Calendar and event sites in surburban towns have a “massive pain point” for consumers, according to hyperlocal entrepreneurs Dennis and Julie Roche of Pelham, N.Y. Consumers are often stuck sifting through irrelevant listings in local publications to find what they need, and they don’t have a means to directly integrate the events they do want to know about into their personal calendars.
As the mother and father of four children, the Roches used to go through the same hit-and-mostly-miss experience themselves, trying to keep track of their children’s school and sports events. And in their frustration they ended up creating what is now Burbio.com
In this Q & A with Street Fight, Dennis Roche tells us how Burbio seeks to give parents and other consumers tailored calendar information from their communities.
How did Burbio get started?
Julie and I had been heavily involved in local nonprofits in Pelham while raising our children; I was in the new media space and Julie was in marketing. We were comparing this situation to the “smart” digital solutions in other parts of our lives we regularly used, whether it was to book a flight, find a restaurant, share photos, connect with personal or business contacts, etc., and it seemed like there should be a “smarter” digital approach to local information and communication. The goal was to create something automated and user-generated that could be scaled.
Our solution was to focus on the key factor that it all came down to: When. When things were happening was the key to the whole thing. Julie, who had been an applied mathematics major at Harvard, sketched out the architecture of a calendar platform solution on a piece of paper in the kitchen and Burbio.com was born.
Talk about the “massive pain point” of calendars and event listings.
Community residents, particularly parents, have to go to numerus websites and emails to keep track of what is going on and manually enter events into their calendars. But there is no automated alert system or efficient information delivery about when dates and information change.
At the town/municipal level there are dozens of school, school sports, and community websites and email newsletters that residents have to manually cull through for needed calendar information.
Some of this information does appear in local news sources. Some hyperlocal blogs list out local nonprofit events and they may highlight school information, but they aren’t comprehensive and don’t offer a way to communicate any future updates. Regional newsletters and regional newspapers have struggled with presenting this category at the hyperlocal level — they offer a mix of regional information and self-serve events.
How does Burbio solve these issues?
First is aggregation in terms longevity and breadth. Burbio focuses at the “calendar” level — not the event level — and presents every public calendar for a community, from the schools to nonprofits, in a way that residents can find it all in one place.
Second is personalization. Burbio users can pick and choose which calendars they want to follow. They create their own calendar feed, similar to those in social services such as Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn, with events from those calendars that they are following.
Third is automation. Users can just click to add events or entire calendars of events to their personal digital calendars. W when things change, users are notified automatically.
Burbio goes beyond just presenting event information and allows users to customize and filter what they see and automate the process of getting it on their calendar and keeping up with changes, as these two videos — here and here — show.
Don’t American Towns and other utility-like sites already provide a service much like Burbio?
There are certainly local blogs in some towns that provide nonprofit listings, or government information, but it’s presented in a way that still requires manual entry, doesn’t allow for personalization, and doesn’t update.
Would you show how Burbio works and how it goes well beyond calendars and even listings that news sites use?
Let’s use the city of Rye in New York’s Westchester County. When a user logs in to Burbio, he or she is presented with all school, school sports, community, library, government, and local recycling/garbage pickup schedules for the Rye ZIP code. If a user has, say, a middle schooler and a high schooler, they would “follow” the Rye middle school and high school calendars; their kids school sports teams — middle school volleyball and varsity boys soccer — as well as the Rye Recreation Department, Rye library and Town of Rye Recycling schedule. Here are sample listings.
What would appear for that user is a feed of all events occurring on those calendars by day. Twice a week they get an email summarizing what is in their feed. And if they add any events on Burbio to their digital calendars, they are automatically notified about any changes in date, time or location.
If a user is interested in what’s going on beyond their ZIP code, they can adjust the radius of their search, or change ZIPs, to find calendars in nearby communities.
The average Burbio user follows just over five calendars. We expect that number to rise as users continue to use the service and see how it works. Some of our users, for example, started out just following their child’s school and have added more calendars to follow in recent weeks.
How does Burbio stay up to date with changes of dates and other information? Burbio pulls automated calendar feeds from public websites and employs some variations of scrapers for others; in those cases, when the source website changes Burbio automatically updates. We also work with local nonprofits that don’t have feeds by creating calendars for them and updating them when events change.
How are communities reacting to Burbio?
Reception has been terrific. Community leaders see this as a solution to a major problem. In fact, in the last six months more than 30 local governments and libraries have adopted Burbio as their “community calendar.” We have the ability to pull from our vast database in each community to create aggregate calendars with the most important town information that is dynamically updated. Local governments and libraries embed those calendars on their websites and get a “no work required” solution to their need for a community calendar. We have also worked with local school districts and local Chambers of Commerce as a partner for community information.
Local groups love the service because it is a free promotion and a simple calendar publishing solution. Burbio offers free social sharing tools that can be used by groups and organizations to promote their events not just through Burbio but also on social media and email. A growing list of local nonprofits maintain their own information without our involvement.
Do you see businesses, whether local or regional or even nation, wanting to advertise within Burbio listings?
The audience that Burbio attracts is about two-thirds female and skews towards families with children, which are very attractive audience demographics for community news publishers and their advertisers. We do work with local sponsors right now and expect that given Burbio’s ability to target by time, location and interest, plus the heavily mobile skew of our users, there will be plenty of opportunity down the road.
We also see other potential revenue streams such as premium services for users and groups or facilitating local commerce or ticket sales to local events.
You reach 125 communities in the metro New York area and Pennsylvania. How soon might you go nationwide?
We have gone from 4 communities to 125 in the past 14 months. While we don’t have an exact timeline, we believe the service has application everywhere.
In large part due to the automated nature of the information delivery, Burbio is a low overhead concept. It only takes a handful of staffers to maintain the information in the 125+ towns we are in.
Do you have outside financing?
In the summer of 2014 we raised a $500,000 angel round to build out the initial product. Our focus was on the technical challenges of calendar integration and establishing product-market fit. In April of 2016 we closed a seed round of $650,000 to build the personalized version of the service that we launched in August and accelerate expansion into new geographies.
What about partnerships with local and community sites? How does Burbio fit in the local news ecosystem? How might it work with local sites to be mutually beneficial?
We believe Burbio complements the local information ecosystem and we can be a good partner for local news services. Burbio offers an ability for these services to expand what they are doing for residents. We think there is an equation out there where our service can increase engagement for local media and we can figure out a way to make the economics work.
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.