Cognitive Business News was a media attendee of TechCrunch Disrupt 2020, which like many events, took place virtually. During the event, Cognitive Business News executive editor Loren Moss was able to connect with James Chapman, founder of Plain Sight, an innovative business & consumer networking app that is oriented towards physical places and communities. Chapman has an interesting background as well and spent time to talk to us about his groundbreaking application and his own unique history.
Cognitive Business News: So first, how has TechCrunch been for you?
James Chapman: It’s been good! I haven’t been able to attend as many things as I would have liked, just because of all the hustle and bustle of still trying to live like halfway to TechCrunch and halfway work, right? I think that that’s the thing with virtual events is that we still get caught up on work in real time and that kind of stuff. Well, you know, when you go to a person there, you’re almost forced to like, unplug.
But nonetheless, it’s been good. There have been pieces that I’ve seen that I think I’m going to try to dive into a little bit more to actually meet some people and all of that. I got a few notifications about people reaching out, so I think that they’ve done the best that they could do considering the circumstances, so shout out to TechCrunch for innovating.
Cognitive Business News: OK, tell me a little bit about yourself before we get into the platform.
James Chapman: Sure, so born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, actually, but living in Detroit. When I was down in Chattanooga, one of the projects that I was operating was a coworking space as my side hustle. It was open between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and midnight, and the number one thing people would ask when was operating that space was: “who’s in the space right now, or who’s going to be in this space?” Or: “can you help me get connected to this person? You know, in the city and that kind of stuff, because the people that attended kind of saw me as a guy who was doing a few things in business that they wanted to tap in with. So that’s what started to get me curious about going down this path. But before getting to that, actually, I moved to Detroit because there were a number of initiatives going on where I had the opportunity to build upon the Detroit entrepreneurship ecosystem. So I started an annual $1.2 million dollar plus competition here in Detroit. That was dope work during that for like three years, but still that idea of trying to connect people on a local level was still haunting me in the back of my mind. So I decided to step away from the pitch competition work in Detroit, and then that’s how I ended up pursuing Plain Sight full time. So that’s a little bit about like where I’m from, where I live now and how I even got to Plain Sight, so, so you’ll let me know if there’s anything else you want. I used to play basketball, college…collegiate athlete played in a pro league in Mexico for a little bit, which is, you know, my random tribe. I don’t speak a lick of Spanish, even still, but I had a lot of fun.
Cognitive Business News: What college?
James Chapman: Played at Bluefield College in Virginia.
Cognitive Business News: How old is Plain Sight? So you got the idea to launch it from working in the coworking space, and it sounds like it was an interesting coworking space and that it had nighttime hours. I guess it had a little bit of a different take on things. So, when did you decide to put together Plain Sight? and do you have a team or is this an individual effort? How did it come to be born?
James Chapman: What we started to do was go around to different coworking spaces and say, “hey, we’ll buy your coworking space members lunch if they’ll try out our platform.” We had just this webapp bill that we got to build pretty cheap and just enough to get people to test it out and give us feedback on it and that kind of thing. And from gathering that feedback, that’s when we actually started to realize that we may be onto something. And so then the next step for us was raising a little bit of money to go to a mobile app, as well as further develop the tool and bring in a team and all of that kind of stuff, so we did that.
I would say we started to get our first batch of money in the summer of 2019, and we fully announced the launch of the platform in October of last year and, I’ve got two co-founders on the team and a part time contractor that helps with some of the finance, the operational side of things as well, and we launched in October. We were solely a platform for people to just connect on common goals, needs and interests and capture the opportunity to meet other people if they happen to be in the same city, in the same space, and what ended up working out really well for us in that time was networking events, so the networking event and shared travel spaces verticals were really good for us.
A specific example would be like the summit, right? They’ll say, hey, come to our network and get a check-in on Plain Sight, and now you’ll be able to see all the people that are in the room, and you never know who you might meet or that might miss out on any connections. You’ll get your first take of who’s in the room, and then we also started down the path of travel, so we secured a pilot partnership with Delta for th e Sky Lounges, right? [Members] were allowed to go to different lounges and talk about the platform and get people on board and make connections, which is cool, and then COVID-19 hit, right? So, you know what verticals got hit the hardest, right? for travel and tourism. That bummed us out, but we knew that we still had a real opportunity to allow people to continue to make meaningful connections with the people and places in their business community, the people in places that are around them in real time so we started to focus on that heavily, realizing that there’s actually a real opportunity for us right now, because now more than ever, local business communities have got to band together, and with COVID, it’s harder to form new business relationships, and small businesses in particular are desperately seeking support and seeking to be found, so that’s kind of how we got here, right?
