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Digital Agency Launches its Own Successful Mobile App

Two co-workers convinced their boss to nurture a location-based app in-house.

Two years into his tenure at New York-based digital agency Squeaky Wheel Media, Scott Wells and his co-worker, Robert Boyle, had a thought: Rather than just helping clients push their products, why not create one of their own? Other so-called hybrid agencies had already tested the waters--some with screaming success, like Invoke Media, which developed the popular social media dashboard HootSuite.

After a client shot down their pitch for a custom mobile app, Wells and Boyle approached Squeaky Wheel Media founder and president Anthony Del Monte about developing the product in-house. After the trio spent two months hashing out the details, Del Monte agreed to finance the effort--named Crowdbeacon--as an internal project, with Wells and Boyle at the helm.

We talked to Wells about the service, agency collaboration and what's next.

How does Crowdbeacon work?
It's a free, location-based mobile app. People ask a question based on their needs and location and get direct answers from other Crowdbeacon users and local businesses. If you ask, "Where can I get a blouse right now?" other users in the area who are following "shopping" as an interest get that question and can respond. Same thing for restaurants, bars, concert venues and other industry verticals.

How did you come up with the idea?
Early in 2010, we had a promotional idea for Squeaky itself, called #NYCHelps. For two weeks, we basically searched Twitter for anyone who needed help in New York--looking for a lunch spot, delivering a last-minute package--and we'd give them suggestions. Then we had an opportunity to pitch a similar concept to one of the agency's clients in the real estate business. The idea was to connect home buyers with local information, such as what the schools are like and where the good restaurants are. The client decided it wasn't for them. But we were still really interested in the idea.

What was the agency's M.O. in greenlighting the project?
There's a lot of opportunity in mobile. [Del Monte] knew that this could potentially be a separate business for us and bring some good attention to the agency.

What resources did the agency provide?
Squeaky invested between $250,000 and $300,000 of internal manpower and out-of-pocket costs. We dedicated two full-time developers to it, and myself and Robert, who were marketing and communications focused, as well as five contract people. [Del Monte] gave us the go-ahead in May 2010. After almost nine months of development, design and strategy, we launched Crowdbeacon in February 2011.

What's happening with Crowdbeacon now?
We're at over 50,000 downloads. We've had a lot of press coverage and have been featured as a New and Noteworthy iTunes app. But we realized that unless we had the outside funding to really market and distribute Crowdbeacon, we wouldn't be able to succeed as a consumer-facing app. Squeaky had some reservations about outside investors coming in and taking things in a direction we didn't want. So in April, we began offering Crowdbeacon as a white label solution that other businesses can use to connect with their own audiences. We've already gotten a couple clients out of this. One's in the hospitality business and one's in education.

What percentage of annual revenue does the agency anticipate the white label solution generating?
I think it's realistic that by year's end it will be 5 to 10 percent of our revenue.

What advice can you offer on Selling a boss on an idea?
Without our solid relationship with [Del Monte], Crowdbeacon never would have happened. I would advise others to work on building trust with their boss and think about how ideas they have can relate to the best interests of the company.

Michelle Goodman is a Seattle-based freelance journalist and author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide.

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This article was originally published in the August 2011 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Familiar Testing Ground.

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