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Startup Creates Mobile App to Ease Parking Nightmares

Startup Creates Mobile App to Ease Parking Nightmares
Image credit: Photography by Eva Kolenko
Revved up: QuickPay's Barney Pell (left) and Carl Muirbrook.

One night in July 2011, Barney Pell went to an event in San Francisco's Mission District. When he pulled into a self-service parking lot, a stranger came up to his car and asked him to try QuickPay, a new app that would let him pay for a spot with his iPhone (plus 35 cents for the convenience). Pell--an angel investor who was preparing to leave Microsoft, where he was one of the chief architects of the Bing search engine--downloaded the easy-to-use app and registered his information, including credit card number and license plate, thanked the guy and went on his way.

That stranger was Carl Muirbrook, a serial entrepreneur from the agropharma industry who'd decided to bring the business model for parking lots into the mobile-powered 21st century. When Pell returned after his event, Muirbrook was still there--he had recognized Pell from his Bing vanity license plate and knew a potential partner when he saw one.

"The idea of paying for parking with a phone isn't new," says Pell, who joined QuickPay as chairman with a "mid-six-figure" investment. "But the technology was for city-owned parking meters. Carl's focus is off-street, private lots. These are local businesses renting out 10-by-20-foot spaces … and to them an empty space is money they'll never see."

QuickPay puts an end to the hunt for parking in dense city centers, as well as the search for the exact amount of cash to pay an attendant or the hike to a payment machine. Customers use a smartphone to view lots with available spots and reserve them en route. Once at the gate, they scan a QR code displayed on the phone or show a confirmation code to the parking attendant to pay.

For the multibillion-dollar private-parking industry, the app could put more cars into lots while providing real-time data on users. Parking companies can respond by offering instant discounts and upgrades such as valet services to their best customers.

Early on, while Muirbrook worked on product, Pell restructured the company to better align with the Silicon Valley startup model and fundraising processes. That move paid off with a $3.5 million seed round led by Fontinalis Partners (Bill Ford Jr.'s transportation-solutions fund) and Valley heavyweights Advanced Technology Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz, along with Silicon Valley angel investors.

Steve Baloff of Advanced Technology Ventures loves the upside QuickPay brings to an industry that has been a technological laggard. "Everyone wins--parkers and lot owners," he says. "The app brings a real-time CRM tool to an industry that never had one before, that didn't even know how it could use one."

Armed with their new funds, Pell and Muirbrook plan to expand the system's reach beyond the 100 participating lots scattered across California, Colorado and Nevada, including agreements with operators of automated gated parking lots. They're also working on technology that will allow reservation a day in advance.

"Everyone who drives has a parking problem," Pell says. "Our goal is to get rid of the pain."

Grant Davis is the Tech and Money Editor for Entrepreneur Magazine.

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This article was originally published in the November 2012 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Hot Spots.

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