Like the sling-wielding David of old, Joe Meyer, the CEO of HopStop, fears not the battle before him. Instead, he welcomes it, having already faced off against Google twice in his career. “For some companies, it’s intimidating and scary,” explained Meyer, but “Google leaves a lot of crumbs on the table,” crumbs that have helped HopStop achieve profitability, positive cash-flow and extraordinary growth over the last 18 months. How Meyer and his small band of compatriots at HopStop have stayed out of harm’s way while building a loyal army of fans is an enlightening tale of entrepreneurial chutzpah and dead-eye focus, all inspired by The Boss.
Born to Run: Product above all
When Joe Meyer arrived at HopStop 18 months ago, the pedestrian navigation service already had an avid group of followers, having been the first in the market in 2005. What attracted Meyer to HopStop, in addition to the fact that Google’s entry into the space validated the market, was the utilitarian nature of the product and “the fact that the technology was very difficult to replicate—you can’t build it in a weekend.” That said, Meyer put all his energy and that of his team into “enhancing the user experience.” Explained Meyer, “people come to our site to get directions and we have to nail that experience and [though it’s very good], it can get even better.” “Unless you have a frictionless user experience, it’s tough to justify doing nice-to-have’s versus must-have’s,” offered the relentlessly focused Meyer.
Streets of Philadelphia: Expand from the core
In early 2008, HopStop was in six markets and by the end of 2010, Meyer expects they will be in 26 markets. This remarkable growth required a technology overhaul and again, a singular focus on their core product offering. Explained Meyer, “We spent almost a year re-writing our entire routing engine to make it more scalable,” so pedestrians can route themselves not only within these cities but from one city to another. Explained Meyer, “When I go to Philadelphia [from New York], I never go to the airport–we’re all about alternative forms of transportation and pedestrian navigation.” With his newly engineered routing engine, Meyer expects to “scale to hundreds of markets” in the next year or two, a fact that will bring cheers from Carnegie Hall to Independence Hall and then some.
My Hometown: Don’t forget your first fans
The way I found my way to Meyer’s office was rather unusual. As I regular user of HopStop, I was one of several hundred thousand MyHopStop users who received a personal email from him in which he explained some recent changes they’d been making to the service. I responded to his note and he quickly responded back, something I wasn’t really expecting. Meyer had, in fact, sent out the message to HopStop’s most avid fans from his own email address which he admitted was kind of scary. “We need to communicate directly with our users and if we are doing something that might screw things up or if there are opportunities for us to improve, then we need to give our users the forum to voice their thoughts to us,” explained a contrite Meyer. Having dropped the borough boxes from the NYC navigation page early this year, Meyer and his team quickly learned the error of their ways resolving the issue with refreshing honesty and measured haste.
Hungry Heart: Have your fans do the marketing
After I noted that HopStop’s website last posted press release was from back in February, Meyer admitted, “we’re kind of anti-marketing, anti-PR.” Meyer explained that “in Silicon Valley, every startup is trying to get buzz, issuing press releases every week and I think its just noise.” Instead, Meyer devotes all available resources to engineering, believing that satisfied users will wave the triumphant flag, which indeed is exactly what happens. While this approach might not work for every company, HopStop users repeatedly tell Meyer, “Wow, you’ve really made my life easier,” inspiring a “pay it forward mentality” among his customers. After telling me several personal encounters with customers who expressed their love for HopStop, Meyer noted, “no marketing in the world can replicate the power of word-of-mouth and a positive personal referral.”
Dancin’ in the Dark: Let partners extend your reach and your revenue
While Meyer is thrilled with all the positive word of mouth HopStop receives, he by no means relies on it exclusively to spread the word. In addition to a massive SEO program that treats each direction search on HopStop as “taggable” content, HopStop also licenses its API. “We power directions on thousands upon thousands of sites throughout the edges of the Internet, both large and small,” noted Meyer. A large percentage of these are co-branded, with ad revenue being split between the host site and HopStop. “This gives the publisher a service they aren’t going to build for themselves and a value-add for their users, which also generates incremental revenue for both companies [thereby creating a win-win-win situation]”, enthused Meyer. And in the process, millions of more users have come to know and appreciate HopStop powered-directions from sites like The Wall Street Journal, TimeOutNewYork, NewYorkMag.com and many others.
Glory Days: Don’t get stuck in the past–go mobile or go home
Starting as an online utility, HopStop was quick to realize the importance of a mobile offering to their service. Among the first to offer Web-to-SMS and SMS-to-SMS routing functionality, HopStop has embraced mobile in a number of other ways. In addition to having a top ten iPhone app within the iTunes navigation category, HopStop also has a widely popular mobile site and a Blackberry launcher. Meyer noted that mobile usage of HopStop is growing “several hundred percent per year,” outpacing the growth of an already healthy web-based service. Recognizing the need to go beyond the iPhone and mobile web, and an in continued effort to be multi-platform, Meyer explained that, “Our users are telling us they want an Android App, so we’ll have an Android App launched by the end of the year.” An added benefit of going mobile is that customers are able to provide feedback on the spot, keeping Meyer and his team on their toes 24/7.
Final Note: Before we parted, Meyer told me of his admiration for Bruce Springsteen and “how The Boss resisted the temptation to do too much too soon,” after emerging from a three-year legal battle in his early days. As the leader of of his own band at HopStop and much like his favorite musician, Meyer is staying focused and setting the stage for record growth, without countin’ on a miracle. For the greatest hits of my interview with Meyer, click here. This article first appeared on FastCompany.com.