September 22, 2011

There’s an (Alumni) App for That

Mobile apps spearheaded by Columbia Business School alumni are bringing a new level of customer interaction to business and connecting people with information — and one another — at lightning speed.

Amanda Chalifoux and Simone Gubar

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, Apple will have sold about 7,000 apps from its App Store. 

You can learn Chinese through an app, or find a parking space. There are apps that let you play a virtual kazoo or throw a virtual pie. The Monteray Aquarium Seafood Watch has an app. So does the White House and, as of this fall, Columbia Business School.

The mobile apps featured here — each spearheaded by a Columbia Business School student or graduate — show how companies across industries are bringing a new level of customer interaction to their businesses, as entrepreneurs like Sportaneous founder Omar Haroun ’12 prove that “all it takes is an idea and a developer.”

What’s most notable about this newest tech adoption story isn’t the sheer volume or variety of mobile apps; it’s the rate at which people are embracing them. In the App Store’s first three days, consumers downloaded more than 10 million apps. Less than three years later, as of June 2011, 14 billion apps had been downloaded. And with more than 5 billion apps downloaded from its Android Market, Google isn’t far behind.

“The question today is not what can you do with mobile apps,” says Brett Gordon, the Class of 1967 Associate Professor of Business. “It’s why weren’t you doing it months ago?”

Jump to an app: Bravo Now | ZocDoc | Traveltrot | Sportaneous | Dishling | Tiendatek | Nike+ and Nike Boom | Words With Friends


A New Way to Watch Your Favorite Shows 

She’s the executive vice president of Bravo Digital Media, but Lisa Hsia ’09 (EMBA) considers herself “extremely un-tech-savvy.” “I like to think of myself as the ultimate user,” says Hsia. “I ask the basic questions: Is the app easy to use? Is it fun? Would I recommend it to my friends?”

The app is Bravo Now, the very first “co-viewing app” available — one that’s designed to be used while you watch TV. Fans of Bravo’s shows — Top Chef, The Real Housewives franchise, and Bethenny Ever After, to name a few — can use the app not only to connect with fellow fans, but also to get instant reactions from “Bravolebrities” like Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio via Twitter. “This is a new way of watching TV,” says Hsia. “It’s a real-time social watercooler.” Bravo Now also rolls out “companion content” like slideshows, videos, and quizzes synced with real-time programming, and enables users to watch instant replays of shows’ most popular moments.

Hsia’s beginner’s mind is paying off: research showed that when her team launched dual-screen initiatives last year, on-air ratings increased 10 percent. “Advertisers are intrigued,” says Hsia. “The digital business has started driving the analog business.”

Number of apps on Hsia’s phone: Between 75 and 100. “You have to categorize them in folders like ‘games’ and ‘references.’ Otherwise you’d need a photographic memory.”

Her go-to apps: “As someone in the business who has to get through a lot of blogs and feeds every day, I rely on news aggregation apps like FlipBoard and Pulse.”

Bravo Now Availability: iPhone, iPad, and soon to be on Android phones

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Doctors on Demand 

Cyrus Masoumi ’03 had just landed in New York when he needed to find a doctor fast. He had left Seattle with a head cold and arrived on the East Coast with severe ear pain. Suspecting a ruptured eardrum, Massoumi went through his insurance company’s directory online but was only able to get a doctor’s appointment after four days of searching, “which I thought was a little ridiculous,” he says.

The experience led Massoumi to help people find medical treatment quickly, wherever they are. He teamed up with Nick Ganju ’08 and Oliver Kharraz, MD, to create ZocDoc, an online database and mobile application that allows users to search for doctors and dentists covered by their insurance plans and book appointments directly through their smartphone or the company’s website,

ZocDoc launched in 2007. The free app, which was created in October 2010, quickly shot up to one of the top 10 apps in the App Store and is now used in 11 cities across the United States. Massoumi and Ganju plan to expand the service nationwide over the next 18 months and, eventually, globally.

“Imagine a world where you land in a new city but are able to find a doctor just by clicking on your app,” Massoumi says. “That’s where we’re headed.”

What’s most exciting about the mobile apps industry: “When the web first started, there was all this untapped opportunity,” Ganju says. “I think the same thing is happening with mobile now.”

Dream app: “I’m really good with faces, but sometimes I forget names,” Ganju says. “I would love to hold my phone up to someone and have it tell me the person’s name. It would save me so many embarrassing situations.”

