The app: Jeffrey Beir, a former partner at North Bridge Venture Partners and advisor to startups, was traveling with his family last year in Colorado. They wanted gas and a nice place to eat not far from the highway, but didn’t have an easy way to do it. Beir saw an opportunity to reinvent the highway sign with “food/gas next stop ahead” for the social and mobile age. In about five months, Beir and his team built a new travel app, RoadAhead, which has aggregated tens of thousands of restaurant reviews, data about gas prices, and reviews of interesting places. The location-based service lets a user — not the driver, please — pinpoint his location and find information about nearby services that is tied to highway exit ramps. The app debuted in the iTunes store yesterday. It is free.
The challenge: The biggest challenge to making it happen turned out to be the difficulty in building a database of the exact location of highway exit ramps. (It turns out there are 36,000 in the United States, at least by Beir’s count.) Beir’s team used data from a few mapping companies, the U.S. Geologic Survey and various state departments of transportation. There was plenty of intern grunt work cleaning it all up, Beir said.
“The data is very dirty and it’s out of date,” he said. “The hardest challenge was putting the exits in order. You can’t just sort them by number. You have to understand the relative order of exits next to each other.”
Getting scale: There’s no specific travel app tied to highways. But there are plenty that can be used to pretty much accomplish the same result, albeit arguably in a more cumbersome way. There are location apps like Foursquare and Where that can be used. But the biggest competition, by Beir’s reckoning, is the use of Google Maps and Mapquest to find information. As Beir admits, “It’s noisy out there,” with over 350,000 apps in Apple’s App Store. There’s no easy way for a developer to get distribution. Beir is skipping paid media altogether, include pay per install networks, in favor of social media and public relations. On the social front, RoadAhead is heavily reliant on Facebook, skipping a Website altogether in favor of a page there. It is also using Twitter and LinkedIn. On the earned media front, RoadAhead is trying to get travel bloggers and publications to write about the app.
“We’re going to try to build a community,” he said. “It’s a daunting task.”
The business: RoadAhead hopes to dip into the hot market for deals. The idea is solid. Say you’re driving down an unfamiliar highway in Vermont and you are hungry. Your passenger — again, no drivers, please — fires up the app to get info and is presented with an offer from Friendly’s for a free sundae with a meal. RoadAhead is aggregating the deals from deal sellers like CityGrid. The problem here is many roadside establishments are not yet hip to the daily deal phenomenon.
“We need to have a large number of users to be interesting to the advertisers and the merchants,” Beir said.