Twist’s App Spells RIP for OMW—But It’s Really About “Selling Time”
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have Twist on their phones—the app just needs their phone number, so it can send text messages. Then you specify whether you’re traveling by car, public transportation, bicycle, or foot.
Once you leave—that is, when you cross a virtual “geofence” around your current location—Twist sends your ETA to your recipients, based on current traffic conditions. You can see your progress on a map, and so can the recipients, if they have the Twist app. Once you cross another geofence around your destination, the app tells your recipient that you’ve arrived. (I’ve embedded a Twist video below that explains all of this better than I can.)
While you’re en route, there’s a lot happening invisibly. “We have to take traffic into account, and whether you’re walking or taking public transportation,” says Belshe. “If an accident occurs and you’re stuck in traffic the ETA will dynamically shift. The amount of attention we put into getting an accurate ETA is very important to us.”
As is ease of use. “We define beauty as simplicity,” says Lee. “As a key example of what we are talking about, we have the best destination selection on the market. It had to be better than what you get in Google Maps and better than what you get on the iPhone. We auto-suggest based on geolocation and the string you’re typing—if you type ‘s-t-a’ it’s going to fill out ‘Starbucks.’”
After a major update to the app coming in the next week or two, the app will become even more deeply integrated with users’ calendars and e-mail accounts, and more useful for groups of people coming together for a meeting. The idea is to schedule all of Twist’s activities in advance, using a calendar appointment and all the invited parties as the organizing point.
Say I’d been using the updated app while on my way to Twist’s Mission Street office yesterday. In that case, “This meeting could have been magical,” Lee says. “By e-mail we could have confirmed this meeting between Mike and Bill and Wade. It would have told you when you needed to leave, based in your location. When each of us had left, it could have sent each of us a twist saying ‘Mike is on the way, Bill is on the way.’ When you arrive it would have said ‘We’re all here.’ That is what we envision for scheduled Twists.”
How does Twist monetize all this? It doesn’t. The app is free, and Lee says the 16-employee company deliberately raised enough money to give it a cushion while it focuses on acquiring users. At a certain critical mass, the theory goes, Twist could start showing location-based advertisements inside the app, and start offering its ETA-forecasting services to partners through a paid application programming interface, or API. “I believe the way to get people to care about your API is to build your own violently passionate user base and build on top of that,” Lee says.
An Android version of Twist is in the works; for now, though, the app is iPhone-only. Which led me to ask Lee and Belshe the “big A” question: what will Apple do? With Siri and the upgraded maps interface in iOS 6 (released today), the company clearly wants to provide built-in apps and services that help people with their daily tasks and travels. Is there a chance Apple could build Twist-like features into iOS? Or is it Twist’s plan to get acquired by Apple and save them the trouble?
“I’ve never told any founder that a company’s mission was to be acquired,” answers Lee. “I don’t think that’s healthy. Do I worry that Apple could one day do this? Yes, of course, but it’s not something I lose sleep over.”
And yes, Lee says, Twist would make sense as a built-in feature for iOS. “It would be great if they reached out to us. But at the same time I see so many great services coming out of this—letting restaurants know when people are going to arrive, letting cable customers know when a technician is going to show up. You are still going to have to write apps on top [of Twist’s ETA layer] to cater to these needs, and I don’t see Apple doing that.”
If Twist stays independent and then finds itself running low on capital before its user base hits critical mass, there is at least one way that the startup could hit a “single,” in Lee’s words. Companies have already been approaching Twist about using its technology for fleet management. A take-out delivery business, for example, might commission Twist to write a custom plugin for its dispatching system, so it can notify customers when their meals are about to arrive.
But for now, that’s just a backup plan. “The big opportunity is to capture a habit and replace OMW with Twist,” Lee says. “We aren’t here to hit a little single. The name of the game is to become the next big infrastructure play in Silicon Valley, where people are thinking ‘time equals Twist.’”