Who doesn’t love a good night out with friends? Unfortunately, it often turns into a disappointment with the same bars, drinks, and music. Conrad Brake and Ryan Rutkowski built Tap In from their college dorm to help you build lasting memories of great nights out.
Tap In allows you to share and receive real-time information about your local nightlife, including drinks specials, music genre, and current wait times. The app collects dynamic data from partygoers at the establishment who have “tapped in,” informing others of the venue and vibe to expect.
After only five months, the app connects over 3,000 customers to 20 nightlife establishments in the Baltimore area. Tap In has an annual run rate of over a quarter-million dollars and is expanding to seven additional markets by the fall of 2022.
Enhancing the Going-Out Experience With Customer Data
Conrad and Ryan recently graduated from Towson University in Maryland with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. They were both student-athletes, playing football at Towson for six years. During their downtime, they found themselves stuck in the same going-out routine and wanted to experience something different.
During COVID lockdowns, they had time to brainstorm hundreds of ideas to make going out more fun. After getting positive feedback from friends on their app idea, they also surveyed 400 students at Towson University. Ryan says, “We both knew we were onto something, but our opinion didn’t matter. We needed to know what our target audience thought and how they could benefit from the app.”
How do students judge a night out? It comes down to five main criteria: the price of the establishment, the quality of its drinks, the music genre it plays, the overall crowd at the bar, and the line waiting times.
One of the biggest issues students had was the price of drinks. The survey data also showed that 70 percent of students didn’t know what the drink specials were at their local bars and clubs. Conrad says, “Local bars claim they have sandwich boards and use social media to promote their specials, but it clearly isn’t working. And if your customers perceive your drinks as overpriced and they don’t know you offer specials, they won’t come to your establishment.”
Because the app was going to serve two different markets, bars and their patrons, they needed to get input from the nightlife entertainment industry as well. Conrad and Ryan went to their local bars in Towson, Maryland, and met with the major players. Since they’d been in the area for a while, they had developed relationships with many bar owners who were happy to meet them. They pitched their app idea and shared their data. Bar owners saw how the app could boost their nightly attendance and sales numbers.
Emerson Maggi, who’s worked on over 15 different platforms in two years, joined the founding team as a UX/UI designer. With her experience in platform creation and go-to-market strategy, she’s now working full-time on Tap In as the Chief Product Officer and cofounder. Conrad says, “We’re lucky to have a founding partner with extensive experience in creating mobile apps and software platforms to complement our skills.”
Providing Value Before Your Product Is Ready
Building an app can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $300,000, if not more1. Ryan says, “We met app developers to figure out how to take Tap In from zero to one, and realized we didn’t have money to build a custom app. In one of those meetings, someone suggested we take the features that we want to put in our app and provide them on social media right away.”
Before the founders could launch an app, they set up a social media page in September of 2021. They started building their community on Instagram by compiling all the necessary information about local bars in social media posts. Providing value early on helped Tap In gain brand awareness and gauge interest several months before the app was in development.
Conrad says, “We decided that if we couldn’t grow the social media page to a thousand followers by the end of the semester, there wasn’t enough traction for the idea. We hit that goal halfway into the semester, so we knew we were on the right track. That’s when we moved into developing the prototype.”
Ryan’s educational background is in sports management and communications and Conrad’s is in finance and marketing intelligence. While they had a deep well of knowledge between them, neither knew anything about computer science. But the founders believe that if you really want to get it done, you’ll find a way.
“We learned about this platform called Adalo, a no-code app builder. You build your wireframe and database, similar to a website builder, and then customize it to fit your brand. Before we invested a lot of money into Tap In, we wanted to create an initial version of the app to prove our idea. We spent more than 300 hours over three months building the first version of the app ourselves with the help of YouTube videos,” Conrad says.
In January 2022, Conrad and Ryan launched the first version of the Tap In app. Within a couple of weeks, they acquired 1,500 customers – in part thanks to the waitlist they set up months earlier on social media. Now Tap In has over 3,000 customers and the founders have updated the app more than 15 times.
