BURLINGAME, Calif. - Last Sunday, I met Damien Patton for dinner at a restaurant on the shores of San Francisco Bay, to hear the story of how he hatched the idea for his company in Boston.
“I was in Logan Airport one day, and a guy I’d served with during Desert Storm was sitting in a different part of the terminal,’’ Patton told me. “I hadn’t seen him since forever, and we both sat there for a few hours, maybe a hundred yards apart, but I didn’t find out until later, when I went to Facebook, that he was basically in the same place as I was.’’
Patton started thinking about a mobile app to deliver alerts whenever a friend was nearby, no matter what social network they happened to be using to share their location digitally. Working on his laptop at M.J. O’Connor’s, a Boston bar, he began designing the app that evolved into Banjo.
Eight months after the Banjo app launched, Patton told me it is on track to surpass 800,000 users. It is among the 30 most popular social networking apps on Apple’s iTunes Store, and Patton’s vision for the technology is grand: “I want to know what’s important in the world around me, without having to search for it,’’ he says. “If there’s good food, a good bar, someone I should meet, or a friend, I want that pushed to me. I want this phone to give me superpowers.’’
Patton showed up for our dinner wearing a Dropkick Murphys T-shirt and jacket, advertising his devotion to the Quincy band. But his 10-person start-up is now based in Redwood City, and I was curious to find out why.
Patton has operated radar systems on a Naval aircraft carrier, repaired NASCAR vehicles, and started a company to import bamboo flooring. He was living in Boston and taking executive education courses at MIT’s Sloan School of Management in late 2010 and early 2011 as he laid the groundwork for Banjo.
“My dream has always been to do a start-up in Boston,’’ Patton says, “and I thought we could make Banjo the biggest mobile consumer start-up in Boston.’’
‘I want this phone to give me super powers.’Damien Patton
But Patton ended up generating buzz in the Bay Area after he won a Google-sponsored “hackfest,’’ where entrepreneurs develop prototypes over the course of a weekend and then present them. By October 2010, he’d struck a deal with BlueRun Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners, two investment firms in Silicon Valley. He won’t say how much the company raised.
He still hoped to build the business in Boston. “I hired several recruiters, and interviewed a lot of great engineers,’’ he says. Part of the reasoning for staying on the East Coast was that “it’s so incredibly hard to get talent out here in the Valley.’’
But he also found it hard to hire people in Boston who had experience building mobile apps with consumer appeal. While Boston has had several successes in creating companies that deliver advertising to mobile phones, companies that build software for consumers are still scarce, and most of them are small. One of the more significant (and profitable) companies, MocoSpace, has raised about $10 million and hired 60 employees over the last seven years, but it recently shifted its focus from social networking to developing games for mobile phones, after Facebook moved onto its turf.
So last April, Patton moved Banjo to Redwood City, midway between San Francisco and San Jose. “I had to acknowledge that this is where the largest pool of people with experience in mobile and social networking were,’’ Patton says. It’s a tough sell to get them to leave companies like Google and Netflix to join a small start-up, but Patton has done it.
The team launched the first version of the Banjo app in June and has since issued about 30 updates. Once you give Banjo access to your lists of friends on a social network like Facebook or Google Plus, it can notify you whenever a friend is within a mile of you. The friend must do something - like share a photo or check in to a nightclub - that has location information attached to it. (This is voluntary on their part.)
You can also see what strangers are doing around you. For example, if you’re strolling through Kenmore Square, you might find someone named Sadie using the Foursquare app to praise the spicy ginger lemonade at the Bon Me food truck.
Patton says he has no near-term plans to figure out how Banjo can generate revenue from its users. “The minute you start trying to monetize, you start compromising the user experience,’’ he says. “Right now, it’s about building the user base and learning and improving the technology.’’
That ethos is not warmly embraced by investors in Boston. But Patton says in the Valley he gets a call or visit from a venture capitalist every week, wondering when Banjo might need more money. Patton reckons he will probably take some later this year.
You can have one of two reactions to the Banjo story. You might say that Boston wishing to be a hub of consumer mobile activity is like Bangor dreaming of becoming the country music capital, or Seattle aspiring to be the center of NASCAR racing. Or you might say that to benefit from major trends like the explosion of smartphones, Boston needs to get better at supporting companies that target consumers rather than corporate America. (I’m in that latter group.)
We’re lucky to have a few consumer-oriented mobile companies, including RunKeeper, SCVNGR, and MocoSpace, but their success hasn’t yet created a strong cluster. As venture capitalist Jeffrey Bussgang puts it, “The ingredients are all here - albeit in small quantities.’’
Until we figure out how to increase the quantity and combine those ingredients in winning ways, it won’t be a shocker if more mobile app entrepreneurs follow Patton’s path west.Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.