As many of my friends and colleagues will tell you, I’m someone who’s perpetually running late. As a result, I’m constantly sending out text messages that offer some variation on, “Running 5 minutes late, sorry!”
A new startup called Twist promises a smarter, easier approach to sending those messages. When you’ve got a meeting, you can enter the destination, time, and contact info of the participants. Then, as the meeting time approaches, everyone will get automatic messages about your ETA.
Ideally, they’ll just get two messages — one when you start heading to the meeting, and one when you’re about to arrive. However, if you’re running late (say if you’re driving and the a traffic is unusually bad), everyone will get a message saying that you’re late, and telling them when you’re likely to actually make it. So the person running late doesn’t have to waste time trying to estimate an accurate ETA and then fumble with their phone to send the message, and everyone else gets an accurate sense of how long they’re going to have to wait.
At first, this may sound like a relatively narrow, specific problem. But it turns out that the potential audience is pretty huge. Twist hired Harris Interactive to conduct a national survey about this, and it found that 24 percent of Americans have sent a text or email while driving to tell someone that they’re running late.
Co-founder and CEO Bill Lee (previously co-founder of Remarq and Social Concepts) says that previous attempts at these kinds of notifications have focused on location rather than time (telling people where you are, not when you’ll arrive). He also says the team has spent more than a year working on the app, trying to deliver the most “beautiful and simple” approach to the problem. His co-founder and CTO Mike Belshe (a former engineer on Google Chrome, creator of Google’s SPDY protocol, and co-founder at Lookout) adds that the company has spent a lot of time refining the algorithm behind its time estimates, so that it can deliver the most accurate arrival times, whether you’re driving, biking, walking, or taking public transit — among early users and testers, the ETA accuracy is up to 98 percent.
Twist will personalize its estimates to each user. For example, if the app sees that it consistently takes you a specific amount of time to get from your home to your office, it will incorporate that information into its estimates.
Those algorithms could eventually be used outside the Twist app. Lee says that there’s no pressure to monetize anytime soon, but one possibility would be to sell the technology via API to any other business that wanted to incorporate accurate arrival/delivery times into its app.
But what about those times when, as Belshe puts it, we tell “little white lies” about where we are and when we’re likely to arrive? (Like when you say “I left on time, but the bus was late!”) Well, he says Twist’s goal isn’t to “change human nature”. Most of the time, people probably want to be upfront about their lateness, and if you really don’t, you can always disable some of the alerts within Twist. Belshe also says that as we “all have GPS in our pockets every day” and share much of that data socially, it’s going to become increasingly difficult to maintain those kinds of deceptions.
Twist is also announcing that it has raised a $6 million Series A round from Bridgescale Partners, Eric Hahn (Inventures Group and former CTO of Netscape), Jeff Skoll (first employee and first President of eBay, founder of Participant Media), as well as Lee and Belshe.
The company didn’t provide me with an early version of the app, so I wasn’t able to test out its claims of simplicity and accuracy, but I’m eager to try it out. You can download the Twist app here.