Ah, the joys of flying. You're a hundred dollars in baggage fees poorer, and you've watched your valuables totter away on the conveyor while a TSA agent eyes your three-ounce duty-free bottle of honey liqueur for possible "confiscation." When at last you fall into your seat, it's at the farthest point between the two bathrooms. If only there were a way to bribe someone in, say, aisle row 5 to switch seat assignments. Wouldn't it be nice to grab back just a speck of control over your flying experience?
Enter SeatSwapr, a work-in-progress mobile app that would let passengers browse their flight for seats up for trade. The SeatSwapr concept relies on the willingness of travelers, especially those who fly long distances, to pay a fellow passenger to trade seats. Imagine checking in to SeatSwapr (Ã la FourSquare) on your mobile device, pinpointing your specific seat on your flight, and then listing it as available for swapping. Or, on the flip side, searching for a seat with more legroom or one not next to an inconsolable infant. SeatSwapr would handle the offer, acceptance and transaction. Everyone wins, including the company, which plans to tax the buyer at purchase.
It's the work of a team of entrepreneurs who want to change the culture of flying, including Tom Mueller, an Edgewood College MBA student near graduation. Mueller is ever on the lookout for revolutionary startup ideas. In April at the inaugural Startup Weekend Madison, he latched onto this one. Mueller jumped on board with co-creators Adam Braus and Nikolai Skievaski and, along with three other attendees, helped parlay the concept into a functioning prototype within 48 hours. It won the event's "Best Mobile App" award.
Fast-forward to this summer, and SeatSwapr is stripped down to a trio. One of them is Skievaski, an Epic employee with a graduate degree in economics, who develops models for predicting revenue. Kyle Van Dyn Hoven interns at the Young Entrepreneur Council and is a UW-Whitewater Entrepreneurship major. Mueller offers the fledgling company his media savvy as chief marketing officer. He walked away from his full-time data management job at WEA Trust in May, and today his office is a bar-height table beside a window at the Monroe Street Victor Allen's.
Over coffee, Mueller discussed the company's brief history and its wishful future.
To really get off the ground, Mueller says they must first forge strategic partnerships. To this end they are currently devising ways to integrate APIs (application programming interfaces) made available by airlines and existing travel apps into SeatSwapr's functionality. One such app, TripIt, already has millions of users and loads of data. Travelers use TripIt to sync their travel plans with their smartphones, giving them instant access to flight info, maps and weather.
Mueller sees TripIt as an ideal partner. "They are open with their API. They want you to use their data."
Then there's the need for seed money. While no investors have come a-courting, Madison isn't the worst place to land if you're an empty-pocketed startup, Mueller allows.
Wisconsin offers generous tax credits to investors and a forgiving repayment timeline to entrepreneurs. But when pitching SeatSwapr to startup incubators and tech accelerators, it's feedback SeatSwapr leaves with, not funding: "There aren't a lot of incubators out there for for-profit mobile apps."
Not that Mueller doesn't embrace investor critiques. On the contrary, he says, "The whole point of these weekends is to get feedback. You need a little validation and some reality checks. It helps us redirect and fine-tune."
Having learned that to pique venture-capital interest, a project should build on something that already exists or connect dots to fill a need, Mueller is sure SeatSwapr fits the bill. For example, the de facto provider of airline seat maps, SeatGuru, lets users select seats and rate them. What SeatGuru has not done is take the next step to let passengers trade seats.
"A huge question we have is, will the airlines let us do this?" Mueller asks.
Having pored over their contracts of carriage, he thinks they will. "There's nothing in there about not trading seats."
Even so, he anticipates potential legal turbulence from airlines, but translates such challenges as free publicity. As an olive branch, the company plans to offer airlines feedback from customers about their flights, proving that "we are on the sides of both airlines and travelers."
Finally, Mueller suggests the app "could really change airline travel for the better." Pausing to imagine what that might be like, he adds, "We hope."
To weigh in on whether you might use the app, and to keep tabs on its ETA, see seatswapr.com or follow on Twitter @seatswapr.