New CEO Jim Crowley on BuyWithMe’s Mobile Expansion and the Future of Social Commerce

1/18/11Follow @gthuang

Jim Crowley wants to have it both ways. The new CEO of BuyWithMe, the online deals site, insists the company is based in both Boston and New York. (Yes, well, this is a sensitive topic to me this week.)

“The company exists in two spots,” Crowley says. It has about 100 employees total—roughly two-thirds of them in New York, and one-third in Boston.

BuyWithMe was founded in the Boston area in 2009 and moved its headquarters to New York last year. The company, which provides local deals for consumers in a dozen markets around the U.S., has been ramping up its efforts to compete with other group-buying sites like Groupon, LivingSocial, and Tippr. (Other Boston-area social commerce sites include Eversave, LocalGinger–which was acquired by Where—and Daily Grommet.)

Crowley, a Boston guy himself, is the former CEO of Turbine, the Westwood, MA-based online gaming company that was bought by Warner Bros. for a reported $160 million last April. Before that, he was chief operating officer at Watertown, MA-based m-Qube, the mobile software firm acquired by Verisign for $250 million in 2006. He succeeds Cheryl Rosner, who left BuyWithMe late last year.

I wondered how Crowley’s deep experience with mobile and gaming companies might translate to the ultra-competitive sector of group-buying and local marketing. “The common thread is extraordinarily rapid growth,” he says. “I have been involved in several companies that have had to grow very quickly.”

Specifically, he oversaw Turbine’s transition from a subscription-based business to a free-to-play, virtual goods model that “went to millions and millions of customers,” he says. And m-Qube was “one of the fastest growing technology companies in New England before we sold it,” he says. What’s more, it sounds like mobile devices are key to BuyWithMe’s expansion strategy. Crowley declined to give many details, but he said that for both local merchants trying to attract new customers, and consumers discovering and sharing places with friends, “there will be a move towards mobile engagement” that will “bring the group dynamic and social dynamic into play.”

And he gave a little more context: “The data is overwhelming that by 2013, mobile devices will be the primary access point for the Internet in North America. Perhaps sooner. It’s offering tremendous ways to become hyperlocal, to better personalize, and to bring experiences to their pocket. It is incumbent on BuyWithMe to understand that technology shift and take advantage,” he says.

None of this is very surprising, of course, especially given Crowley’s expertise in mobile. But I also asked for his broader perspective on group buying, given that he is a relative newcomer to the sector. He emphasized that group buying is not a new concept, and that he has been aware of it for years—remember Mercata from the dot-com days? He added that for a number of reasons, such as the emergence of online social networks, the idea has recently taken off and “created a huge disruption.”

So, given the fierce competition in group buying, what’s his reaction to last week’s reports about Groupon’s IPO plans and rumored $15 billion valuation? “I’m delighted for them, but with respect to BuyWithMe, I don’t think it impacts us at all,” he says. “We have a very exciting company that is hitting the streets very rapidly here. We’re continuing to march forward.” (BuyWithMe’s founder, Andrew Moss, told me last month that the company is “clearly co-existing with Groupon” and is “very profitable in Boston.”)

As for his goals and challenges as incoming CEO, Crowley says, “The primary focus for us is to drive the growth curve, put forward new product initiatives, and grow our merchant base and consumer base. That may involve more markets.” He adds that the company is hiring in Boston, New York, and a few other cities.

Critics, on the other hand, say the group-buying sector is inflated and unsustainable, and that there are few barriers to entry in the market. To the first point, Crowley says, “I don’t think there’s a bubble. There’s a fundamental shift in solving [the problem of] how do consumers and merchants meet and interact.” On the second point, he says, group buying is “significantly more complicated than most people think it is.”

“The barrier to entry is doing it at scale,” he says. That means having the “ability to actually produce, present, and personalize [deals] in the proper fashion” and deliver “hundreds of thousands of experiences a day.” Ultimately, he adds, the challenge involves both technology and business relationships. “And where it’s going to go will become much more complex,” he says. “You need to drive heightened personalization, and more tools for merchants.”

So what will this year hold for BuyWithMe? “We try to ensure we’re bringing value and relationships [to] people. That is a very strong focus for us,” Crowley says. The coming months will be about “how we bring better tools to both merchants and consumers. There’s a lot to be done there,” he says. “This game is very, very early.”

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