Women in their 20s and 30s in the Triangle are having a much easier time planning weekend activities thanks to the work of Offline Media
When they pull up Offline's app, they get details of a jewelry making class at Edge of Urge in Raleigh or a pop-up cocktail event in the 21c Hotel's underground bank vault in Durham, events and experiences that might not have made local news or event listing sites.
The focus on Millennial women is by design.
It's what's helped Raleigh-based Offline grow its user base 500 percent over the last year, to the point that a third of local college-educated women with smartphones have the app and most use it regularly. Launches in Charlotte and Nashville have led to similar adoption.
Fast user growth, combined with successful pilots with advertisers and plans to integrate OpenTable, Ticketmaster and Uber helped Offline Media snag its first major funding round since graduating from The Startup Factory
accelerator in 2012.
$700,000 has come in from a group of strategic investors all with ties to the Triangle and experience in events, advertising or selling to small businesses. Leading the round is Michael Holt, who served as senior vice president of sales at Angie's List, and he's joined by iContact co-founder Ryan Allis, O2 Fitness owner and serial investor Michael Olander Jr., former eTix CEO Joe Kustelski and angel investor Bill Spruill.
"It's a beautiful app—curated, smart and snappy—and they are very focused on the target audience," says Kustelski, who has advised Shaner over the last year. He's convinced that laser focus on audience and app experience will appeal to advertisers.
"Offline lets you build beautiful compelling content offerings that don't feel like advertisements," Kustelski says.
Engineering Offline at NC State
The origins of Offline Media can be traced back to founder David Shaner's engineering entrepreneurship class his senior year at NC State University. The chemical engineering major had an idea to create a sort of Meetup.com for young professionals, and that's what won him a spot in the Fall 2012 class of The Startup Factory and some early funding.
But while Offline was successful at getting people to come to events, they weren't interacting with each other. Feedback came in that attendees wanted an easy way to find cool unique events and activities where they live, but they'd rather attend them with friends than strangers.
By the end of 2013, Shaner had pivoted and begun work on an app that scraped event listings and websites and integrated with social APIs to identify keywords that fit the Offline young professional audience. A small team would then produce content on those events for Offline.
While Shaner participated in the inaugural ThinkHouse program
in Raleigh in 2014, he launched Offline as a website curating Raleigh and Durham events. The app launch coincided with a roll-out in Charlotte in January 2015. Nashville was added in August 2015.
Setting up for growth
Since the app went live, Shaner has been focused on two areas of growth. The first is perfecting the way content is created and served up to users.
It originally took an hour for the Offline team to find the relevant information and photos and write about each event, but a combination of proprietary technology called Distillery and a bit of human touch has cut the time to seven minutes. Solving that problem has made it possible for the company to scale and more easily launch in new markets.
That was second growth goal. Just a single Offline team member is needed in each market to aggregate and produce content. The app lets users bookmark, share and "check in" to events.
Understanding and catering to the audience was key to both growth goals. App downloads quickly revealed that 80 percent of users were women—they clearly controlled social calendars. And so the app had to be appealing and useful to them. That led to a rebranding effort, as well as algorithms in place to put the right events in front of the right user based on interests and events attended in the past.
What makes Offline unique from other local event discovery apps is its laser focus, Shaner says. Most sites try to personalize content for anyone from teenagers to families to college students to empty nesters. Shaner hopes to learn more about curation and content aggregation by focusing on one audience before adding other personas to Offline.
So far, his initial audience has surpassed 65,000.
Appealing to advertisers
Shaner's third growth goal—creating a revenue stream—is underway now. Funding is helping his team of developers integrate the APIs of OpenTable, Ticketmaster and Uber so that users can reserve a table, buy tickets or hail a ride to an event without leaving Offline.
In some cases, Offline will earn a cut of any sales it generates for those integration partners. In others, Offline will let event organizers sell tickets directly through the app and earn a larger cut of sales.
Native advertising is the other way Offline plans to monetize. Shaner has already earned money through successful pilots with local advertisers who sponsor content on the app. He's especially bullish because mobile advertising is growing so much faster than projected, and because his users are coming to Offline ready to spend money or to decide where to spend money. He hopes to make it easier than ever for advertisers to send a message to users and then to track its success.
To do that, Offline is taking advantage of the network of beacons now installed in restaurants, shopping centers and venues across the U.S. Partnering with Raleigh startup Reveal Mobile
, Offline will be able track where its users are spending time and money every time their smartphone pings a beacon. Eventually, it could use Reveal technology to target messages from advertisers to users' smartphones when they are near or in a location.
The integration of so much functionality for both users and advertisers distinguishes Offline from predecessor local discovery apps, says Kustelski, many of which he says shut down because they were either too focused on concert, arts and entertainment listings, which local media tend to cover well, or they were focused on deals.
"I only need so many deals and you push deals at me that I don't really want so there are diminishing returns," Kustelski says.
Shaner hopes to take advantage of the fact that there's no real incumbent local discovery app that's in every city around the U.S. Though he won't share the next cities on Offline's hit list, he says more will be coming soon.
In the meantime, he'll add a mobile product manager and a vice president of sales with at least five years of experience to his team of six working at HQ Raleigh. And he'll rely on his new team of investor-advisors to guide him toward the goals of bringing in revenue and making event discovery, attendance and buying as easy and seamless as possible.
"If we can't make the process of finding something amazing in your city as easy as it is to find a movie on Netflix and thumb through Facebook, then we are not going to be successful in getting people to experience the physical world," he says.