WHSquared Founder Jeff Lovanio told Innovation Destination Hartford about his plans to curate local happenings in West Hartford and help promote local businesses and entrepreneurs.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: When and how did you develop the idea for WHSquared?
JEFF LOVANIO: The idea came to my mind in September 2015. I was home with my kids on a rainy day and using my phone to search for some local kid-friendly entertainment.
I knew there was a ton of stuff to do in West Hartford, but as I searched I found it very difficult and cumbersome to find a one-stop-shop that listed things to do with kids. For a town like West Hartford, I thought there should be a better solution.
West Hartford has The West Hartford Book, which is an annual magazine. It’s kind of like the Yellow Pages, but it’s very static. I looked at that and said there’s got to be a better way.
There are a ton of events going on—from kids’ events to happy hours and cooking classes—and more and more people rely on their mobile devices to find information. I thought: What if I could curate all these happenings and make them available in one place? What if I could create something that’s interactive and available on mobile devices?
I started talking to some friends who helped validate my idea. Within about six months I connected with Opulus Group, a startup working out of the Axis901 co-working space, which helped me start to bring my idea to life.
IDH: What exactly is WHSquared?
JL: The product itself is an event-based mobile app, so it’s a little different than what’s out there right now. Sites like Yelp, Foursquare, Facebook, and Google basically tell you where to go. But they don’t do such a great job telling you what’s happening.
The WHSquared app provides when, where, and how information about all types of events and places—happy hours, dining events, live entertainment.
IDH: And you’re aggregating all the information?
JL: It’s a lot of work. Once it launches, WHSquared will be free for users to join or download the app. It will also be free for businesses to list their place. They can create their own micro site.
IDH: How will WHSquared generate income? Will the app feature advertising?
JL: I have to create an audience first. Facebook didn’t charge anyone to join and they have a great platform. Am I going to be the next Facebook? No. But hyper locally, I hope to be a kind of digital magazine that helps people out.
West Hartford is very unique—85% of the people I surveyed do at least 80% of their activities in town. So with that, we can create a platform. Once we create a platform that has an audience and people actually engage with it, we can start look at these businesses and seeing what we can offer. We can find out how they want their events to show up and how they want their micro site to look. We can enhance their positioning, we can also feature third-party advertises and sell advertising space.
IDH: When do you plan to launch?
JL: Right now we’re doing internal testing and building it out to make sure the date works correctly. We’re hoping to launch the 1.0 version of the app this spring.
IDH: Do you have any prior experience launching startups?
JL: No. This is my first official foray into startups. Everyone always has a great idea, but then it’s about actually executing it.
IDH: What challenges are you facing?
JL: I think technology is the biggest challenge, just getting my vision of how I want the app to work.
IDH: Do you have any technology background at all?
IDH: So it’s all you giving your vision to other people and seeing what they do with it.
JL: Right. I’m working with designers from Opulus Group. I think that’s probably the most challenging part. You want to make sure that the product is simple but it works really well. The marketing and response I’m getting from the community are easy, because it’s a benefit to people. But the grind of actually building the product is probably the hardest part.
IDH: Is paying the company to build out the app your major expense?
JL: Yes. That’s it. Most of the money goes into the app development. There’s also marketing help and legal help. I’m self-funding. I wanted to build this myself.
At some point I will leverage investment when I need to. I want to make sure that I have enough money to get this launched as a 1.0 version. Once it comes out, I’m sure people are going to ask for additional features. At that point, that’s further development, that’s more money. Whether that’s $1,000 or $40,000 to get it to the next level, I don’t know yet, but time will tell.
I think having patience will work to my advantage. A lot of people try to close thing too early. They’re trying to make a dollar before they make a difference. I’m the other way around. I want to make a difference before I make a dollar. Then if it’s something people use, people see it as a viable solution from an advertising standpoint, and it’s cost-effective and it brings more customers through their door, then it benefits me, because I want to help them out!
IDH: Any advice for others launching startups.
JL: Being an entrepreneur is different. It’s not the norm. It’s not 9 to 5. There’s a fear of failure. But you have to just go in and not care what people think.
There’s no blueprint for what I’m doing. I think the hardest part is just the unknown. But if you’re persistent enough, you ask the right questions, and you throw enough against the wall, you get to where you need to be.
I would also say from an advice standpoint, leverage local universities for talent. I have three interns starting in the spring who are going to do blog work for me. I tell them: I’m a startup. West Hartford is your canvas. Go experience West Hartford and write about it.
It helps build a following and it helps them too, because I write a review about how they do.
IDH: Where do you see the future for WHSquared?
JL: I’d like to build a solid user base. I would like for businesses to see it as a viable platform to list their events.
I also want to help build a community. So even though WHSquared is very data-driven and a tool to find events, ultimately I want to the WHSquared site to help promote local businesses and entrepreneurs—to feature local artists and creators, people who create really remarkable things.
I see this startup being not only about what’s happening but also integrating a who’s who aspect. Maybe it will feature a podcast down the road where we interview local business owners. It would be good to derive more content. So not only is WHSquared a mobile app, but there’s also a website that helps local entrepreneurs showcase what they do.
I’m open to collaborating where it makes sense to collaborate. Everybody asks me: Are you showing too many of your cards? If you put your app out there can’t anyone just take it and use it in any other community?
My answer to that is yes. I don’t think the idea is new. But it’s about the execution of the idea. It combines technology with boots-on-the-ground—someone to actually interact with a community and ensure the app is working well. It could take on a life itself. But it will need a personal touch to make that happen.