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Mobile app BetrSpot wants to let you pay for prime seats and spots in line

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 25, 2013 09:45 AM

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We've all had the experience of bringing a date to a trendy bar, only to have to stand outside in the cold. Or showing up to a café for a business meeting, only to have to wait holding your coffee until some laptop lingerer eventually completes his screenplay and vacates a table.

A new Boston-built mobile app called BetrSpot wants to become your end-run around those situations — and also your lengthy waits at concert venues, Fenway, and the RMV. BetrSpot provides a way for you to offer someone else money for their prime table or place in line. It's a crazy twist on peer-to-peer commerce, but it'd be quite useful if it takes off. The app is still being beta tested, but Cambridge-based BetrSpot is developing versions for Android and iPhone.

"We call it a market for micro-real estate," says founder Andrew Rollert, below. "You may not own the spot you're sitting in or standing in, but you can release it at will. And we think that kind of market is useful in all kinds of situations, like the long line for the restroom at a football game, or the cardio machine at your gym during rush hour."

andrewrollert2.jpgRollert got a lot of ink for his previous startup, SpotScout, which had a similar idea: help people find empty parking spaces on the street and in garages. But that one didn't take off. So, he says, "We switched from thinking about space for your vehicle to space for your body. It's parking for your butt."

Rollert says about 100 people have been testing the app thus far. And he's hoping for a nice bump in usage on Black Friday, when he expects people to try buying or selling places in line outside stores.

Here's how it works... Let's imagine you're on an overcrowded Amtrak train with no seats. You can post a request, specifying, for instance, that you only want a window seat. You name the price you're willing to pay. (Say, $10.) Someone else using the app can see your request and accept your price — maybe they are getting off in two stops anyway, and are happy to stand for a while. Once the app has found a willing buyer and seller, it shows the buyer the seller's picture (but not his name) and gives the two parties a password to use, if necessary. After the transaction, that $10 is sent electronically from buyer to seller, with BetrSpot adding a 10 percent fee on top. So you've paid $11 for the chance to sit down on your trip from Boston to Philadelphia.

betrspot-screen2.pngSellers can also post spots they're willing to vacate, specifying the price that they'd accept. Maybe $50 would be enough to persuade you to watch that football game from home, rather than waiting for a day-of-game ticket...

Rollert and I met last week at Barrington Coffee Roasting in Fort Point Channel, and by chance, when we arrived, the place had only standing room available at a circular table. We waited a few moments, and a four-person table opened up, which we grabbed. But as we spoke, the café filled up, to the point where at least one patron opened the door, saw their was no place to sit, and turned around and left. Rollert couldn't resist looking at that as a problem his app could have solved. "We could post our table for $6, and we could leave here with a profit, since our scone and tea cost less than that," he said.

Of course, it's easy to see how BetrSpot could create some perverse incentives — "I'm gonna hang out at Starbucks until someone buys my seat for $5" — but it's also an appealing concept. If someone wanted to earn a little extra money by becoming a professional stander-in-line at the RMV, and I could purchase a 10-minute wait for $20, I'm not sure I'd mind.

What about you? Are there situations you can imagine wanting to buy or sell a spot? Or do you think the BetrSpot app would create a new class of scalpers — space scalpers? Post a comment...

(I last wrote about Rollert in 2003, when he was working on an early wireless networking idea for cars, allowing them to receive music files, e-mails, and traffic information.)

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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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