Twist’s App Spells RIP for OMW—But It’s Really About “Selling Time”

9/19/12Follow @wroush

It would be easy to glance at Twist and conclude that it’s just another rinky-dink location app for the iPhone. “Twist is the easiest way to let your family, friends, and colleagues know when you will arrive,” the description in the iTunes App Store languidly asserts.

In operational terms, that means it monitors your progress as you drive, walk, ride, or bike to a destination. If you’ve got people waiting for you there, it can send them a message when you’re approaching, or when it looks like you’re going to be late.

Sounds fairly humble, right?

Well, after spending some time with the co-founders of Twist and Shout, the San Francisco startup that makes the app, I’m ready to award them this year’s prize for startup modesty. I’ve rarely seen a bigger vision hiding behind more unassuming claims.

Twist is starting out by helping to automate one of those annoying real-world tasks: messaging people to let them know you’re on your way. It’s such a common problem that there’s even a text-speak abbreviation for it: OMW. “No one wants to be the first person to arrive at a restaurant for dinner—or the last person,” says CEO Bill Lee. “Twist is a great solution for that.”

But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If you interrogate Lee what the company is really doing, he’ll eventually come clean: “We want to be the guys selling time.”

Twist CEO Bill Lee (left) and CTO Mike Belshe (right) in an appearance on Bloomberg TV.

Twist CEO Bill Lee (left) and CTO Mike Belshe (right) in an appearance on Bloomberg TV.

And they just might manage it. The big vision here is about tracking almost everything that moves, in order to extract intelligence about when it will arrive where it’s expected. Say you’re a cable TV customer waiting for the cable guy to show up, or a restaurateur wondering whether the person who reserved your prime table is ever going to arrive, or a Zaarly or TaskRabbit or Instacart or Seamless customer wondering if your food order is coming soon. Twist wants to be the location-and-logistics layer providing the ETA in all these situations.

You might call it putting the time back into spacetime. Lee, a prolific and successful angel investor, says he started sensing a while ago that “there was an exhaustion around social-local-mobile startups”—those capitalizing on the location-finding capabilities of smartphones to help people search for local businesses, or share geotagged photos, or become the czar of their local Starbucks, or whatever. “The space was way overcrowded. To be a successful investor and founder you’ve got to be ahead of a trend. All these other apps are about where. Twist is about when.”

The proximate cause for Lee’s idea, as usual, was an everyday pain. In his life as an angel investor, Lee met with founders from 200 companies in 2011 alone. “Invariably someone coming to the meeting was either running early or running late or e-mailing to confirm it or telling me they were in the lobby waiting,” he says. “I thought there had to be a way of getting rid of all of these e-mails and phone calls and come up with a better solution.”

Fortunately, Lee was pretty well connected in the Silicon Valley technology world. Back in the 1990s he was the founder of RemarQ, a provider of message-board services that was acquired by Critical Path in 2000 for $300 million. Since then he’s invested in companies like SpaceX, Tesla, Yammer, HootSuite, Tweetdeck, Posterous, and about 25 others, meaning he knows quite a few software engineers.

To build a company to fix his meeting-notification problem, he recruited former RemarQ colleagues Mike Belshe (now Twist’s chief technology officer) and Frank VanZile (its head of software engineering). The fourth Twist co-founder, Edward Marks, previously started Inedible Software, which published iPhone games with a combined 13 million downloads.

Twist raised $6 million—Lee himself put in part of the money, alongside Bridgescale Partners and eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll—and released the 1.0 version of its app in mid-July. Today marks its 60th day in the iTunes App Store. Lee says “uptake has been great”; the app has thousands of daily users and is getting hundreds of new signups per day. That puts it way behind Seattle-based competitor Glympse, which has 2.5 million users, but the two startups’ visions are somewhat different (Glympse lets users show their locations to others for a specified period of time).

Here’s how Twist works. Before you leave for your destination you set up a new “Twist” in the app by giving the app the address of your destination. (If the address is already in your address book, your calendar, or your list of previously visited destinations, the app makes it especially easy to find.) Then you specify the recipients for your updates. They don’t need to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Leanne

    Haha, sounds like a creepy stalker!