Business

Scott Kirsner | Innovation Economy

Will services finally move into the Internet age?

Talk about your premature predictions. Fifteen years ago, I wrote a column for a now-defunct business magazine asserting that we were on the verge of the “e-scheduling” revolution. Now that everyone had become comfortable buying airplane tickets and books over the Internet, it was obvious that we’d start using to it schedule all kinds of services, from auto repair to carpet cleaning to seaweed body-wraps at the spa.

That revolution got rolling in a few parts of the economy — it’s easy to book a table at many restaurants, for instance — but my guess is that you still place quite a few phone calls every week, hang on hold, and then listen to a harried staffer rattle off a few open times. If you need to make a change, you do it all over again. And nothing happens outside of “normal business hours.”

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I still believe in the basic premise of that 2000 piece — that consumers want the convenience of 24/7 online and mobile scheduling, and that businesses offering it will do better than those that don’t. Some evidence: start-ups like Handy, Washio, and Manicube are growing fast and attracting tens of millions of dollars in funding, in large part because they make it easy to summon and schedule, respectively, handyman visits, laundry pick-ups, and manicures. And why wouldn’t a small business want to reduce the time they spend answering the phone?

Startups hoping to bring service-based businesses into the 21st century still talk with revolutionary verve. But now, it’s mobile phones and cloud-based software that will ignite things.

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“Smartphone penetration is extremely high, and consumer behavior has shifted in a radical way,” says Ethan Anderson, chief executive of San Francisco-based MyTime, which sells scheduling and business management software. “Small businesses are way behind, and they’re gonna be swept into the ocean.”

Josh McCarter, chief executive of New York-based Booker, another maker of scheduling software, says more than one-third of small businesses are still using pen and paper to make appointments and take reservations, even as “half of all searches for local services are happening on mobile devices.”

“Consumers want to book, and spend money, and most businesses just aren’t bookable,” McCarter said. Booker raised $35 million in March; its investors include Boston-based Bain Capital.

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TimeTrade Systems, one of the Boston-area start-ups that, in 2000, was an early proponent of e-scheduling, is still around today. I used a link sent to me via e-mail to book an appointment to talk with chief executive Gary Ambrosino. He told me the site was used to arrange 84 million appointments last year, and he expects to hit 100 million this year.

Among TimeTrade’s customers are Staples (to schedule tech support), Petco (grooming), and Sears (auto repair).

Ambrosino joined TimeTrade in 2010, the year it raised a $5.6 million funding round. “One of the things that made TimeTrade last is that the company has grown with customers, and not tried to get out ahead of the market,” he says. TimeTrade plans to add about 20 employees over the summer; it’s currently at 69.

Another Boston company, Pingup, hopes to play a slightly different role in online scheduling. It wants to be an intermediary that connects the various scheduling systems like Booker, MyTime, and TimeTrade with websites like Yelp or YP.com that help consumers look for businesses. That way, as you peruse a business’ profile online, you’ll be offered the option to make an appointment.

Pingup chief executive Mark Slater says there are more than 80 providers of scheduling software in the market, and the challenge Pingup has taken on is writing software that can communicate with many of them.

Among the biggest challenges for the companies trying to sell scheduling software directly to small and mid-sized companies, says Slater, is the high costs of finding, signing up, and holding on to customers since a lot of small firms go out of business each year. “It’s like trench warfare,” he said.

In entrepreneurship, timing is almost everything. Too early, and you spend all your energy knocking on doors; too late, and it’s hard to find your place at the table. Pingup, for example, built an app to connect consumers with taxis earlier in its life, but Slater says that industry wasn’t eager to embrace new technology.

Ambrosino at TimeTrade recalls his involvement in a Lowell start-up, SecureMedia, that developed technology to protect digital music and movie files. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, SecureMedia did pilot projects with the Internet company AOL, the rock group U2, and rock star Todd Rundgren, says Ambrosino, adding that he also had conversations with the manager of the heavy metal band Metallica.

But the music and movie industries then were more focused on suing businesses like Napster that promoted illegal sharing than they were in promoting legal downloads. “We were just really early,” Ambrosino says.

At Booker, McCarter observes that services represent about three-quarters of the US economy. But so far, service-based companies have lagged behind those selling products when it comes to connecting with consumers digitally, he says.

It may, finally, be time for that to change. On my kitchen counter is a postcard from the vet, reminding me to call for an appointment to keep my cat rabies-free. I’d rather do it online.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.
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