Internet search engines are still amazing tools for finding facts and figures — with a little effort, and a few carefully worded search queries you can soon track down the capital of Turkmenistan or the world’s oldest lake. For real-time information, such as breaking news, Twitter is better — again, you need to do some filtering, and accept that most of what you’re reading is unverified so is potentially nonsense, but for unfolding news events it’s hard to beat.
But what if you want to find very specific answers to ephemeral questions about particular local areas and businesses — such as what’s on the specials menu at my local independent coffee house today? Or what’s the Wi-Fi password at such-and-such hotel? Stuff that isn’t exactly big news so is unlikely to have found its way onto Twitter, and may be too ephemeral and time-specific to be easily unearthed on Google et al without resorting to sifting through local forums. Your need for the info is generally pretty timely too — so spending hours trying to track it down online isn’t generally worth the effort. You could ask your Twitter followers in the hope that someone who knows the answer sees your question and gets back to you — but unless you have a @ladygaga-sized following that’s pretty unlikely.
Step forward LocalUncle, an iPhone app made by a Swiss startup that wants to apply the power of crowdsourced, location-specific information — harnessed using its proprietary mobile technology — to crack real-time questions & answers. The app is actually a relaunch — the original LocalUncle launched in November 2011 but despite a promising start, being featured by Apple in the ‘new & noteworthy’ section of the App Store which saw it getting “thousands” of downloads per day at points, it didn’t achieve enough user traction — something the app makers blame on bad timing and clunky version-one technology, among other things. Q&A services stand and fall on the size and engagement of their user-base so the team behind LocalUncle decided they needed a slicker, speedier app and that’s what they’re relaunching today.
“We rewrote pretty much all of our code, from scratch. We also redesigned everything, from the app icon to the actual interface,” says LocalUncle CEO Philip Estrada Reichen. He won’t say how many users the first version of the app has, but does say the userbase has been “in aggregate” to more than 600,000 unique places — i.e. one user has checked in to each place at least once — and also to more than 3,000 “areas” in the world (again: one user, at least once).
Here’s how LocalUncle works: the app presents the user with a map view with locations of text-based questions and answers pinned on it (if there are any). As you pan and zoom around the map the app automatically identifies the name of the particular district you’re looking at — London, say, or as you zoom in, Soho or Notting hill — giving you the option to ask a question that relates to that area. ‘What is the best stall for woollen scarves in Portobello market?’ perhaps — or subjective queries such as ‘what’s the best restaurant in Soho?’
Once you’ve typed your question, the app routes it to the user who it thinks is most likely to be able to answer it — pushing it as a push notification to the app on their phone. How does the app know who to route each question to? This is based on Foursquare location check-in data — the first version of LocalUncle sat on Foursquare’s API — plus location data gathered from tracking the movements of users’ phones. So its “intelligent routing algorithms” look at about both past and current location before deciding who can best answer a question.
“Our [first] version is Foursquare-connect only. This means that 100% of our userbase has connected their Foursquare accounts to our system which means that we already have tons of location-data from our users,” says Reichen.
If that user knows the answer they can respond in the app and you’ll get the answer pushed to your iPhone. If they don’t respond, the app tries another user who might know the answer — until, hopefully, your Q gets an A. Using push notifications — rather than email — is designed to ensure questions get answered as quickly as possible, says Reichen. If users don’t respond to any of the questions pushed at them they’ll get asked fewer questions, and vice versa — although the algorithm is designed so that users can only get a set amount of questions pushed to them in a fixed time-frame so they won’t ever get swamped.
LocalUncle’s automatic place detection feature is proprietary tech built by the app makers to improve the user experience — meaning that place names appear automatically as you pan around the map. They have also built proprietary geo-fencing technology that maps a Foursquare check-in/iPhone user’s location to an exact point on the map (and its related district/city/country etc). This allows them to create a location-history profile of their user-base so they can route questions to “the most appropriate experts” — or at least, the people who have been to that place the most.
“We built all this tech, because the way to win this space is by offering a superior user experience. We reduced local search to its minimum viable state: a split-screen map/conversation view and ONE always visible text-bar to input your question. It’s as simple as any location-based Q&A app can possibly get,” argues Reichen.
Asked about competitors in this space he name-checks LocalMind as its main competitor — a location-based Q&A startup that raised a total of $650,000 and has just been acquired by Airbnb (Reichen calls this an acqui-hire — adding: “LocalMind failed”).
