Innovation After Dark: Miami Style
Posted on October 2, 2012
Published by Fast Company
Nightlife is to Miami what the financial sector is to New York City or film production to Los Angeles. Party promoters are as ubiquitous in Magic City as fund managers on Wall Street or screenwriters in Hollywood.
“I run a tech conference, but I know people who run parties on Saturdays, on Wednesdays, and that’s not even my scene,” says Auston Bunsen, who organizes the annual startup SuperConf event in town. “It’s just part of the culture down here.”
So while entrepreneurs elsewhere are developing new solar cells or social networks, Miami’s movers are innovating around… the nightclub.
It’s become a high-stakes growth business. LIV, one of the five highest grossing nightclubs in America, cleared $45 million last year from a little strip of oceanfront property on Miami Beach. But people have been entertaining and imbibing since before the Roman general Lucullus held his lavish feasts. The basic formula hasn’t really changed: friends + drinks = good times for all. So how do you innovate on that?
A few startups in Miami are figuring that out, changing everything from how managers run their sprawling venues and how promoters prove their value, to how average partiers get in as VIPs and even how bouncers check for subtly doctored fake IDs. One company has created a CareerBuilder for nightlife jobs, another has released a smartphone app for buying your friends drinks–when they’re sitting in a different bar.
Juan Bermudez and Francisco Quintero have been working with LIV on what they hope will be the “golden standard for nightclub management,” a software platform that can keep track of who comes through the door, which promoter sent them, where they’re sitting in the club, what they’re drinking, and how much money they’re spending. Initially, Bermudez and Quintero tried to invent a daily-deal app for the nightclub scene. “That kind of blew up in our face,” Bermudez laughs. Then they watched a friend, a club promoter (because everyone knows one), painstakingly compile a guest list for a club from all the people who had emailed, messaged, and called him about an event.
“We were like, ‘do you do this every day?’” Bermudez says. And that’s not even the half of it. At the club, a manager might print out that list, and give it to someone at the door who checks names off of it by hand in the midst of a chaotic bacchanal. Promoters, meanwhile, typically earn commission according to how many partiers they produce (ladies are worth more than men) or how much money those people spend inside. It’s a lot of data to keep track of with the old scratch-paper method.
“That’s where the idea struck that there was an issue there that we could iron out,” Bermudez says. He and Quintero soft-launched their solution, called NightPro, last month. “I don’t think anybody was really looking at the back of the house. So that’s what we focus on.”
Already, in the curious world that is Miami, Quintero jokes that half of NightPro’s leads so far have come from the company’s accountant.
The other primary area for innovation lies in the consumer experience of nightclubs. Two-and-a-half years ago, Al Nelson launched the web platform EzVip. Traditionally, you have two options to snag a VIP table at a high-end nightclub: You can try your luck at the door, or call ahead and speak to someone, who will tell you to try your luck at the door. That person may inform you that a VIP table will run $1,000.
“If the venue told you that, and you got there and five minutes earlier P. Diddy walked in and J. Lo walked in, that table that was $1,000 is now $5,000. Easily,” Nelson says. “That’s just how it works.”
EzVip was created as a response to this uncertainty (interestingly, like Bermudez and Quintero, Nelson mentioned a motivation to make parts of the nightlife industry more “transparent”). Now, on Nelson’s web platform, you can book and pre-pay for a table at a club, guaranteeing your price and the likelihood that someone will let you in the door. EzVip, which now has a staff of seven, even shoots 360-degree images of its partner venues, so that you can pick out exactly which poolside table you want.
The site’s premise–anyone with an Internet connection can be a VIP–of course changes the meaning of the acronym a bit. Like tech innovations in a lot of other industries, Nelson is essentially democratizing this one. “Just because you don’t know a promoter or a venue owner,” he says, “we don’t feel like that should cancel your chances of being a VIP.”
The site has now partnered with 30 venues in Miami and Las Vegas, with deals in the works to expand to 15 more in New York City and L.A. This is the future trajectory of nightlight innovation in Miami: It will spread from here. “But a company like this had to have been born in a market like either Miami or Las Vegas,” says Nelson, who previously managed and toured with hip-hop artists from the city. “I was learning about this business before I even realized I was learning about it.”
In the web of all these connections, Nelson also knows Chad Love, who launched in January another startup called DoorMetrics. As Love puts it, he is his own beta tester. He’s also the general manager of the rooftop club at the Perry Hotel in South Beach (some context, if you’ve never been there: “Pretty much every reality show you can think of, from the Kardashians, to Miami Social, to Basketball Wives, they’ve all filmed at my venue at one point or another.”)
DoorMetrics is the high-tech solution to the old-school bouncer transaction. You can download the app on an iPhone or iPod, connect it to a scanner–Love uses the same one that the Apple Store does–and check driver’s licenses for under-aged imposters. Every license in the U.S. now has either a barcode or magnetic strip on the back of it that can instantly upload all the vitals on the front (these barcodes do not, however, connect to a DMV database).
As Love sees it, nightclubs are similar to websites. When you enter one, the operators have the chance to learn about you. But websites do a much better job of tracking this data than nightclubs do. Once they’re scanning your driver’s license, however, that could change.
“I saw bars and clubs literally having all this data walking in and out of their doors, without getting it,” Love says. Maybe five years ago, the thought of a nightclub retaining your driver’s license information might have bothered you. But Love believes most people don’t feel this way anymore.
He has already heard from businesses using the app that he never had in mind: boat rental, jet ski, and whitewater rafting companies. There’s a broad market out there for weeding out the underaged. It’s also easy to envision this innovation turning up far from the top-grossing nightclubs of South Beach. Imagine it instead in the dive bar of any college town.
In fact, this may be the clearest sign yet that we’re about to enter a brave new world of tech-savvy nightlife for all: “It’s one thing to have a fake ID,” Love says. “But it’s another thing to know if your fake ID has been programmed correctly to scan.”