Tell us about HopStop and what you guys are up to…

HopStop started out as a web-only service in 2005 here in NYC. Fast forward eight years later and HopStop has grown into the number one ranked transit app in the iTunes Appstore and Google Play, and we’re now in over 600 cities across seven countries (U.S., Canada, France, UK, Russia, Australia and New Zealand); and we plan to be in over 1,000 cities across 15-to-20 countries by the end 2013.

We started our concept for local navigation that revolves around the pedestrian…in that people move and/or travel to new cities, if they don’t own a car or don’t want to use one, will be using cabs/ferries/subways/buses…etc.

Before HopStop there was no company that got people from door-to-door via a combination of walking and transit directions.

Soon after we launched our service in 2005, users and reporters alike started to refer to HopStop as the “MapQuest for mass transit”, which we took as a compliment. We invented algorithms that combine optimized street walking with optimized transit routing, and put it into one user experience.

HopStop was a web-only service in 2005, but we made early inroads into mobile with text messaging capability for receiving-and-requesting directions, as well as extending our service onto the mobile web. In 2009, we were one of the first companies (there were only a few hundred at the time) with an iPhone app.

HopStop now has native apps for every popular mobile operating system, and we also introduced several new transit-related services and content for people that are not only new to a city, but that appeal to the daily commuter as well, such as dynamic station-to-station timetables and schedules, nearby station / nearby stop search capability, and an extensive library of popular, officially licensed transit system maps.

More recently, last month in fact, we introduced a brand new real-time information transit service called “HopStop Live!“, aimed at providing all transit riders with the latest information on what might impact their trip.

This is a crowd-sourced solution using the HopStop user base, which is the largest transit riding user base in the world behind Google Maps. By tapping into the wisdom of the crowds, HopStop provides it’s users with the in-app tools to communicate real-time information to other users related to incidents that may be causing transit delays.

We provided them the ability to relay this real-time information down to a minute level of detail as they’re getting route info from us. When we receive the crowd-sourced info, it is immediately geo-tagged to that station, stop and line, and is then disseminated to other users following that same station/line/agency – all in real-time.

It’s the largest service of it’s type. Our objective and ambition now is to become the one and only traffic app that people will need.

What kind of digital marketing and PR helped you get you where you are today?

We had a first mover advantage that definitely helped in that we were the first to market with our multi-modal transit routing solution back in early 2005.  PR has helped tremendously as well as many of our users happen to be bloggers, editors and reporters living and working in big cities.

I think there have been over 600 stories written about the company over the past few years alone; with the majority of articles being written unbeknownst to us.

More importantly our users have been our best marketing vehicle, in that our service works well, provides them with convenience and utility, and so they’re prone to tell their friends and family members about HopStop as a result.

In fact, the best way to get adoption is when your users are getting the recommendation about our app from a trusted source such as a friend or family member, and that happens much easier these days via social media.

How has the global user base reacted since you unveiled the real-time crowd sourced transit info initiative and do you roll things out city by city, or all in one go?

With the exception of Google Transit and Nokia Transport, no other companies are doing door-to-door multi-modal transit routing at scale because it’s a huge data and algorithmic challenge.

As it relates to “HopStop Live!”, no other company is crowdsourcing real-time transit information at the scale that HopStop is doing it, and we view this as a real competitive advantage.

That said, we’ve figured out how to succeed without being a big company by vetting things well before implementing them (and by listening closely to our users), and in-turn by rolling new features and functionality out globally but having them be consumed locally.

Our belief is, if it’s an important enough new feature or service to users to warrant it being at the front of the product queue, then it’s likely to be needed in every market.

You are guys are a great case study for our readers when it comes to big data. Can you talk more about how you did so much with such a small team?

One thing about mapping and navigation as a whole, and realizing that HopStop’s unique multi-modal approach to navigation is just one segment in that make up, is that you have to be at it for a long time to accumulate the data and improve the service. To date, we’ve generated well over a billion direction requests…which is not a small number. 

Once you are talking about that kind of input, and usage your routing algorithms learn and get smarter over time. By virtue of that, we’ve built significant barriers to entry as a result, not to mention a really good user experience that’s difficult to replicate.

A transit app that just comes out today is not going to be as good as one that’s been working on the challenge for over eight years, it’s that simple. 

The other more technical part is that we’ve built up a lot of very sophisticated automated processes for accumulating, aggregating, collecting, refreshing and normalizing data. We do let the machines do an awful lot of the work, which minimizes the need for a huge staff.

We also use external/offshore resources as well to help keep our overhead costs down. The key has been to strike the right balance between centralizing as much as you can and outsourcing the right amount. As a general rule of thumb, we outsource whatever is not core.

What other industries are about to get overhauled due to this coming sea change of smarter data?

I wish I was smart enough to predict the future like that, but what I can say is that for startups, the challenge is not only to identify a whitespace opportunity when you’re starting out, but more important to resist the temptation of spreading yourself to thin and pursuing too many one-off opportunities. If you don’t focus, you won’t succeed.

A lot of startups don’t see immediate initial success, but those that do who often times spread themselves too thin and in-turn spread their wings too wide versus staying focused on the core use case that brought them to the forefront.

I think this is a mistake that many start-ups make as it leads to a lack of focus and conflicting priorities.

At the end of the day, HopStop is a very large location-based service. We know the current and future location of all of our users because they’re voluntarily sharing it with us, and that’s powerful information for local and national advertisers alike.

But while this type of ad targeting that our unique user experience lends itself to, none of it would be possible if people weren’t using our service en-masse, so we stay focused on improving and evolving our core service (and on the complimentary use cases around the core service) as opposed to being best-of-breed at advertising. We do one thing exceptionally well, and we stay focused on that, and the rest takes care of itself.

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