Cognitive Business News: I’m sure you’re familiar with the…I think it was Metcalf who came up with the network effect, and so any kind of social app becomes exponentially more valuable the more people there are connected. It looks like you guys are at the early stage, I’m looking here at your Facebook page and there are 94 people following. I look at your Instagram and you’ve got, let’s see here 602 followers. Yes, so…here I’ll follow you. That’ll make it 603. So tell me what’s your go to market strategy? Obviously, it’s weird because I remember when it was 2008 and I finally joined Facebook because everybody was nagging me and saying, you know, where’s your Facebook? “What’s this Facebook thing?” And same thing with Instagram, same thing with Twitter. I don’t even like Twitter, but you’ve got to have an account, especially as a journalist, and so how do you get to a critical mass and how far away do you think you are? How do you build that “usership?” It’s a chicken and egg thing because the more users you have, the more viable the platform becomes, but for the platform to be viable, you need to have so many users, so what’s your strategy to get to where you need to be?
James Chapman: You got it, you got it, and so, you know, going back to this, that was our path to scale. That was our that was our path to strong demand, right? Because what would happen is you would join the platform going to a networking event that was hosted by somebody who you trusted and you were going there to make connections, so you download the app whether you keep the app on your phone, because you can continue to make connections even after that event is over with, right?
So while we may have won, some joined the platform, if they’ve got a thousand people that are coming to that summit, that’s a thousand new users that we just gained from that. “What is this?” So sort of a B2B2C model, essentially. And now that things have changed a bit, we’re still thinking about B2B2C, but we’re thinking about it in a different way with saying that, all right, there’s a real opportunity here for us to be able to onboard spaces for these places in our area to get sought after and to build a stronger relationship within their business community. We let people know that there’s going to be built spaces in their area on the platform, and then we are trying to right now allow people to sign up before we even get to their city to say: “hey, here is a place that is going to help you grow your network even while you’re at home, a place that is going to help you find cool places around you that you would like to support and we will incentivize you for doing so. Sign up here on our waitlist.” “We’ve got a waitlist that we that we have applied for each one of the 10 cities that we’re going to be where we are today because of the other night.
Our plan to get things started is to say: “Hey folks in Atlanta, join the waitlist; businesses in Atlanta, go ahead and sign up, and once we hit X amount in each one of these cities, then we will become, “quote unquote, like in your in your area, and you guys can start doing what you’re going to do…and then hopefully that starts the network effect within each one of those towns, right? So that’s what we’re thinking about now, and it’s hard, right? Like, you know, with COVID-19 going on and not being able to host events or anything like that in an area to be able to get the word out and having to do everything virtual, we’ve got to get really savvy, but that’s how we’re thinking about it as of right now.
Cognitive Business News: So how do you make money? Do users have to pay to sign up? What’s the long-term strategy as far as monetization?
James Chapman: We’ve always looked at the spaces that are going to be on the platform for monetization, so we’re offering businesses that get listed on our platform to be on our business directory page and they pay $99 a month. They get the first three months for free, and the benefits for them being listed on the platform is one; we’ll be able to show you how many views you had on your space, we’ll be able to show you the skills, the professions, the interests of the people who view your space, and then we can also show you the people who’ve checked into your space.
We’re bringing incentives to get people to go to your space to check in, and then you, the owner of the local coffee shop, you know how many people have both viewed and checked into your space, actually visited your space and you know their backgrounds. We also allow those businesses to send direct promotions to people’s phones in the area, so another example would be if you’ve got a yoga studio and you want to send a notification out for some type of promotion to everybody who has an interest in yoga that’s in the same city that you’re in, that’s all that’s on the Plain Sight app, we can send that notification directly to that person’s phone because that’s something that they’re interested in. So long story—long, users join the platform for free to be able to make connections with one another and then to be added to the business directory. You’ve got to pay for that.
Cognitive Business News: I would imagine, let’s say a coffee shop signs up, then you’ve got three months to show value to them to make sure of that they because obviously they can say: “hey, nobody came in here.”
James Chapman: You got it. You’ve got to take some time to build up, so we give them the first three months to really experience the platform, try it out. We’ll send them the data analytics. We’ll meet with them to try to discuss different ways that they can get the word out about their business. They use Plain Sight, so, I’ll give an example of stuff that we did here in Detroit. There’s a coffee shop that joined and we’ve been doing this “Ask me anything” series, so once she joins, she posted on the Plain Sight community, saying hey, I’m the owner of MadCap Coffee, ask me anything, right?, and so she would say the best question gets a $10 gift card or $25 gift card, and so then the people start engaging like, well, how you get started and like, what’s the best coffee at MadCap? And what should I pick off the menu? What’s your favorite little stuff like that? And it just helps them get to know the people behind the business, so our competitive advantage is community building, right?
