Eric Meyer, the entrepreneur behind the parking app Haystack, says plans to launch in Boston this week remain intact despite a statement from the city yesterday saying it did not approve of the service.
“The only thing we’re worried about right now is empowering the thousands of people in Boston who have downloaded our app and are anxious to give it a try,’’ Meyer said.
Asked about implications of the city’s statement and whether he had concerns about the app’s ability to operate in the city, Meyer doubled down. “I’m not good at doing hypotheticals, but I can tell you all we’re worried about right now is rolling out Haystack as we planned to.’’
Meyer spoke with Boston.com ahead of the company’s Tuesday night party at the Liberty Hotel celebrating its Boston launch. It is expanding into the market after having launched in Baltimore about a month and a half ago. The app allows users who are parked in a public space to let other users know they are leaving. For a $3 fee, they can hold the spot for a user seeking parking. Haystack takes 75 cents off that transaction.
Meyer said “thousands’’ of users have signed up for the service in Boston so far (he had said hundreds over the weekend). But it has inspired criticism in the news—including from myself—and on social media.
Here’s how he addressed a few of the criticisms:
Criticism: The app is exclusionary, benefiting those who are digitally connected—most likely, the more affluent.
Meyer said the app has been a success and has made parking better all-around in its launch city of Baltimore. I asked him how he knew and he referenced the transactions the app has powered, but declined to share any data or metrics.
“How do we know Haystack’s working?’’ he said. “The neighbors who have had successful parking exchanges.’’
I asked him if by neighbors he meant users or, you know, people in neighborhoods.
“‘Neighbors’ is users,’’ he said, then paused. “And neighborhoods.’’
Criticism: The app is inflationary, because it means people have to pay Haystack to park, in addition to the meter.
“A lot of folks are going to have neutral transactions,’’ Meyer said. “They can offer a spot up. They can make a couple bucks. They can pay for another transaction another time.’’
When I pointed out that since Haystack would take a cut out of every sale, thereby making the transactions not neutral, Meyer adjusted slightly, calling it “essentially a neutral transaction.’’ On a standard Haystack transaction of $3, Haystack takes 75 cents.
Criticism: People will sit in a parking space, filling it up, while waiting for fellow Haystack user to swing on by and take it from them.
“That’s not how Haystack’s designed to work,’’ he said.
In true techie fashion, Meyer pointed to “Haystack’s advanced algorithm,’’ which he said “only matches people within a couple minutes away.’’
Criticism: Legalities and market demand aside, the app is plain ol’ mean-spirited, as a privatization of a public service. The Twitter hashtag for this sort of thing is #JerkTech.
“I have no idea how you’re being a jerk by alerting your neighbors who are desperately searching around for a place to park, late at night, potentially in areas that aren’t even safe, and allowing them to go right into a space and save time,’’ he said. “That’s not being a jerk, that’s being neighborly.’’
Later, I got the chance to speak with some of the launch party attendees.
Among them was State Representative Jay Livingstone. Livingstone, who represents parts of Boston and Cambridge, strongly advocated for the app, suggesting that people in Boston already arrange to share spaces through phone calls and other mechanisms. He spoke of the need for innovation in the parking sector.
I asked him about his take on the statement from Boston and Mayor Martin Walsh condemning the app. He said he hadn’t heard about it, and asked what the mayor’s concerns were. I mentioned, as one example, the inflation issue.
“How is it inflationary?’’ he asked. Then: “How does (Haystack) make money?’’ When I told him the service involved payments between drivers with Haystack taking a cut, he said: “I didn’t realize that.’’
He thought over his answer and after an awkward 30 seconds or so, said: “I’ve been offered money to move my car.’’ He added: “Another way to make a buck.’’
Don’t worry, he pulled it together. “I understand the mayor’s concern, but I think the chance to bring communities together and the chance to encourage a great tech company means we shouldn’t just turn this company away,’’ he concluded.
Other politicians were better informed and more measured. Former city councilor and once-mayoral candidate Mike Ross, who expressed his support for the app in an interview yesterday with BetaBoston, said he thinks people are already doing this in the city without Haystack. And he added that his biggest concern is that turning Haystack away would send a bad message to other entrepreneurs and innovators. “It’s less about the app and more about the tone,’’ he said.
And City Councilor Tito Jackson said he didn’t necessarily support the app, but thought it provided an opportunity to explore options for rethinking Boston’s overall parking situation. “I think this challenges the City of Boston to look at innovations in public parking and ways to maximize revenues in one of the most under-utilized areas of revenue in the city,’’ he said.
Jackson also noted that the city’s parking regulations do not appear to include any provisions that would make Haystack or similar apps illegal.
The party included more than politicians in attendance. For instance, there were members of an adult kickball league. Doug DiPietro, a senior customer service representative for the World Adult Kickball Association, said the league often partners with companies and organizations that hold parties, and rallies its members to show up for the free drinks at the party. “We’ve been growing in Boston and along the way developed partnerships with different organizations,’’ he said.
The kickballers I spoke with said they weren’t too likely to use the app. Katie Dunn and David Finkenaur said they don’t have cars. Lauren Miller does drive but said she probably wouldn’t use it. “I have a feeling that if police pulled me over, I’d probably get a ticket,’’ she said. All three said they were happy to get free drinks, though.
Another party goer, Nicholas Cole, of mobile app testing company Applause, said he was hoping to meet with Meyer to see if he would be interested in becoming a client. “I was invited here by a friend of mine, but I have ulterior motives,’’ he said. Somehow, the notion of somebody looking to profit off a space at the company’s party seems fitting.
A kindred company of Haystack also had representation. Jamie Manning, the CEO and co-founder of a Boston company called SnagAStool, said he did not know Meyer but was there to show support, because his company has been similarly criticized. SnagAStool, as its name suggests, allows people to use their mobile phones to book seating at bars. The app is similar to another that has also caught the “JerkTech’’ label, ReservationHop, though it does differ in that it partners with the restaurants and bars at which it offers seating. In that way, at least, the inventory it provides is volunteered by its actual owner.
Asked why he felt apps like SnagAStool and Haystack have received such backlash, Manning said technology often elicits skepticism when it debuts. “Paying more for a parking spot—people hate that right now,’’ he said. “But he’s here to change one thing: Finding parking in Boston.’’
Manning suggested the negative feedback might ultimately lead Meyer to have to change his business model, perhaps to one that connects users with private parking spaces.