According to Reichen, the main differences between LocalUncle and LocalMind are: simplicity of interface, with minimal screens and a text bar present to ask questions on every screen; clean, uncluttered design with no need to navigate between multiple screens and simple swipes to transition between the few views that are on offer; and auto-detection of the user’s area. Taken together, he argues this makes LocalUncle faster and easier to use than rivals — thereby giving it the edge in a space that isn’t perhaps as crowded as you might imagine, unless you compare the service to — in Reichen’s words — “web 1.0″ review-style offerings like Yelp that were not designed to function in real-time. “Just like Google back in the days, we are the simple, clean, fast app on the market. The one you can use to ask a question while crossing the street,” he adds.
New LocalUncle users can only ask one question per 24 hours — or, if they want to unlock unlimited questions, they need to invite 20 friends to join the service (the limit will be also lifted for the “first couple of hundred” app downloaders — as an incentive to early adopters and to drive downloads). This is one of the ways the app makers are hoping to spread the word about the app and start gaining traction. Another way is by opening it up to all iPhone users, not just Foursquare users (as per the first version of the app). ”[LocalUncle 2] allows users to register using Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter and a simple email address. We’re now going for the mainstream user,” notes Reichen.
Having a one question per day limit may seem a counterintuitive way to grow users but it’s also a measure to make life harder for spammers. LocalUncle passes the task of reporting problematic/inappropriate content to its users — offering a ‘report content’ option when you tap on a question or answer. “With one tap you can ‘report’ the content, and we’ll immediately review it, and if needed, remove it and warn/ban the user. We’ll be measuring the amount of reported content a user gets. Based on that we can weed out the bad guys and ban them,” says Reichen. “We can’t directly track the quality of the content. We don’t have an algorithm reading every text. We’re betting for the userbase to help us keep it clean. Plus, when you register with Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare we suggest (but don’t force) you to use your actual profile pic and create a username.”
Being iPhone only is also a potential problem for a platform trying to scale up to a significant user base that can power its service — being as Google’s Android OS is now the dominant global smartphone platform. Reichen says the reason the team focused on iPhone is because that’s where their coding expertise lies but they do plan on building an Android version in future — and that’s one of the reasons they will be looking to raise their next round of funding so they can hire in Android talent.
Currently LocalUncle is funded by founder money from its two co-founders, Reichen and CTO Philipe Fatio. Other backers include three of the co-founders of Swiss travel startup GetYourGuide.com who put in seed money and also act as advisors. In addition, LocalUncle won 30,000 Swiss Francs ($32,700) at a Swiss business plan competition — and are one of two finalists to compete for another 100,000 CHF ($109,000) at the end of January 2013. Reichen says LocalUncle will be looking to raise a $1M Seed Round by Spring 2013.
In terms of business model, this is not going to come overnight, concedes Reichen — but he argues there is bags of potential in future with the kind of data the platform could generate. “Revenue is not going to happen in the short-term, that’s why we’re raising money. But in the long run we’re positioned very well to make money,” he says. “We capture a user’s intent at a very interesting point in time: we know WHO is looking for WHAT, WHERE and WHEN! These people are usually looking for a place where to spend their money and time and get influenced strongly by our community. Local businesses will be very interested to be a part of that conversation.”
Possible revenue avenues include selling “highly relevant” ads, or allowing businesses to push real-time deals at users who are in the vicinity — with LocalUncle charging the business a fee to push the info, says Reichen. The platform could also be used as a mobile CRM tool, allowing businesses to service potential customers’ queries — and the app maker’s charging a monthly fee to differentiate their staff’s answers from general users’ answers (i.e. something akin to a ‘verified’ answer or a ‘business/pro’ account). He adds that the startup is also exploring some other ideas for generating revenue but is keeping these under wraps for now.
Right now, LocalUncle’s biggest challenge is getting enough people to use it. Without a significant user-base, the number/quality of its ‘experts’ will remain questionable — and that will constrain its usefulness. If it can live up to the dream of slick, quick real-time Q&As, you can imagine it being a very sticky app indeed. On the other hand, if you ask a few questions and fail to get any compelling answers new users might soon go back to asking their Twitter/Facebook buddies for local recommendations.
Asked about how LocalUncle can successfully traverse this initial, difficult user growth ‘hump’ — and build a user-base that’s big enough to power a super slick service — Reichen concedes there is “no silver bullet for growth” but also claims that the value of its service grows automatically over time because existing LocalUncle users won’t stay in the same place (users of the first version of the app will be “converted” over to LocalUncle 2).
“Even if nobody checked in (which is impossible, since half of our user-base checks-in at least once every 24h) and even if nobody joined LocalUncle anymore, the service would stil get better, automatically, by the minute, for the existing users,” he says. “This is simply because our users move around. That anonymized location-data automatically ‘grows’ the service, because more and more neighbourhoods are added by our users in the background. So, even with zero usergrowth, the amount of places you can ask about on LocalUncle would keep growing steadily.”
LocalUncle is also tapping into two big trends — mobile and social — which at least means it’s well positioned to catch some uplift based on the current tech tides.