Disruptive Technologies at Startup School
by Charles Versaggi
When Paolo Dobrowolny, and his business partners Federico de Legge and Roberto Zanetti, all from Rome, envisioned the founding of their software startup, monkey business was certainly not what they had in mind. Developing their business model at MtB Startup School (Website), they learned finding a parking spot in busy cities like San Francisco is a serious problem many drivers would pay more than a few bananas to solve.
Under development since mid-2013, their mobile app Monkey Parking within minutes connects drivers looking for a parking space with drivers about leave to one. “The spot-holder sets a price from $5-$20, and once the spot-seeker agrees on a price, he is notified of the availability of a parking space on their phone’s street map,” Dobrowolny, 32, explained in a recent interview. “It’s a smart way to make some extra cash when you’re about to leave your spot anyway.” Monkey Parking makes a percentage of each completed transaction.
“In three weeks at Startup School I learned so much, especially about customer development and ‘getting out of the building’,” said Dobrowolny. “Mind the Bridge has been a critical factor in our success as it continues to provide mentorship and business connections.”
With 500,000 cars and only 275,000 street-parking spots, San Francisco is the perfect place to test and develop their application for the U.S. market estimated at more than $12 billion per year.
The founders initially got their start through a business plan competition held in Trent, Italy, sponsored by Mind the Bridge. But in its earlier stage of development, the competition’s judges did not find the startup compelling to win any awards. Nevertheless, Dobrowolny persisted:
His is application was accepted by MtB Startup School held at Mind the Bridge’s San Francisco headquarters, where he learned how to refine his company’s business model.
Monkey Parking’s business model went through several pivots before settling on its “peer-to-peer” on-demand parking application. In early 2013 the founders established a pilot program with a movie theatre chain in Rome. Initially, a parking spot-holder would use the mobile app to send out a general notification that a parking space was to be available at a specific time. Seekers using the app would see the notification and get a downloadable coupon with a “banana credit” that could be redeemed at the movie theatre for a free box of popcorn. To promote the program, Paolo and his partners would stop moviegoers and give them a free banana as they explained the mobile app to potential users. In theory, the theatre would share the revenues with Monkey Parking.
But there was a problem with this early model: the founders still hadn’t figured out how to generate revenue. So far, it was monkey business — not business as usual. Eventually, they learned the mobile app needed a stronger user incentive than bananas and free popcorn: Money.
With a stronger user experience and an incentivized revenue model, the application underwent a beta-test in San Francisco earlier this year. To the founder’s surprise, after minimal promotion on FaceBook and other social media, the mobile app quickly went viral midst a whirlwind of controversy in response to evening news coverage on Bay Area TV and radio stations, and articles in the SF Chronicle, TechCrunch, Mashable and other well-read blogs.
“Something amazing was happening!” explained a surprised Dobrowolny. “We didn’t expect all the articles and tweets that came out of them. It was really incredible.”
Great idea, right? But not so fast: It’s illegal. That’s the opinion of SF City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who in late June sent a cease-and-desist letter to MonkeyParking, threatening the Rome-based startup with a lawsuit.
The controversy was all about whether Monkey Parking was a bone fide value-added app, not unlike Uber and AirBnB in the spirit of the “sharing economy” — or that it was a money-making scheme to exploit parking spaces owned by the City and already paid by tax-paying citizens.
According to Dobrowolny, Monkey Parking is not selling the parking space. They are selling information: the convenience of someone alerting another to an open space. Similar to paying someone to hold your place in line, it’s a notification service that informs you of the availability of a parking space. However you defined it, the controversy has only given the mobile app increased visibility — with a growing number of user downloads and completed transactions.
Several venture capital firms have initiated discussions with Monkey Parking, and a leading social media company recently contacted them to integrate the app into the company’s wallet application. “It was amazing to hear someone on the other side of the planet asking me to come and visit their campus, and tell me we can have lunch together and talk about business. A few weeks ago this was totally unbelievable. It’s pretty cool to follow the flow and manage everything,” said Dobrowolny, somewhat overwhelmed by all the attention.
But as Yogi Berra, the famous Italian-American Yankee baseball player once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” (Lenny Kravitz who wrote a song with the same title wasn’t even born yet.) There’s a good chance behind closed-door meetings between Monkey Parking and the City may result in a creative solution to the San Francisco’s perennial parking problem…
And put Monkey Parking in the fast lane yet.