Programs/Publications

Feature article from the March 2012 AIRblast   

Wanna "Know What"? Ask the App-Master

By Ben Adair


Ben Adair started out as a tape cutter for the Pacifica affiliate KPFK. He's traveled the world for The Savvy Traveler; hosted his own arts and culture show in Los Angeles, called Pacific Drift; helped lead Weekend America until its cancellation in 2009; and shaped American Public Media's national coverage of environmental issues and sustainability. He's currently a senior editor at Marketplace, heading up the Sustainability Desk and the show's Economy 4.0 Initiative. He's also a dad. So why did he feel the need to take on a "side project" that's turned into a whole lot more?


The idea, originally, was simple.

I was at my dentist's office in Beverly Hills and he's a chatty guy. My appointment started at 3:30 but I wasn't out of the chair until 5. If you know anything about traffic in LA, 5 p.m. is the worst time to be headed out anywhere. I live about 20 miles away, which meant that it was going to be at least an hour and a half before I was home.

Depressing.

"I wish I knew a good restaurant or cool place to go and kill a few hours," I said to myself.

I don't know Beverly Hills very well, so I did what most people would do: I took out my iPhone and opened an app — and immediately got frustrated.

Yelp never helps (who are all these people and why do they give Applebee's a five-star rating?). Maps is basically the telephone book. Free apps are often disguised ads.

"Why can't there be an app that has only the good stuff — recommended by people who actually know what they're talking about?"

That shouldn't be too hard to do, right?

Know What is the anti-Yelp.

February 2010. The beginning of a big adventure.

I was running big, collaborative projects at American Public Media, projects that had a mandate for digital innovation. A small team-within-the-team was exploring and asking tough questions and building cool one-off projects and learning lessons about what we, as a company, should be doing online.

One day I was talking to my brother about my frustration that day in Beverly Hills. My brother, who's a programmer in Seattle, was sympathetic.

We starting bitching about the state of the Internet in 2010 — the latest tech bubble was inflating (still is); Facebook was reaching ascendancy; corporate blogs were beginning to dominate in larger media markets.

Everybody, it seemed, was making apps.

We hatched the initial kernel of an idea for our project and started researching. What would it cost to build this thing? What was the market opportunity? What were the incentives and disincentives to working second jobs?

(I'm not ashamed to admit that early earnings projections had us both millionaires by early last year. Obviously, that didn't happen.)

Since then, the company we co-founded, Escape Apps, has forged ahead and made content partnerships with dozens of our nation's smartest, most creative writers, bloggers, critics, and coolest websites to create Know What — a new kind of hyper-curated, hyper-local city guide.

With specialized reviews and recommendations, it's aimed at both locals and tourists.

Instead of angry know-it-alls spitting venom because they read the menu wrong or undercover ads masquerading as unbiased editorial content, Know What is full of people who actually "know what" they're talking about and they're sharing the favorite places and best, local secrets.

We launched covering the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas. Know What taps:

•    Voices from groundbreaking websites like boingboing.net, sfgirlbybay.com, and vegansaurus.com
•    Brilliantly creative people like Weetzie Bat author Francesca Lia Block, OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, and author and lifestyle blogger Rebecca Woolf
•    Mission-driven nonprofits like the LA Conservancy, SF Heritage, and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR)
•    Purveyors of rare and vital information like Esotouric, Thinkwalks, and LA Bizarro, the best-selling guide to LA's absurd underbelly

The result? An app with well over 1,000 amazing places in these two cities alone — all from people audiences trust.

We're planning to roll out New York, Chicago, Seattle, Portland, and other cities soon. An Android version is also coming soon.

And just like the content model, the business model is highly collaborative too, with every content partner sharing in the success of the project as a whole. Everyone, therefore, has an incentive to help make the project a success.

The side project takes over my life!

One of our contributors, Rebecca Woolf, an inspiring writer, mother, and blogger at GirlsGoneChild.net, said to me at one of our early meetings, "Oh I get it. This project makes sense to me. Your wife had a baby and now you want to have a baby too!"

I laughed because I would never have compared starting a company and launching a product to a pregnancy and birth. I still wouldn't.

But it's been a lot of work. Nights and weekends. Vacations. Just about every spare moment, especially for the last nine months or so. (Hmmm. Maybe the baby comparison isn't so bad after all.)

So two years after that initial inkling of an idea, Know What is out.

The project has pulled on just about every skill I've developed over the years working in public radio.

The connection to my reporting work is obvious — travel, arts and culture, local programming. Also, editing, project managing, leading teams, and creating big unwieldy content partnerships.

The stretch for me has been in the areas where actual independents already have tons of skills — the entrepreneurial, business-oriented aspects.

It's been a really long road, full of hard work, but I've met so many great people along the way. Each of our contributors is so cool and unique. It's what's kept this project so fascinating and fun, despite the lack of sleep, and it's what makes Know What such a great app.

But the hard work doesn't appear to be lessening any time soon.
 
Last summer, my brother turned to me and asked, "Why couldn't we have started this company with something small, something easy? Like a quick and dirty game or something?"

I just laughed.

"Come on," I said, "You know the answer to that. Like either one of us would have been interested in something small. "

What we're trying to figure out now is what it will take for the project to really flourish. We're learning about new things like arranging funding and what it takes for a tech project to shine in a very crowded marketplace.

Yes, it's a work in progress and in many ways, we're just now reaching the starting line. There are new pressures like, gulp, sales. Will people really buy it?

And we're going to always be running to improve it (iPad version coming very soon! More cities coming very soon!) and, of course, keep everything in it current and fresh.

But it's given me an entirely new perspective on an increasingly important part of modern society.

Technology, computers, iPhones, and apps — they all feel so faceless all the time. Like there are no real people behind any of it.

That's also one of the things that makes Know What so different: the people — our contributors and the users — are right at the center of it. We're putting a face on the faceless and working hard to counter this idea that bland, corporatized content will win over individual personality and smarts.

Which, after all, is something that radio, especially public radio, does intrinsically. Just by being what it is — the power and nature of the human voice.

You can contact Ben Adair at info@escapeapps.com.


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