It didn't take long for Pottstown, Pa., native Phil DiMuro to fall in love with Fells Point.
Four years ago, as a local sales representative for a national beer company, the 25-year-old quickly became familiar with the bars and restaurants in the popular neighborhood. But when it came time to have a drink on his own time, DiMuro said, he always forgot which bar had which deals.
“I’d go home and my girlfriend would be like, ‘It was a rough day at work. We need a place with a wine special,’” DiMuro recalled recently. “Even though I was spending all day, every day, in these bars and seeing the specials advertised, I never knew what they were when I wanted to go out personally.”
Last year, DiMuro and Dave Phelan sought to eliminate such a problem by creating a database of Baltimore bars and their specials. In June, the close friends who met as freshmen at Susquehanna University in 2008 launched Loople, a Baltimore-specific app that has attracted more than 11,000 users in 10 months, the founders said. While both are transplants (Phelan is from Devon, Pa.), they agreed that Baltimore’s distinct, bar-friendly neighborhoods and countless bar-hoppers made it an ideal launching spot.
“It’s a very young, very active and social community,” DiMuro, a Medford resident, said. “All of these individuals are already going out, but they’re still relatively just out of college or might have just purchased their first home, so they don’t have a ton of money to spend. They are looking for deals.”
While there are other apps focused on bar specials — like Happy Hours and Hotspots — Loople is the only the one based in and solely focused on Baltimore, the founders said. While the company develops a scalable business model, Phelan said, concentrating on one city allows Loople to work out the kinks before attempting to expand nationally.
“We’re using Baltimore as our essential proof of concept for our business,” Phelan, 26 of Upper Fells Point, said.
What sets Loople apart from competitors is its user-verification system and the human fact-checking that verifies the most up-to-date information. Anyone — from patrons to bar employees and owners — can submit happy hour deals, daily specials and everyday discounts through the app. Then the Loople team — which consists of DiMuro, Phelan and seven marketing interns from local colleges (along with a trio of overseas programmers) — contacts the bar to confirm the information is correct. Users won’t see the new specials until this process is completed, Phelan said.
Based on user-generated content, Loople mirrors the GPS-app Waze and Wikipedia, DiMuro said.
“No one’s been able to handle keeping the content fresh,” Phelan said, when asked why similar apps have come and gone. (Just search Apple’s App Store to see the casualties that haven’t been updated in years.) “That [Waze and Wikipedia] model works, and we want to apply it to the bar and restaurant industry.”
They’ve also listened to user criticism and suggestions. When I first tried Loople last year, the app was not user-friendly, forcing users to read specials via a map rather than a list. There was also in-app messaging for some reason. (Talk about a function I have enough apps for.) It looked like a good idea filtered through a design that still had kinks, and the founders knew it.
“We were gaining downloads, but we were losing weekly active users, so this told us, ‘Something is wrong with the app. There’s a reason people don’t like it,’” Phelan said.
Users, whom they’d meet at bars and social sports events, wanted an easy-to-read list of specials, so Loople changed how it displays information. (The map view is still available, too.) I deleted the app months ago, but re-downloaded it recently and found it more intuitive and convenient. I’m used to finding specials through Facebook searches, but Loople did the legwork and presented it in a more attractive way than Happy Hours and Hotspots.
There are also filter options for when you’re looking for a bar with a pool table, live music, outdoor seating or all three. One knock against the app: You can’t yet search by neighborhood, but Phelan said they hope to fix that soon. (Loople heavily features bars from Canton, Fells Point and Federal Hill, and the founders say they aim to better cover Mount Vernon and the neighborhoods up Interstate-83 soon.)
These changes and upgrades have resulted in more users and more regular usage, the founders said. Since September, 21 percent of new users have opened the app at least once per week, Phelan said. In March, the app was opened more than 8,000 times, he said, a monthly high for Loople.
“We are happy to say that we are extremely stable, if not growing, on a week-by-week basis,” DiMuro said.
Loople, which operates out of the Emerging Technology Centers’ Haven Street Campus in Kresson, is not yet generating revenue or profit, though, so the app’s next goal is to prove its revenue model, they said. The tentative plan is to convince national alcohol brands to advertise on the app, the founders said, and then expand to include local bars and restaurants, too. The app, Phelan said, will always be free.
Phelan declined to comment on how much money — from the founders, and their friends and family — it took to launch Loople, but the company was one of six accepted into the Emerging Technology Centers' Accelerate Baltimore program this year, which netted Loople $25,000. Later this year, Accelerate Baltimore will hear pitches from the companies at the end of the program, and award the winner another $100,000.
If Loople can prove it can make money here, the company will then expand to Washington. (Phelan and DiMuro both work on Loople full-time.) They hope to include D.C. bars in the database in the next six to nine months, Phelan said.
But first, the focus is Baltimore, a city they believe promotes technology-based entrepreneurship.
“I literally fell in love [with Baltimore] the first two weeks that I was down here. … The start-up culture here is amazing,” DiMuro said, referring to coworking spaces like ETC and Betamore. “I think it’s a perfect place to start the business.”