ZocDoc Availability: iPhone, Android phones

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An On-the-Go Travel Guide 

When Carolyn Branco ’11 and some of her future classmates were in Shanghai the summer before starting business school, they realized that they were lost. No one in the group spoke Chinese, and the Google Maps application on Branco’s iPhone was in Mandarin. “We couldn’t find anything,” Branco says. “We ended up wasting two hours. It was sort of a shock and a moment of feeling, ‘Why doesn’t this work? It needs to work.’ Then, there was an a-ha moment in my mind.”

The insight led Branco, Tim Eby ’11, and Michael Wang, a Columbia PhD student in engineering, to create Traveltrot, a company and line of mobile applications that use location-based technology to help travelers find museums, restaurants, and other tourist attractions nearby. Branco, who worked for Google before starting business school, is dedicated to making the apps as user-friendly as possible: Traveltrot apps are fully downloadable so users can access them offline to avoid phone-roaming charges when they’re abroad.

“most of the travel guidebooks, websites, and apps already out there focus on helping you plan before you get to a destination,” Branco says. “There’s little that’s useful when you’re actually on the ground. we’ve set out to change that.”

What’s most challenging about the mobile apps space: “People pay hundreds of dollars for a license for microsoft office. But an app that they might use a lot more costs 99 cents. it’s a risk to make a business out of something so easily commoditized.”

Apps she uses most often: Yelp, Dropbox (a productivity app), and Tripit (a travel app that keeps track of all your itineraries for flights and hotels)

Traveltrot availability: iPhone

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Connecting People and Play 

When MBA/JD student and former college basketball player Omar Haroun ’12 was working for a Palo Alto law firm during the summer of 2010, he noticed that the firm’s intramural sports teams frequently forfeited games because of players’ unpredictable schedules.

“In the meantime, I was also discovering all these sports facilities that weren’t being utilized,” Haroun said. “in densely populated areas like New York city, there are probably always people nearby who feel like doing the same thing as you, but it’s difficult to reach them. i knew there had to be a better way to bring people together.”

With the help of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center, Haroun created Sportaneous, a geolocation app that helps people join pick-up games of basketball, soccer, or any other user-suggested fitness activity. Sportaneous launched in January in Haroun’s hometown of San Diego, where it quickly caught on not only among pick-up game enthusiasts, but also among personal trainers and yoga instructors looking for a new way to access potential clients.

Earlier this year, the app launched in New York City — and won both the grand Prize Popular choice award and second place in the best overall application category at the 2011 NYC BigApps competition. Sportaneous received $10,000, wide exposure, and a meeting with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “The awards are a real validation after many months of hard work,” says Haroun.

What’s most exciting about the mobile apps space: “I can’t think of a time when it’s been so low-cost to have such a huge impact on society. All it takes is an idea and a developer.”

The real reward of creating an app: “My mission isn’t necessarily to get rich from this app but to give people an option to exercise together easily and in a fun way. If Sportaneous failed to make tons of money but succeeded in solving this problem, I think we’d all go home really happy.”

Sportaneous availability: iPhone, Blackberry, and Android phones later this fall

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Searching for a Restaurant — by Dish 

Stephen Baker ’07 (EMBA) was on his way to a Japanese restaurant with a friend when he realized he couldn’t remember the name of a dish he had really enjoyed there. “Wouldn’t it be great,” his friend asked, “if there was a way you could find out the most popular dishes at any given restaurant?” Baker agreed, and less than eight weeks later, he brought Dishling to the App Store.

You can use the app to search by dish, neighborhood, or restaurant to find the most popular dishes in the city. Dishling distills more than a million online reviews of New York City restaurants from popular review sites and blogs into a simple list of recommendations. If you find yourself at Morningside Heights’ Le Monde, for example, you could consult Dishling to see which dishes are most popular (the moules frites, it turns out, followed closely by the escargot). Then you can use the app to cast your own vote.

The results can be unexpected. At an Indian restaurant, for example, Baker was surprised to discover that lamp chops were the second-most popular dish. “Those were probably the best lamb chops I’ve ever had,” he says. “I never would have known to order them on my own.”

The most searched-for dishes on Dishling: Burgers, ramen, pizza, and fish and chips.

What’s most challenging about designing a mobile app: “Having a great user experience. With an app you have a very limited amount of real estate. I’ve learned a lot about my approach to website development — less really is more.”