You can jump on a number of different platforms to be able to find businesses in the area, you can just Google, right? But we try to give you a more curated list that’s going to be tailored to the type of users that we know are truly the platform incentivized for going and then get them better connected with the people behind the business.
Cognitive Business News: You live in Detroit, you mentioned you have 10 cities that you’re planning to roll out. I think you mentioned that Atlanta is one of them. Feel free to mention the other eight, if you’re ready, if you’re not ready, that’s fine, but more broadly, where do you plan to be, let’s say two years from now in 2022, how ubiquitous do you expect the platform to be and are your plans international or your plans multilingual? What’s your outlook there?
James Chapman: So the other eight cities are Chicago, Brooklyn, Houston, D.C., Miami, Birmingham in Alabama, Raleigh, and Long Beach, and we picked those both areas in particular because those are cities who have higher percentages of black owned businesses there, black owned small businesses based there, and we wanted to pick those cities that have higher percentages of black owned businesses, especially because of everything that black owned businesses in particular have had to go through during COVID-19, but there’s tons of studies out there just showing that they’ve been hit twice as hard, three times as hard, etc. We don’t want them to be left out on such a unique opportunity that may be able to help their business, so that’s how we end up picking the city. That’s the first part, and then even outside of that, the goal for us, and call it late 2021, we would love to be in multiple cities, we’d love to double that, and be in 20 cities. And then the big picture, long term play is for sure to be international because people need to make connections everywhere and that we know that proximity is a thing. I’m more inclined to meet with somebody or to do business with somebody that can actually have the opportunity to be that person, so we try to really focus on the localization of things, and we also try to focus our shared skills and interests, because we know that we’re also more likely to do business with somebody who is in our tribe, right? so that’s the plan for us.
Cognitive Business News: Okay, so, there is an ethnic focus then with the app?
James Chapman: There is, right? and I’ll tell you more about that. One thing that we’re very intentional about is there’s no names and no profile pictures, right?
Cognitive Business News: OK…
James Chapman: And the reason why there are no names and no profile pictures is because we want people connecting on the things that matter. We don’t want for somebody to submit the chance to meet somebody or not, just because they couldn’t pronounce the name or they don’t look like the everyday person that they’re used to making connections with. Check out their profile, see what they’re about, you can add your social link into your profile, so we’re not trying to hide who people are, you can actually and your LinkedIn, your Instagram, Twitter, your website, what have you…and so that’s at the core of the business, we really want to focus on equal access to human capital, and then also we know that in this time that small businesses are really struggling and then black owned businesses are struggling even more, so we have an obligation to try to meet those demographics where they are.
Cognitive Business News: OK so tell me about your backers, I think you have some well-known investors supporting you.
James Chapman: Yes, very blessed to have people who are much more talented and wealthier than I am, to be the vision of where we’re going with this as partners, right? Dan Gilbert is one…everybody knows who Dan is: Rocket Mortgage, Cleveland Cavaliers, Rock Ventures, you name it, right? So, so many things that he built and been a part of. Also, Jason White is one of our angel investors as well, he is a former CMO of Beats by Dre and currently at Curaleaf Partners team over there…so we’ve got a number of just very business savvy and diverse angel investors as well. Men, women, black, white, Hispanic…
Cognitive Business News: Was there anything that you wanted to mention that I forgot to ask you?
James Chapman: I think that the biggest thing is that we realize that now more than ever, people need access to human capital. It’s very easy to stagnate because we’re forced to be at home and we can’t go to do in-person networking events like TechCrunch and add to our business content, and we want to help people do that.
We want to help small businesses during this time as well. But then also I just want to mention that when we as a nation and as the world gets on the better side of COVID-19, we will be bringing back our strong verticals of connecting people with close proximity at networking events and travel spaces again, and so I just think that now’s actually a good time for us to become a very well rounded product and so we’re looking at looking forward to the opportunity to serve.
Cognitive Business News: It sounds like the app would make a lot of sense for events, kind of like the official event app. “OK we’re all attending this event. We’re all going to be in close proximity, and here is an app that we can use to enhance our own networking ability at the event, right?”
James Chapman: That’s right, What are those common threads that we can pull to be able to make better connections, and that’s what we are. At the core, we just do it in a number of different ways.
Cognitive Business News: Great, much success. Stay safe.