The price of gas has been gyrating a lot lately, to the consternation of consumers and corporate bean counters alike. One entrepreneurial company that doesn't mind the volatility is GasBuddy.com. Through a suite of apps and a website, the business gathers and publishes user-generated information on gas prices on a block-by-block basis.
Jason Toews and Dustin Coupal founded the business in Minneapolis in June of 2000. At the time, Toews was working as a computer programmer and Coupal was an eye doctor. They were kicking around a series of ideas for web start-ups, and ultimately decided to create a site to help people find the cheapest local gas prices, without having to drive long distances out of their way.
"I started calling around to gas stations to see who had the lowest price, and they wouldn't tell me," Toews says. "So that's when we knew we had an idea."
The partners nurtured the website over the course of the next decade, persuading drivers to log in and share gas prices. Of course, the situation was not ideal. Users had to write down or remember a price, and they had to remember to input it after they got home or arrived at work. The data was not delivered in real time, and errors were possible. The site amassed data slowly and surely, but it was imperfect.
Then, in 2009, the partners realized the site's limitations could be corrected with a series of mobile apps. A user could plug in pricing information, or search it, from his or her phone. So the company launched Android and iPhone apps later that year, and they were instantly popular. (At one point, the Android app rose as high as No. 2 on the most popular list for the entire Google Android app store, behind only a ribald game app called Ow My Balls!)
Today, six million people have downloaded there apps, and another 50,000 downloads occur on average each day. Though the website, GasBuddy.com, still draws more traffic, the number of users who come to GasBuddy through a mobile device should soon surpass those who experience the brand online.
Of course, taking a traditional web business and fragmenting it through apps certainly involves challenges. First, there's the technological hurdle to cross. "With apps, there are obviously several different platforms you need to develop for and the coding is different on each of them," Toews says. "You can reuse some stuff but you largely need to develop each one independently, and have to have different developers involved."
Then there's the question of a business model. The app is free to download and the partners have opted not to put ads on their apps. The thought is that the apps helped to build the brand, which helps the website expand its audience, where ads are served. "The main thing is to get more and more data," says Toews, who has become something of an energy industry guru.
So what's next for the company, which has blossomed in new and innovative ways in the past two years? Toews would like to see GasBuddy develop into a prediction engine. "We want to alert people ahead of time when gas prices are going up, so we're working on creating an early warning system for people so they can save," Toews says.
Mike Hofman is editor of Inc.com.