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Mobee app sends consumers on data-gathering 'missions' to restaurants and stores, in exchange for rewards

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 13, 2012 07:18 AM

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A new app from Cambridge startup Mobee wants to transform smartphone users into "mystery shoppers," who will visit retailers and restaurants incognito and provide feedback in exchange for rewards. The app showed up last week in Apple's iTunes Store, and CEO Prahar Shah tells me that the first "missions," which invite users to visit a specific merchant and rate their experiences, started showing up shortly after.

"Companies are already spending money on mystery shopping," says Shah, right, a recent graduate of MIT's Sloan School of Management. "They might want to know how long the lines are at lunch, or how accurate the orders are, or whether the proper signage is up. In our research, we found that Panera stores spend about $200 a month to get information from four or five mystery shopper visits." Mobee's proposition is that it can gather more data, more frequently, for less money.

So far, the company has raised more than $1 million in seed funding helped, no doubt, by the network Shah developed during stints at local venture capital firms Bessemer Venture Partners and General Catalyst. Mobee's investors include TiE Angels Boston; former General Catalyst managing director John Simon; Netezza founder Jit Saxena; Launch Capital; Hub Angels, and Rob Soni, formerly a partner at Matrix and Bessemer.

Shah says that the app will initially focus on "quick service restaurants" like Dunkin' Donuts, Subway, and McDonald's. When users visit the store, they pay as they would normally, but when they fill out their report using the Mobee app, they get a digital credit of between $1 and $5. They can later cash in that credit for gift cards at Amazon and iTunes; have it deposited in their PayPal account; or donate it to charity. (Shah says that the app may also dangle prizes like iPads and sports tickets.) The app can even require that users take a photo of the store, or of their receipt, to prove that they really visited. Shah says that right now, there's no limit to the number of missions a user can complete, but that the app has some built-in fraud detection features, like discerning when a user may be entering data without actually reading the questions.

Mobee's board includes Neal Yanofsky, formerly president at Panera Bread and a top international executive at Dunkin' Brands. The five-person company is based at DogPatch Labs in Kendall Square. Shah says Mobee is using its new funding to add community managers, mobile developers, and salespeople.

Mobee tested its app earlier this year on the MIT campus. The big question now, Shah says, is "can we get users to use this thing?"

Screenshots of the app are below.

mobeescreen.png

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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