Under heat from the City of Boston, Haystack throws a grand ol’ startup party

Haystack at the Liberty Hotel
Haystack at the Liberty Hotel

The City of Boston’s stated stance against pay-to-park mobile apps didn’t stop Haystack, and some notable local politicians, from celebrating the “launch” of the app in Boston (which doesn’t actually go live until Thursday) at the Liberty Hotel last night.

The lavish event followed a period of time slots set up for media, including myself, to sit down with Haystack’s 24-year-old founder Eric Meyer. In a scene right out of the HBO show Silicon Valley, I arrived at the hotel’s conference room area where other journalists were milling about, and was told to wait for my chance to speak with Meyer. When the glorious moment arrived, I was whisked into a large room where Meyer was sitting majestically in an overly large chair with another set up across from it for me to do my interview.

I felt as if I were in a  scene right out of Notting Hill (you know, the “Horse & Hound”/Hugh Grant bit that satirizes the Hollywood PR machine). The only difference was that I wasn’t meeting with Julia Roberts but a young entrepreneur who had just launched his company a few months prior.

During the interview, Meyer said didn’t say anything that wasn’t covered in the press releases the company has sent out over the past week or so and seemed to evade some of the serious questions I asked, including the city’s displeasure with Haystack’s launch.

Meyer, who recently attended the University of Rochester, moved from upstate New York to Baltimore, where he launched Haystack after finding a parking boot on his car one night while he was working for a seafood restaurant. He used Maryland company Digital Management, Inc. to develop the app once he came up with the idea for Haystack.

One of my questions to Meyer had to do with Haystack’s status as the “first” mobile app to offer occupied parking spaces at a cost.

“We are the first, most sophisticated parking platform, and we match folks based on vicinity and even vehicle length,” he said. “It’s not some crazy bidding system and we are excited to be the first on the scene.”

Despite that claim, Haystack is not the original of the species in the space. In San Francisco recently, there are many parking apps including Monkey Parking and Circa Park, both of which launched last year. And Cambridge-based SpotScout offered much the same … in 2008 (that didn’t end well).

Additionally, as Curt Woodward reported in Xconomy yesterday, the app does have a bidding component called “Make Me Move,” which is just the type of thing that San Francisco is seeing and concerned about (as people are occupying spots in sought after and tough to find parking areas).

Two of Haystack’s lines of reasoning while launching the app are that it is a “neighbor driven approach,” meaning that goodwill for your fellow Bostonians looking for a parking space is the motivating factor for drivers to use Haystack and that it is good for the environment, by some sort of logic, because it limits the amount of pollution caused by people driving around looking for parking spaces (no mention of the pollution caused by idling cars waiting for the parking space acquirer to arrive).

As Cal Borchers reported this morning in the Globe, the city is really pushing back against Haystack, mentioning the company specifically in recent statements by the City of Boston and the Boston Transportation Department, something Mayor Walsh did not do in this statement on pay-to-park application yesterday.

When I asked about the issues that parking apps like Monkey Parking face in San Francisco (where the pay-to-park app has been ordered to shut down by the San Francisco city attorney), some of Meyer’s brashness shone through.

“I think that it is really unfortunate, the approach that the San Francisco attorney general decided to take. It is an ambitious attorney general who wanted to grab some headlines.”

Calling San Franscisco’s move to stop Monkey Parking from making money off the city’s property an “unfortunate approach,” Meyer added, “Instead of collaborating and engaging with these entrepreneurs and innovators, instead of talking with them to say how can we work together to solve a problem that we both want to solve, [SF’s attorney] said, we are going to send a cease and desist letter.”

Meyer said that Baltimore has taken a more “wait-and-see” approach to Haystack. I reached out to the office of Baltimore’s mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and the mayor’s press secretary Caron A. Brace said in an email that the Parking Office of Baltimore City is “closely monitoring” Haystack. Brace added that “Parking Authority officials have had discussions with both the Baltimore City Law Department and Baltimore City Council, but have not determined if a course of action is necessary at this time.”

As far as Boston’s reaction to the arrival of Haystack, Meyer said, “I don’t anticipate Boston taking the type of approach that San Francisco did.”

“We reached out to the city and we have an open line of  communication with them,” he added. “We are happy to have some conversations to work together to solve this current problem [of limited parking spaces].”

Haystack’s response seems a bit in-your-face taking into account the City’s stance. Boston is doing everything short of taking legal action against the company, and Haystack’s and its young founder’s response: laughing off the city’s opposition, an open bar, and hired actors playing the parts of (for some unknown reason) blood-soaked zombies and “sexy” angels.

As for how the company was funded, Meyer said that the money to develop the app came from friends and family, but hinted at some angel investors involved in a second round of fundraising.

Although Haystack is a good idea, and could be a very lucrative company, with the city breathing down his neck, Meyer didn’t seem conciliatory or even aware of just how close his company is to being shut down here in Boston.

Dennis Keohane was a Senior Staff Writer for BetaBoston.
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