Localmind Aspires to Answer Questions Around the Globe

3/13/12Follow @xconomy

Last weekend, Localmind founders Lenny Rachitsky and Beau Haugh took their location-driven question-and-answer app back to South by Southwest, where it first launched a year ago.

This time, they put every party at the hip tech conference on the app’s map, so that SXSW users could ask which parties to go to, which had the best food, and what kind of drinks were where.

They also partnered with mobile karaoke bar {RV}IP, tracking the party bus by transponder as it moved around Austin so that wanna-be singers could find it.

But while navigating the Austin party scene is exactly the kind of problem they originally conceived the app to solve, Localmind has grown well beyond this special case. In its first iteration, the app was mainly meant to help users figure which bars and restaurants are hopping at any given time. People on the couch at home could send along a question—how crowded is the bar, what’s the male to female ratio—and bar hoppers checked in on Foursquare or other services could respond. Simple. But soon, Rachitsky says, people wanted more.

Answers nearby on Localmind

Users started asking bigger questions and Localmind was funneling queries like “Are some areas of Sacramento safer to live in that others?” “Know any stores that would give me a job now?” And “Where is a great restaurant to go for a first date?”

“It happened a lot more than I thought,” Rachitsky says. “We recognized that this is tied to what’s happening in the world. Unemployment in general is a big problem-people are going to be asking about this stuff.”

After five months of tinkering and tweaking, Localmind launched the 2.0 version of its app in February, building on the feedback the company gotten from users and the kinds of questions that popped up.

“People have bigger problems than what’s happening at a bar right now,” he says. “But no one is tapping into that knowledge on demand.”

The startup adjusted the app to address a gamut of questions. Rachitsky describes it as a real-time Yelp or Quora that sends queries directly to the people best able to answer them: those who live in a given area. If you live in the East Bay, for example, you’re probably able to say which local hikes are most family-friendly. If you live in Egypt, you can say whether it’s safe to take a certain road at night. (That’s a real discussion that has popped up.) In the wake of the tsunami in Japan, people even sent questions to locals about what they could do to help.

The 2.0 version also got a new back end, as the founders reconfigured their algorithms, rethinking how many people they should send a question to, how often they should send questions to a given user, and which people were the best experts for which topics. They gave their users scores for reputation and expertise, figured out often they were willing to answer, then “put it all in a bucket and gave them a score,” Rachitsky says.

To protect against untrustworthy responses from users, the company put in a ‘like’ button so that people could show who was giving helpful responses, and who wasn’t.

Two and half years ago, Rachitsky was working as a manager in a San Diego engineering company that was swallowed by a bigger one. At the same time, Foursquare released its API, which allowed outside developers to tie their apps into the location-based social network. “It was the first time anyone shared people’s location data, and data about where they’d been, where they like to go and where they are now. I thought, ‘what the heck can we do with this?’”

The answer? An app called Assisted Serendipity, which notified a user when the male-to-female ratio tipped in his or her favor at a bar or restaurant. Fun and silly, but it made Rachitsky see the possibilities out there now that so many people had GPS in their smart phones.

“I realized there’s so much more people want to know,” he says. “All the pieces were in place for something like LocalMind.”

And then Rachitsky-who has lectured on serendipity in a TEDx talk–went to visit a friend in Montreal at Bitnorth, a meeting that he describes as “TED meets Ignite meets Foocamp.” There he met some guys in the small now-defunct Canadian incubator YearOne Labs, pitched his idea, and moved to Canada. “I thought, ‘What’s the worst that can happen,’” he says. “‘I’ll live in Montreal for a year, then get another job.’”

Instead, in January of 2011 he found himself with a business plan and $50,000 from YearOne. By July, the company had raised $600,000 in angel funding in a round led by Granite Ventures, with iNovia Capital and Real Ventures participating, and Rachitsky moved to San Francisco.

For now, Localmind is focusing on building market share, growth and retention, and answering the questions people need help with. “There’s a new app every day,” he says. “If you don’t solve a problem that people have often, they forget about it. That’s our mission-to try to solve as many problems as possible for people so they come back.”

The company is still exploring possible revenue streams, including targeted ads—even as direct as “Come to this bar and we’ll give you a free drink right now”—and allowing bars or restaurants to bid to be able to answer a given question. For example, he says, who better than Starbucks could tell you if the pumpkin spiced lattes are available yet? And if they’re not, they could lure customers in with half a standard latte instead.

But for now, it’s all about building up community and regular users.

“One important thing we learned early on is that people like to help each other with no expectation of monetary compensation,” Rachitsky says. “That was exciting. Kind of reaffirms our faith in humanity.”

Here’s a 1-minute video on Localmind’s 2.0 release.

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