This transcript is from Episode 26 of The Savvy Event Planner Podcast
To listen to this podcast, please visit: http://SavvyEventPodcast.com/26
Interview only transcript
Tom: I'd like to welcome Maria Seidman to the show. Maria, how are you doing today?
Maria: I'm doing great, Tom. Thanks for having me.
Tom: It's great to have you here. Maria, you are a co-founder of Yapp, and I was wondering if you'd tell us a little bit about your background.
Maria: Sure. So before I founded Yapp with my partner Luke Melia I was an executive at Warner Bros., the film and television studio. And I ran mobile for them, so I ran a business where we produced a variety of mobile content to be pushed to mobile, to devices.
Tom: Now, when you were doing that, could you tell us a little bit more about what that entailed?
Maria: Sure. I was running mobile at a very interesting time. So I took over the group around 2007 and I left in 2011. And as we all know, the iPhone came out just around then, and the modern app store was launched in 2008. So really what I oversaw was a transition of the business from ringtone, if people remember those, and screensavers and other things using content and characters like Looney Tunes or Harry Potter are popular Warner Bros. brands, to really understanding what the modern app era meant, and what entertainment apps and entertainment utilities look like.
And so it was really shifting the strategy and also shifting who we worked with. We worked directly with carriers. In the old days of mobile, we went to Verizon or Sprint or T-mobile, and you pitch them ideas about content, and you wanted that content to live on the home screens of people's feature phones when they open them.
And now, we shifted to this app store where it was more democratic where you were working directly with Apple, and trying to understand how your content and your brand translated to this new format, to this new small screen, to this new higher processing power right in the palm of people's hands.
Tom: It sounds like a pretty exciting time. Now, what took you away from Warner Bros.?
Maria: You know, sometimes it's time to shake things up. It was time for a change. I've been there for a very large chunk of my career. And for personal reasons. My family wanted to move to New York City, and so I decided that that was a good time to try to do something different.
Tom: And what led you into the creation of Yapp?
Maria: So in late 2010 or early 2011, when we had moved to New York, I had this women's group that I belong to, and every year we have a retreat. And so it was 2011 and I thought to myself wouldn't it be great to have a mobile application for this retreat? I had just set up a consulting business, and I had really quickly put up my own website for that business so people could contact me and knew about my background. And I use one of the popular self-service website creation tools at the time.
And I thought, well, it's 2011. There must be a very similar thing for a mobile app. I'm not a developer, I wasn't going to build a mobile app from scratch. I wasn't going to build a mobile app even if I knew how. I wasn't going to build a mobile app just for this three-day retreat that we were going on. So I started asking Google for what the solutions were, and at the time, there really wasn't anything that was easy enough to use or really fit my particular need or design aesthetic.
Tom: So you had this desire to create an app for the event. What spurred you to take that extra step if you weren't a coder? How did you come up with this concept to create, I guess, the platform that people could use to create the apps?
Maria: It's a great question. Looking back, it seems kind of insane that my answer to “I can't create my own one little app,” led to me to the conclusion I should just create an entire platform and system so that people could create apps.
But really what happened between those two points was that I became very obsessed with the idea, and I really became passionate about the idea that there were lots of people like me who were reliant on their mobile devices, who found it a form of connection and utility, and who wanted the benefits of mobile applications but couldn't actually realize them themselves, and there are a lot of different use cases in our professional and personal lives that this would apply to.
And so really I just became obsessed with finding the solution for myself, and in that saw the much larger market need and business opportunity. And very quickly what I realized was given that I couldn't build this one app, I needed to find a partner, a technology partner who knew how to build these kinds of platforms and systems, and so I was connected with Luke Melia, and as they say the rest is history.
Tom: I saw on your video on Yapp where it was About Us, how you would send out an email, and I thought that was very interesting. Can you tell us about the email that you sent him?
Maria: Sure. I actually sent an email to Listserv. I was trying to track down this partner in every corner of the world, whether I was at the beauty salon, I would ask somebody whether they knew somebody who was a software engineer, my old contacts in my work life. I mean I was just asking everyone, going to meet-ups, doing everything I possibly could to connect with people who might eventually connect me to my co-founder.
And eventually about six months into it, somebody offered to send an email to the New York CTO Club, and in that I had created again this website that was a job description, but much more so of like a personals ad, know the kind of person that I wanted to work with and the kind of person that I wanted to partner with on this venture. And they sent it out to the Listserv. And Luke replied and we built a relationship over a few months and decided to do this together.
