CityVoter Gears Up for “Best Of” Voting Push, Looks to Cash In on Daily Deals and Rewards

9/9/10Follow @gthuang

It’s good to know that the dive bar around the corner from where I used to live for seven-plus years has spawned at least one intriguing tech startup.

The bar is Joe Sent Me on Mass. Ave. in North Cambridge, MA—and it’s not a dive anymore (hasn’t been for years). The startup is CityVoter, which makes software to help media companies and local businesses create “best of” competitions and user-generated city guides across the country. Cambridge-based CityVoter has been around for a few years, but thanks to the shifting winds of the market, its business might be about to pop.

The story goes back to 2004, when Josh Walker and his brother hatched the startup idea while drinking mugs of beer at the venerable neighborhood pub. “We wrote stuff on napkins and all that,” says Walker, who is the CEO. (His brother, Jeremy, is still chief technology officer of the company.)

Walker, a native of upstate New York, had gone to college in Vermont and worked as a journalist at Boston-area papers including The Beacon Hill Times and Patriot Ledger in the 1990s. He became an analyst at Forrester Research and spent six-plus years there during and after the dot-com bubble, focusing on software (including e-commerce, travel, and other sectors) and rising to vice president. He then served as an entrepreneur in residence at General Catalyst, the Boston-area venture firm, for about a year before starting work on CityVoter.

The startup was inspired by some friends of Walker’s in England, who were launching a company similar to Boston-based DirectoryM (now nSphere), a paid directory of businesses online. Walker thought, “Let’s make something cooler than a directory—a voting platform.” The idea was to collect consumers’ recommendations and votes online, and encourage local businesses—bars, restaurants, laundromats, stores—to compete in annual “best of” competitions. Revenues would come from providing the voting platform for big media companies to host these competitions, and selling corporate sponsorships.

Walker incorporated his startup (originally called A-List Businesses) in early 2005, and raised $2.4 million from Dace Ventures the next year, followed by a $2.6 million round from Allen & Company and Dace in 2008. His team has worked to sign up media partners like WBZ-TV (the CBS affiliate) and NECN in Boston, KING5 in Seattle, the San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate.com, CBS Radio, and McGraw-Hill Broadcasting. And yes, Joe Sent Me won “best burger” in 2006.

Fast forward to 2010, and CityVoter is now flirting with profitability while staying lean with 11 employees. The company’s strategy can be summed up as “low [capital] raise, build a huge database, and go like hell when the market turns,” Walker says.

That time could be now. August was CityVoter’s “best month ever,” Walker says, with 1.7 million unique visitors and 10 million page views. So far this year, the company has gotten more than 9 million unique visits and 40 million page views. The site has a local presence in 30-some cities around the U.S.

Next month, in conjunction with the soon-to-be-announced relaunch of the “Boston A-List” competition, CityVoter is rolling out some important new features—a slicker voting site, and a rewards program for loyal patrons who vote. If that sounds familiar, that’s because everyone and their brother (literally in this case) is trying to make money through new kinds of customer loyalty programs. But it’s not a major strategy shift for CityVoter—just an added dimension.

“We are not becoming a daily-deal company,” Walker says. “This is just a smarter way to monetize the consumer experience.” What’s more, he says, the marketing will be very different from group-buying deal sites like Groupon or LivingSocial, or location-based gaming approaches like Foursquare, Gowalla, or SCVNGR. “You won’t know where there are deals. These aren’t buy-a-vote deals. This is a thank you,” he says.

In the group-buying sector, CityVoter has partnerships with Boston-based BuyWithMe and Seattle-based Tippr; it already uses those companies’ software platforms in different cities to offer deals to voters from their favorite establishments, by selling vouchers that are redeemable in stores. But CityVoter’s new deals for voters will be different. “We’ll take the 100 people who already come to your store, have taken time to vote for you, and get them out there talking about your business, and let them spread the word,” Walker says. “It makes sense. We’ll see if it makes enough sense.”

It sounds like CityVoter is primed to ride the wave of daily deals and rewards, while not fundamentally changing the company’s mission—which is to supply the voting platform for local “best of” competitions. The key will be whether the startup makes a lot more money, or gets a lot more exposure, from its emerging deals business. Everyone knows the deals sector is evolving quickly, and merchants have lots of options now. So why should they work with CityVoter?

“The only reason is to win the title,” Walker says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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