In the meantime, the founders were also trying to fund their project with the help of grant money. So far, they’ve won a total of $25,000. Ryan says, “In April, we were invited to E-Fest in Minnesota, one of the premier college startup competitions in the country. We won the pitch slam and were a top finalist, winning us $12,500.” Then Towson University funded Tap In with $12,000 as part of this year’s summer accelerator program.
What Better Way to Promote a Party App Than With a Party?
Unexpectedly, events became a big part of the app’s adoption strategy. Tap In plans, promotes, and runs events in partnership with local bars and clubs. The founders themselves will often be outside of the establishment promoting the app during their parties, allowing them to develop a face-to-face relationship with their target market.
“You have a good time at our event and then you download the app to use in the future. App adoption and events go hand-in-hand, even though we didn’t plan it like that. The events were born out of the fact that it’s hard to make money in the app game. You either need to have a billion users that you sell ads to or have a subscription model. We had neither, so events helped to bring in revenue right away,” Ryan says.
Not only will Tap In benefit from the event, but it also helps local businesses bring in new patrons. Tap In brings the DJ, photographer, and decoration – the bar just had to provide the location and the liquor license.
Conrad says, “One of the local establishments in Towson wasn’t doing great numbers during the weekend. So, we thought it would be a good place to host events. We pitched them the app and a weekly themed party to get more foot traffic into the bar. We took their average attendance rate from around 50 to 800 people and increased their liquor sales from $1,200 to over $10,000 a night! It’s profitable for us and the bars we work with, and the partygoer is happy they got to experience a great event. The community has rallied behind it.”
In the short term, Tap In can generate revenue through these types of events. Its long-term strategy is to collect data on each app user and create profiles. This will allow the company to tailor its experience and offer specific bars and events that fit the customer’s interests.
Call On Advisors to Help Fill Knowledge Gaps
Going from zero to one with a startup is hard. So many good ideas get left behind, stuck in someone’s head. One of the big challenges the founders had to overcome was staying disciplined. Ryan says, “Waking up every day and putting in the hours to grow a business on your own time isn’t easy. It all comes down to you. If you don’t put in the work, your company won’t grow.”
When the founders initially pitched their app idea to students and local bars, many thought it wouldn’t make it past the idea stage. But come January, when Conrad and Ryan released the Tap In app, everyone was highly impressed that they did what they set out to do.
Staying motivated can be especially hard when you’re working outside of your skillset and need to teach yourself everything as you go. Ryan and Conrad, as non-technical founders, struggled to work with the app-builder Adalo.
“Those no-code programs are nice to start, but they aren’t perfect. It wasn’t reliable and would mess with our data and product often. For example, some users would get logged out of the app and couldn’t log back in. These problems were often out of our control, but you can’t say that to the customer or blame the platform you’re using. So, we just continuously had to roll with the punches and find ways to work around it,” Conrad says.
To help overcome each new challenge, the founders rely on a network of advisors. Ryan says, “Ask for all the help that you can get. We found advisors who are experts in diverse topics and asked for their feedback. We sought out all of these connections and now we can just walk into their office if we need help. We have a whole list of advisors who we’re lucky to have in our corner.”
The mix of advisors includes, among others, the Head of Entrepreneurship at Towson University, the founder of a seven-figure athlete recruiting company who used to be in the bar crawl business, a CPA who works at Rochester Institute of Technology, and a university professor who specializes in big data. Getting input from these advisors allows the founders to run their business without any glaring gaps in payroll, onboarding, events, data analysis, and so on.
Bringing Tap In to New Bar Scenes
The founders spent a whole semester testing their MVP, proving it to be a viable business. Now they’ve hired a professional development team to build a custom app for Tap In and take on at least five new markets.
In the fall, they’ll expand to the University of Maryland, with weekly events already on the books. Ryan says, “In the next couple of months leading up to the new semester, we’ll visit different cities and universities to see how we can bring Tap In into those markets.”
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