Tom: Now, as you were putting together the application or the, I guess, the platform, is that that the right to call it, a platform?
Maria: Yes, exactly.
Tom: Okay. When you were putting this platform together, I'm sure did some market research on the event industry. And I'm wondering if there were any problems that you found that your event app could solve for them.
Maria: Well, there were a lot of different problems, both from the perspective what were event organizers and event attendees, you know, what do they need, and what were they doing, and what was their work flow, and what were their expectations, and what were they were trying to get out of events.
And then there was the whole subset of problems. Once they realized that an event app could solve these problems or enhance their experience for them, how are they going to go about, just like me, getting that event app.
So from the event attendees' perspective, we'll start there, what we found was that event attendees where increasingly, and as every year went on, you know smartphone penetration in the United States is close to 80%.
So every year, more and more people had smartphones and were spending an increasing amount of time in those phones, and began to rely on them to provide them key information especially around events. So things like location, directions, what their schedule was like, who else was at the event.
Before, those things were really serviced by paper, and event organizers would be spending thousands upon thousands of dollars printing things like bio books. I remember the time that I was doing this research, I went to a conference, and at check-in they give you a huge bag with this enormous book.
And then in the book were pieces of paper that were like the updates to the book because somebody didn't show up or somebody didn't have their title printed correctly or left the company, and now they had do an update to that bio book. And I would get a paper agenda. That same thing had to have an addendum to it.
And so from an attendee perspective, I found that and many attendees found that to be quite annoying, especially if you're traveling to an event, to come back with all this stuff that you don't actually need and you don't know where to put.
And so that was like really the first thing that all of a sudden, you have this personal device with you. You didn't have that before. Before the smartphone, I mean you had your phone and maybe would log your computer and maybe it would be connected to the internet. But all of a sudden, you had your smartphone, it was always on you, it was the primary source of information in a real-time location-aware basis.
And so if you were at a conference, you wanted that information right on that smartphone. And so that was really the problem that we were solving for attendees. They wanted the information where they were, i.e. a smartphone.
And they also, at events, you know, why do people go to events, they want to either learn something or they want to connect with people. Those are the two major reasons we thought people going to professional events. We can talk about social events separately, but around professional events, it's really about information and connection.
And so the second piece that attendees wanted is they wanted to know who else was there so that they could more easily get to know, whether it was a speaker, go to the speaker session, or more easily get to know their fellow attendees.
So they wanted connection and information, know where they were on their smartphone, that was the problem we were solving for attendees. And from the event organizer's perspective, they were spending thousands of dollars on printing costs, they were spending hundreds of man or person hours on updating the information and formatting it, and it was expensive and costly and complicated in their work flow.
They wanted their event to go well, so they wanted engagement, they wanted people to be where they needed to be on time, they wanted to reduce the amount of overhead or customer service-related overhead at events when people are lost, or needed to ask questions. So for all those reasons, mobile and mobile event app specifically became, and especially as mobile, the smartphone became more powerful, and they were more apps, really became the solution to helping both organizers and attendees.
And then the macro problem that we saw was there were, even back in 2011, there were…if you went to CTIA, for example in Las Vegas, which is probably, sorry CES in Las Vegas, which is probably the largest technology consumer electronics show in Las Vegas in January, that's probably the largest technology show in the world. They had even back, before 2011, they had a mobile application. But at that time, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on custom building that application.
And so if you were a small association, say, and you also saw the benefit of saving paper, connecting and engaging attendees, you didn't have the staff to build a mobile application for you, and you didn't have the budget to spend tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a mobile application.
So basically what we saw was an opportunity in what they call in the industry the long tail of events. So the really big, huge, hundred thousand plus person events already have mobile applications, but all of their needs were also the same needs for a 50-person or 100-person or 500-person event, and so we came in and provided an affordable, really easy to use technology for all those 1.8 million events.
There were 1.8 million corporate events in the United States in 2014, so the vast majority of them are smaller events. And so we came in to provide those solutions for organizers and for attendees for what we call the long tail of events.
Tom: Okay. That answered a lot of the questions that I had planned for you, and that's great because that was a good insight. Were there any surprises that you found when you were doing your research? Was there anything that you didn't expect that would need to be included in a mobile app platform?
