The Original Plan: Margot Tohn launched her Park It! Guides publishing venture in 2006 with a guide to New York City parking garages. Her intention was to model her business on the Zagat restaurant guides, selling the parking guides via retail outlets and printing custom guides featuring the logos of real estate brokers, financial advisors and other potential clients.
The Problem: The overhead involved and the costs of printing and distributing the guides were prohibitively high. Plus potential sponsors didn't see the value of offering parking guides as giveaways in a challenging economy.
Plan B: "I had really good relationships with all the garage operators," Tohn says. "So I decided to leverage those relationships to match garages up with people looking for monthly parking."
The Differentiation: Tohn's new business approach is fully automated: Visitors to parkitguides.com fill out an online request form and receive a link with all offers. Garages pay Tohn a referral fee (a percentage of the first month's rent) every time they sign up a new customer. She generates traffic to her site by creating relevant content and links. (Tohn also is the transportation writer for About.com.) Her only overhead is for search engine optimization and the cost of part-time help to make follow-up calls to customers after deals are struck. She also just started giving away $10 Amazon gift cards to consumers after they close a deal with a garage. "If it's a $10 cost of sale, that's not bad," Tohn says.
The Next Phase: Tohn plans to develop sites for Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., this year by leveraging her relationships with New York garages that also operate in those cities--and to expand the business to finding spots for commercial businesses. "I've been working on making sure the system works perfectly, then I'll approach brokers," she says. "Everything I'm trying to do now needs to be scalable."
The Upside: Tohn had predicted that her publishing business model could generate as much as $500,000 in annual sales. "I think this is a much larger opportunity. My overhead is under $500 a month," she says. "And as the economy gets better, more people will be getting cars and parking."