A HopStop, a Skip, and a Jump

What’s the fastest way to get from point A to point B? Ask a New Yorker, and the answer won’t always be a straight line. Want to go by subway? Bus? Subway and bus? Actually, it might be faster if you walk. Oh, wait, you’re going on a Sunday? That complicates things…

A better idea? Let HopStop figure it out. A website and app with door-to-door directions and transit maps, HopStop was founded in 2005 by Chinedu Echeruo, a Harvard Business School grad who moved to NYC and became frustrated with the lack of comprehensive mass transit planning options for the city. With the help of an engineer, he created hopstop.com, much to the delight of New Yorkers.

Since then, the company has grown steadily. The office, located near the Empire State Building, now employs about 15 people, and HopStop is now in over 200 cities in five different countries. There are HopStop apps for iPhone, BlackBerry, Android, and Windows phones, with an app for iPad just launched. And they’re not just about mass transit anymore, either: you can find walking, biking, taxi, and hourly rental car directions now, too. HopStop can also recommend restaurants, shops, and hotels in the area, calculate your carbon footprint, and tell you how many you calories you’ll burn on your route.

Over the past few years, the company has seen a 250 percent growth in revenue and a 60 percent growth in traffic. Two years ago, five percent of HopStop usage was mobile; now, mobile usage makes up 40 percent of traffic. In Google’s 2011 Zeitgeist report, which analyzes the search engine’s top queries, HopStop was the number three search for the New York, NY, regional area. Not a bad acknowledgement from the company who’s essentially their biggest competitor.

The Secret of Their Success: The Fans

The reason for HopStop’s success is the fans. “Everything we do is a user suggestion, and I don’t exaggerate,” says Joe Meyer, the company’s president and CEO, who joined in 2009. “Literally, our entire product is dictated by our users. We get so much feedback, it’s crazy. For every 100 pieces of feedback you get, if 10 of them are talking about the same thing, you know that should probably be something you should focus on.” Users get in touch via the site’s feedback form, HopStop’s social media channels, and directly from the app.

HopStop has also found many of their employees from that pool of dedicated users. “Almost everyone we have hired has reached out to us in one form or another,” Meyer says. “I’d say for every one person we hire, we probably evaluate at least 100 resumes, and probably meet with dozens of people. We’re always opportunistically hiring.” And having an impressive degree doesn’t necessarily make a difference. “I don’t really care where somebody went to school. I don’t care if they have an advanced degree. It’s really all about how skilled they are in their respective functional area, how committed they are, how excited they are, and how much of a kind of self-starter they are. But at the same time, can they get along with everyone in the office?” Even if someone is incredibly talented, if they’re not a fit, it’s a no-go. “Hiring is really tough, especially in a company of 15 people. If you make one bad decision, it could have a detrimental impact,” he says. “Egos would kill this company.”

Meyer describes HopStop as a very flat organization, with no real reporting structures. Employees can come and go as they please, and there’s no official vacation policy. There is, however, a high level of transparency and a high level of trustworthiness, as well as open communication—and an open plan office. “Everyone’s role here has a direct impact on the company,” he says. “The reality is everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and if somebody’s not performing, you know pretty quickly. If you’re diligent about recruiting professionals, and give them some flexibility, leeway, and high-level direction, then the rest will take care of itself,” says Meyer.

Going Local

HopStop was ahead of the curve in terms of using geo-targeted ads, which has been their money making strategy for several years. “We’re not a health site. We’re not a sports site. We’re not an entertainment app. We power and provide directions, and we do it really well, and that gives us access to some interesting data in terms of people’s whereabouts. It was a natural evolution for our business early on in terms of how we were going to monetize it, to start tying people’s location to ads and offers and deals and coupons,” says Meyer. “It wasn’t until recently that companies like Foursquare have made it more popular, which is great. We’re kind of benefiting from their tail winds, but they’re spending $50 to $100 million to do it. We’ve raised $2 million in our entire company history. So, I think I’d rather do it this way.” Besides raising that $2 million in funding, according to Meyer, HopStop’s growth has been funded entirely via profitability and being cash-flow positive.

In terms of their own advertising, their approach is simple—they don’t do any. “We spend no money on marketing, no money on advertising, no money on promotion, no money on events, and no money on PR. We don’t buy downloads. We don’t buy keywords. It’s almost entirely word of mouth. We have a strong, large, committed, passionate user base. The user experience works well for them the majority of the time, and as a result they tell their friends and their family,” says Meyer.

HopStop has big plans for the future. The company recently released a free local advertising program for local merchants, they’re planning on expanding rapidly into even more markets, and growing their mobile arm of the business. “We’re seeing massive growth on the mobile side, so we’re going to continue to introduce new mobile platforms and increase and expand functionality across those platforms,” says Meyer. They’re also trying not to mess too much with an already successful formula. “We’re going to focus on improving, evolving, expanding, and innovating the user experience, but still stay true to our core,” he says.

For other startups looking to make a big impact in just a few years, Meyer has some words of advice: “Try not to get too distracted and do too many things, especially if you’re like us where you have limited resources but you need to still move quickly. It’s tough to move quickly and be effective at it if you’re trying to be too many things to too many people. Stick true to your core, and do it better than anyone else.”