With Help from BMW, MyCityWay Rolls Out Popular City-Guide App Around the World

5/3/11Follow @arleneweintraub

You often hear about inspiration prompting a great business idea, but for the three founders of New York-based MyCityWay, the impetus came from quite a different sensation—frustration. Archana Patchirajan, Sonpreet Bhatia, and Puneet Mehta were all working on Wall Street and struggling to find an app for their smartphones that would provide day-to-day information to help them get around New York City, such as subway maps, restaurant reviews, and event listings.

“We know our city always has something to offer,” Bhatia says. “But finding it can be difficult.”

So the three friends turned their quest for information into a business—quickly. In late 2009, they got wind of NYC BigApps, a new city-sponsored competition for developers of applications that employed data the city had made available at NYC.gov. They only had 40 days to build an app and enter it in the contest, so they pulled a series of all-nighters to finish the product, which they called “NYC Way.”

MyCityWay’s founders didn’t win the BigApps grand prize, awarded in February 2010, but they did pick up $10,000 for winning the “investor’s choice” and “popular choice” awards. That won them something far more important: The admiration of carmaker BMW, which was in the process of starting a corporate fund and incubator in New York City designed to foster the development of mobility-based apps.

In February of this year, BMW announced that it would launch the fund, called BMW i Ventures, and that its first investment would be in MyCityWay. BMW led a Series A round of $5 million, which also included funding from FirstMark Capital and IA Ventures. On March 31, the carmaker followed up the announcement with news that it would establish an incubator in New York City. MyCityWay will be the anchor tenant in the new space, which BMW is searching for now.

In the meantime, MyCityWay’s founders are staying put at TechSpace, a sprawling warehouse in the West Village that houses fledgling IT companies, and putting their newfound cash to use. They’re improving their flagship NYC offering, as well as rolling out similar city guides around the world. Within the next few weeks, Bhatia says, NYC Way will take on a whole new look.

As Bhatia whipped out her iPhone to give Xconomy a preview of the redesigned app, it became clear just how far the company has come in a short time. The original app used about 14 datasets from the city to provide such information as traffic updates, restaurant inspection results, and directories of ice skating rinks, swimming pools, and other attractions. Then city residents started weighing in on what they wanted added to NYC Way, and MyCityWay’s founders responded, packing in features such as real-time feeds from traffic cameras and lists of public restrooms.

The new version of NYC Way will be even more sophisticated. It will start by asking if users are residents, commuters, or tourists, and then customize the offerings to their answers. In addition to showing the menu of offerings on the home screen, it will respond to the rotation of the phone to landscape orientation by displaying a map of the city, with various buttons that users can push to see exactly what they’re searching for and where to find it. Looking for a coffee shop near the subway station you just exited? Press the coffee button and the shops will show up on your map. Do you need to find a bathroom urgently (thanks to that coffee you had an hour ago)? Press the restrooms button, and all the public facilities in the area will pop up, too.

NYC Way will also allow users to pay their parking tickets through the app, and to get a direct line to the city’s popular 311 service, where they can report issues such as unsanitary restaurants or misbehaving landlords. “We really interact with our users and use their feedback” to improve the app, Bhatia says.

With data provided by governments around the world, MyCityWay has rolled out apps in 38 U.S. cities and about a dozen foreign towns. The company is now preparing to introduce four versions in India, for Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore, Bhatia says. By the end of the year, it hopes to double the total size of its city roster.

It may seem strange that BMW became enamored of MyCityWay—an app that was originally designed to be used in perhaps the least car-friendly town in the world. But Bernhard Blattel, the head of Project Mobility Services for BMW, says the whole point of i Ventures is to think beyond the steering wheel. “We defined a strategy two years ago to become the leading provider of products and services for individual mobility,” Blattel says. “We are convinced that in the future, customers will need services they can use whether they’re in a car, in one of our cars, taking public transportation, or even at home planning a trip. We decided on purpose to look outside the car.”

Blattel says BMW was also stunned by how popular NYC Way had become in such a short time. The app was downloaded a million times in its first year. (There have now been 2.5 million downloads of all the city apps total, the company says.) And all of that came from word of mouth. “It’s a great example of a fast-moving company helping people plan their trips and satisfying their need for mobility,” Blattel says.

MyCityWay is now working on monetizing all those eyeballs. The company takes in some advertising revenue, but the founders believe mobile commerce will become increasingly important. Today people can buy movie and event tickets, as well as takeout food, through the app, from which MyCityWay takes a cut. Bhatia predicts these sorts of services will become more prevalent in all its city guides—providing the primary revenue source for the company. “Mobile commerce will be extremely powerful,” she says.

Bhatia adds that MyCityWay and BMW have become strategic partners with a shared vision of the future. “Yes, there are city guides, but what we’re trying to create is a location-based platform,” she says. “We’re marrying your location with your intent. We’re trying to build smarter cities.”

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