Maria: Well, we found tons of surprises. I didn't know that much about this market when I started. I mean I've been an attendee at events and I plan smaller events for my personal and professional life, but we learned an incredible amount in the last five years since we've been researching and building this business.
One of the things that we learned, like we didn't realize how many associations were out there, and what the role of associations was, for example. We learned about like what was important to our users, like engagement, and continuing education, and making things easy, etc.
We learned some surprising things. Like at the beginning, we learned that people didn't want to use Facebook. Facebook is this huge growing thing, and what we learned very early on, you were only able to log in to our service via Facebook. And we would get tons of emails everyday, even when we started, saying that like their company does not want to use Facebook for this, and that they don't want to use a Facebook group or a Facebook feed or a Facebook event to manage what are their corporate events. And so that became a real opportunity.
In our applications, we have private newsfeeds that is just for the event and just for the group. And we have a private shared photo album because people didn't want to share it on Facebook, for example.
So those were some of the things that we learned, and we learn along the way. Like every feature that we added to the platform was because our users told us that it was something they needed, like we recently launched a My Schedule feature because people want to build their own personalized schedule, as an example.
And we take a very what we call customer-driven approach. So every feature that you see in the platform is something that users told us that they wanted and needed, and we didn't build it until we heard that.
Tom: That's some great stuff. Now, I'm assuming that almost every type of event can benefit from an app. What are some of the different events that your apps are used for?
Maria: I would say that's not true. I mean we don't think that every type of event can benefit from a mobile app. We think a lot of them can, and we'll talk about those in a second.
But what we find is if you're having a couple hour fundraiser, like I'm going to go speak tonight to a group at a coworking space, and it's a pitch night, and there are 3 or 4 companies and maybe 50 or 100 people there, and the whole event lasts from 6:30 to 8:30.
Now that's an event, for sure. I mean they have programming, they have AV needs, they have registration that they need. So that's an event, but that's not an event that needs a mobile application because they're just enough complexity and not enough lasting engagement that that particular group needs to do in order to really have the mobile application.
So there is some degree of complexity and logistics and connection that need to be there in order for an event to really need a mobile application and to justify. The cost for us is not very high, but even just the cost of your own time to build something out like that. There are definitely times where an e-vite, a meet-up, or a simple webpage or event-type webpage will do.
So the events though that we see on our platform very successfully are all kinds of corporate and professional events. So our largest is probably a 10,000-plus downloads, and it's a company for their largest sales, meaning they have sales reps all over the world. It's a network marketing company, and they use the app when they bring all their sales people together to show them the new product, and to get them psyched about going to the market and selling.
And so there's 10,000 people, there's a lot of complexity, there's a lot of resources that those people want to have on their phone and be able to take with them. So there's just a lot of considerations around that.
Anything down to we have apps for 20-person retreats, which was my kind of original use case, 20-person retreats that needs to have some sort of, again, a logistics. They might be traveling somewhere, or it might be a ski retreat for the top management, and there's documents they're going to go through, and there's messaging that they want to have because they want to talk about and remember this great experience, there's photos they're going to share, etc.
So we have apps for public conferences, different travel groups or retreat type events, we have them for corporate events, town halls, trainings, incentive sales meetings, associations, I mentioned associations earlier, associations and non-profits are a very large client base for us, and they're using for it could be their quarterly events, it could be their annual meeting, it could be their sponsor, exhibit, showcase, etc., those kinds of events. We have schools using us and school districts for professional development days, for ed camps.
And so I think you get a sense of the breadth of what we're talking about. We did, early on, we also did social events. Like weddings was a very big category for us. But we found, as we continued to evolve the product, that the event needs for a wedding became very different than the event needs for these types of professional events that I mentioned earlier.
Tom: Okay. Could you give me an example of the differences between those two? Because I'm sure that we have some wedding planners out there listening to this.
Maria: Yeah, sure. I would just say, now you can still definitely use the app, and people do for weddings. But more and more, the features and functionality that we're adding are more geared to the audience for corporate events. And so the rich features are definitely geared towards them.
There's still the fundamental need for wedding planners on social, for example social connection. But what we found a lot in weddings is that the usage pattern was people use the app for maybe logistics beforehand to know when the rehearsal dinner was, know when the dress code was, etc. And they may use the app afterwards if they took some pictures on their phone, they wanted to share in a gallery.
But the in-between the time of the event, the bride for example, or the wedding guest really just wanted to be there and be in the moment. A lot of times, there's alcohol, there's fun, there's dancing, and you're not really on your phone so much, or the experience want them to be on their phone so much.
