupon. Business owners can also track how the promotions are doing, and delete them if they don’t work.
The app is integrated with beacon technology, which allows phones to perform actions based on location. Closed networks are currently standing in the way of a rapid beacon expansion, but the technology is quickly developing. Ho, Lee and Zhang experimented with it at a recent hackathon.
Once businesses sign up, Promotious sends them a Gimbal Series 10 beacon. The devices cost the company $5, and can detect phones as people with the app walk by the bars and restaurants.
“On the mobile app, we use machine learning to understand the users’ usage patterns over time, and send them a push notification when they walk past a business that is running promotions they may be interested in,” Lee said. Even if a user walks past a store and doesn’t get an alert, the beacon activates a small icon in the bottom left of a phone’s lock screen.
Beyond the tech, the trio thinks college students are a promising, untapped market for the service. They’re getting ready to start testing in the Charles Village area, where the most obvious saturation lies. They also talked to eight businesses in Mount Vernon, and found that they were mainly frequented by University of Baltimore students.
“Whenever you have restaurants that are near college campuses, that’s their primary revenue,” Lee said. “If we can convey to these businesses that by adopting our technology they’ll get a lot of impressions from college students, then logically they’ll do it.”
Soon, they’ll leave the ranks of college students entirely. Ho, who grew up in Taiwan and Australia and Zhang, who is from China, recently graduated. Lee, who is from Hong Kong, is finishing up this term. For now, Promotious is keeping them in Baltimore. Resources provided by two of the city’s incubators have given them even more reason to stay.
The three began bringing the project to fruition as members of Hopkins’ FastForward incubator. In the New Year, they began a new term as members of AccelerateBaltimore. FastForward helped them get going, but they said the accelerator program was primarily geared toward biomedical startups. The team of three software engineers is finding a more comfortable fit at AccelerateBaltimore.