Dishling App Availability: iPhone

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Empowering Entrepreneurs in the Developing World 

David Del Ser Bartolome ’08 and Mark Pedersen ’07 were excited when Android phones started selling like hot cakes in Kenya earlier this year. “It means that the smartphone has arrived in the developing world,” says Del Ser, whose company, Frogtek, equips shopkeepers in Latin America — many of whom can’t even afford a cash register — with an easy-to-use mobile app to improve their business operations.

Using a wireless barcode reader, the app Tiendatek (“tienda” means shop in Spanish) enables shopkeepers to track transactions and even sends alerts when an inventory is low. Store owners who hadn’t known how their products performed are better equipped to interface with large suppliers. Some even reported a 20 percent increase in profits since adopting the app, which is being rolled out in Colombia and Mexico. “They are regaining control over their businesses,” says Del Ser.

Del Ser met Pedersen, Frogtek’s cofounder and CEO, through the School’s International Development Club and honed the business plan in the Greenhouse Program. The two aim to bring Tiendatek to 100,000 shopkeepers over the next three years. With a million shops in Mexico alone, “that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Pedersen.

The inspiration for the name of the company: “In a sense we’re empowering these shopkeepers to ‘leapfrog’ from the Middle Ages to the 21st century,” says Del Ser. Also, the frog is a symbol of good fortune in many parts of Latin America.

What’s most challenging: “Understanding this very unique customer who has no computer experience and very little education,” says Del Ser, who worked with his team to design Tiendatek so that customers can adopt features gradually by progressing through consecutive levels.

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An Apps Industry Leader 

Before most households had discovered the Internet, John Mayo-Smith ’90 was working with former news organization Knight Ridder on tablet technology — a precursor to today’s iPads and Kindles — as an alternative to print publications.

Two decades later, he is chief technology officer of R/GA, a global company that creates digital marketing and advertising products, including mobile applications, for such clients as Nike, Nokia, and Verizon.

“It’s easier than ever to connect mobile devices and apps to each other,” Mayo-Smith says. R/GA’s Nike+ and Nike Boom apps, for example, track exercisers’ progress, store the information in a database, and allow them to compare their results with those of other users. The apps also connect to users’ Facebook and Twitter accounts so friends can cheer each other on in real time while they work toward their fitness goals. “Other than standing next to a person while they’re on the treadmill, there was no real way to have that type of interactivity until now,” says Mayo-Smith.

Nike+ has been so well embraced by consumers, Mayo- Smith says, that it is influencing the company on a larger scale. “The app is now a significant part of Nike’s business and will very likely point the way in terms of determining their overall business model in the next few years.”

On security of mobile devices, apps, and networks: “There’s nothing magical or new about smart devices that makes them particularly resilient against the same kind of attacks that threaten PCs and laptops. You have to be diligent.”

What’s most exciting about mobile apps industry: “What’s exciting now is the ease with which developers can leverage the cloud using mobile devices. A lot of the back-end components that used to be really expensive, difficult, and timely to set up are now almost commodities, so it’s much easier to create a multi-user experience and connect mobile devices directly to each other.”

Nike+ Availability: iPhone, iPod

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Games That Cross Generations — and Time Zones 

Jeremy Fourteau ’10 was on a plane flying from San Francisco to New York when he noticed he was playing the same game on his iPhone as the teenager sitting next to him: Words With Friends, mobile’s 21st-century reincarnation of Scrabble.

Like all of the games owned by Zynga — the company behind Farmville — Words With Friends is highly social: you can play and chat about the game in real time with your Facebook friends or connect randomly with a player halfway around the world — all through your mobile phone. “It’s bringing a classic title to a whole new audience,” says Fourteau, who joined Zynga as a product manager two months after finishing his MBA.

It’s also part of a larger trend: According to the Nielsen Apps Playbook, games are by far the most popular category of apps in terms of the number of downloads. For Zynga, games enable connections that mimic relationships in the real world. “We incorporate various levels of social reciprocity and competition into all our games,” says Fourteau.

Zynga’s games mobilize fellow app developers to compete, too. Not long after Words With Friends hit 2.5 million daily users, Words With Friends Cheat, a “shadow app” that recommends your best moves, became a popular app among Words With Friends devotees.

What’s most appealing about working at Zynga: “Without a doubt, the culture. We’ve retained a start-up feel. There’s no dress policy, and you can bring your dog to the office.”

What’s most exciting about the mobile apps space: “There’s no market leader — it’s still a wide-open field. There’s a huge amount of opportunity.”

Words With Friends Availability: iPhone, iPad, and Android phones

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Illustrations by Leandro Castelao

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