So we definitely saw it being used for the pre and post event versus in the corporate events, that this is a very key tool to the event itself. So for example, we might see in a corporate or other non-profit or any of those other professional events I mentioned setting, you know, a speaker might be talking and say, “Okay, now pull out your smartphone and vote in the poll about which trend do you think will have the most impact into 2016?”
So in the professional and corporate events, I think the industry has embraced that people are using their smartphones for mission-critical work, and they're at this professional events to either learn or engage or whatever, and so they're using the app as a tool to enhance what is going on in the room. And so I think that's a key difference.
And as we improve that in our own experience, like collecting data about who's in the room and helping them to have them rate sessions, and increasing complexity around that, that is just less relevant for a social event like a wedding where it could be more about design, it could be more about casual fun. We noticed that the design aesthetic for those two categories started to become very different.
Tom: Do you see mobile apps as a replacement for an event website? Could it become one or is it more of an addition to?
Maria: We see it both ways. We see a lot of our users have both. They have both a website and a mobile application. And then we have a portion of users that only have a mobile app. Our apps, you can see the content on your desktop, so it basically becomes like a website, so you can preview all of the content.
Fundamentally though, mobile apps are different than web pages, websites, even the ones that are mobile-optimized because mobile apps give you functionality that a website can't.
So for example, push notifications are a very critical feature for a mobile event app because they push key information like location change, or speaker change, or a key event starting, or a sponsor message to the device which obviously a website can't do.
And they have other features like being able to share photos and access to the contact book, if you want to add people to your contacts that you've met at the conference. They have the ability to view all the content offline, which in a setting in a lot of these conference settings where you all of a sudden get a lot of people together in one room at one time, where you didn't before, there's definitely issues with that kind of activities. So being able to view key documents and key schedule items offline is another really big part of mobile applications. And you know, just the performance and the design.
So we say that it's fine to have event an website. A lot of people are using event websites for the registration piece where they make use of something like EventRight, and create their event website on something like EventRight and have the registration piece there.
But really, it's because of how people spend time, especially on their mobile devices, the events app has become the thing that you need. And the website or mobile website is really kind of, obviously in our opinion, kind of optional. Today, I think the latest stats are 87% of the time that people spend in their mobile devices is on apps versus just 13% they spend in their browser. So people are increasingly used to going to apps and they prefer them for the better experiences and the functionality I just mentioned.
Tom: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. And I'm glad you pointed out the offline capability of using the app because that was the concern that I would have as somebody who didn't know. I was going to ask about WiFi connectivity because sometimes you don't have that in the halls or it's an extremely expensive add-on.
I know that I've been to some smaller events recently where the organizer actually stood up on stage and said, “We didn't opt for the WiFi.” So you had to go over to the hotel to get it. So that's good information.
Now, originally as I was putting this together, I was thinking about the apps, and there's all different types of services that they can offer. You've mentioned a bunch of them. What about registration? Can registration be handled through an app?
Maria: There are app, like our app doesn't currently handle registration because we partner with EventRight, which is basically the largest event ticketing company out there. So we take the approach that we don't have to do everything ourselves. There are a lot of different tools and technology out there that either specifically for events, or can be used for events, and a lot of these that we partnered with or integrate into our service. But yes, event registration is obviously an important part of most events.
Tom: Okay. Now, when a planner sits down and starts looking at designing an app, how should they think about what features they're going to need?
Maria: That's a great question. I think a lot of times, what we found is that event planners don't usually do that. They realize, okay, they need a mobile app for the following reasons, and then they begin to do research on what's available out there, and they think less about, okay, what is it that we actually need and people are going to use, and like what is out there in the feature universe.
Which we believe is just the wrong way to approach it, because what you end up with is that you end up with some event technology that, in some cases, your attendees have no interest in using whatsoever. And in a really bad case scenario, your attendees actually get confused by this, or it's taking away from the key goal of the event.
So an example is a user recently wrote in and said that they wanted to switch to Yapp, and they needed to it last minute. And they already paid thousands of dollars for another event app vendor. And the reason was that they noticed that everybody was being, they had some sort of game in their app, and they noticed that people were using it, but it was actually distracting from people going to the sessions, which was the point of the conference.
And there was so much customer service that had to be done to explain the game, and it was crashing, and not working. And it was this piece of complexity that was actually not only not worth the investment, but had a negative effect on the event experience.
And so what we like to say is think about who you're audience is, think about what your goals are for the event. Is it to have people to network? Is it for people to get continuing education credits? Is it for employee engagement? Is it for people to feel great about working for your company?
Figure out what your goals are and what success looks like for your event. Is it the number of sponsor dollars that you raise this year? Is it the number of five star ratings you session's got? What are the actual goals? And then match up the feature that you would like versus those goals.
Tom: Maria, let's go back to Yapp now and talk about it for a moment. How do you feel it differs from other event applications that are on the market?
Maria: Yeah. So we differentiate, we believe on three important axises. One is the ease of use. Two is how affordable the platform is, and how transparent we are about our pricing. And the third one is instant publish.
And so we don't promise at all, we don't have the most features of any competitor out there, and we don't aim to either. We're all about ease of use, both for the event organizer, and for the event attendee.
And so Yapp is very, very easy to create an app. Most of our users never email us because it's very easy to use, we have a lot of resources. Anyone from an intern to an executive director to senior manager and everybody in between can use it and create it. It's form-based, it's flexible.
And so that's a major differentiator from other event app providers where it really takes a whole team. They have client management teams at some of our competitors to manage the process of getting your event app up and running.
The second thing is a affordable and transparent pricing. And so our app start at $399. That is 90% more affordable that any of our competitors'. And it's, again, totally self-service. You can check out yourself with a credit card.
And it's completely transparent in terms of pricing. Other event app providers, you have to get on a sales call, you have to figure out which features do you need and not need, what's that going to cost you. You have no idea if the price that you got is the same as price that your colleague at a different, similar organization got. You have to sign a long-term contract. They nickel and dime you for all kinds of add-ons.
And so we basically are all about making it super easy to create an app and taking out all of the complexity and shenanigans that come with a traditional software sales cycle mentality.
And then the third major difference is what we call an instant publish platform. So when you create your app on Yapp, when you hit the Publish button, it generates a URL and that URL is what you share with your attendees. When they tap the URL on their phones, the phone first tracks if you have the Yapp app installed. And if not, it asks you to download Yapp, and then your event app downloads inside.
And so the big advantage of that over other platforms is that other platforms, a lot of the expenses…the fact that they are building and submitting a standalone app to the IOS and Android stores, and so that every time there is a bug or an update to one of the platforms, or you want to change content in your app, you need to go through the process of rebuilding and resubmitting those applications. So that's a huge amount of complexity and time that it takes to actually keep your app updated.
In our system, let's say a speaker falls out, you want to add a new page, you want to change your design, you basically just go into the editor, press a couple of things, you press publish, and then it's updated on your attendees' phones automatically. When IOS 9 moves to IOS 10, you don't even have to know what that means, you don't even need to worry about it, your event app will just work.
Tom: Now, I do want to ask you, can you give us a brief overview of what happens when somebody goes into Yapp to create an app?
Maria: Sure. So app creation starts in your browser on your phone or your computer at Yapp.us. We have a free trial there, so you can use the service and create as many apps as you want for free during the trial.
And when you go to the editor, what we call the editor, to create your app, you basically are started off with a few template pages that we find might be helpful for you, and you can add as many other ones from a library of template pages as you'd like. You can rename them, you can rearrange them.
And then you add your content. So if you've chosen a schedule page, you can add your schedule to it. If you chose a people page, you can rename it to speakers and add your speaker bios and contact information. If you want to create a poll, you can do that as well. And when you're ready to view it on your phone, you have a publish button, and you go through the install process I mentioned earlier. And that's really it.
Tom: Wow. Extremely simple. Maria, how can our listeners find out more about yourself and Yapp?
Maria: The easiest way is just to go to Yapp.us on any device. And as a special thank you, Tom, for featuring me and Yapp on your podcast we wanted to give your listeners a special discount code. So if you use the code SAVVY10 at checkout when you want to purchase your mobile app for your event, you'll get a 10% discount, thanks to Tom.
Tom: Well, thank you very much. And that's a limited time offer, folks. Is that correct Maria?
Maria: It is. It's good for the next 30 days.
Tom: And folks, this is coming out on March 14th, so for the next 30 days the, Maria?
Tom: So it'll be April 14th, 2016. If you do it during that time frame please definitely use the checkout and let them know that you heard about it here. Maria, thank you so much for taking your time to talk with us and share all this information today.
Maria: Thanks, Tom, for having me.
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