Keela Robinson Credit: Ronald Holden
You get the distinct impression that Ethan Lowry would look at his creation, Urbanspoon, and be pleased. After all, he founded the company back in 2007, along with now-serial entrepreneur Adam Doppelt, and sold it a couple of years later to IAC Interactive.
On Lowry's watch, Urbanspoon developed the first easy-to-use mobile app for finding restaurants, downloaded millions of times. You could "shake it up" to find nearby places to eat; you could also specify the price range and the cuisine. There was even a camera-based Scope function that would tell you what you'd find along the street you were were standing on. (That was before Google's Streetview came along; Scope required way too much battery power.) But those were start-up times, and Lowry, who'd majored in product development at Stanford, opted to stay in that world.
Then came a new GM (soon promoted to CEO) at Urbanspoon's handsome office suite overlooking Lake Union — Keela Robison, a veteran executive in the field of advertiser-supported online tech. She didn't parachute in from some remote corporate headquarters, but from the games division at Seattle-based Real Networks, and has held management positions at Amazon and T-Mobile.
Some people would hate the job of herding cats (40 techies in the Seattle office, another half-dozen off-site), but Robison relishes the work — as well as the challenges that come with responsibility for a website that has expanded from a single city to a service with almost a million listings. Yes, there are that many restaurants in the English-speaking world.
Finding them isn't always easy, though third-party directories provide a pretty good base. The trick is to engage users of the site to contribute new listings on their own, and to post photographs. The staff in Seattle also monitors food blogs and critics' websites. (Disclosure: My blog, Cornichon.org, ranks among the top 10 Seattle contributors to Urbanspoon's online community.)
Urbanspoon's next expansion is to transcend the language barrier. Up to now, the countries covered have been English-speaking (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain). But there's a much bigger world out there, and Robison wants its denizens to use Urbanspoon when they're hungry. Not for reservations, though; Urbanspoon sold its Rezbook app to rival OpenTable last year. But Robison is looking at several existing apps to integrate with Urbanspoon when it comes time to pay the bill (TabbedOut, Dash, and Cover would be potential partners).
Robison's counterparts at Foursquare, Yelp and Tripadvisor are no less ambitious. Urbanspoon's advantage may be its specialization: food service establishments. But corporate parent IAC has experience with non-food searches; also in the portfolio are ask.com and about.com, two wide-ranging search sites with a lot of SEO expertise.
Addresses, for example, can be problematic. A lot of them can be automated, with the exact portion of a Google or Bing map on the landing page, but airports and malls generally require manual intervention, and foreign addresses, well, as any international traveler knows, maps are tricky.
"We want to build out the restaurant experience," Robison told me last year. "Not just for our existing users, with, for example, more explanations of menu terms, but for countries outside the English-speaking world." Urban knife and fork, in other words.
And on Monday came word that Urbanspoon has been gobbled up, for some $60 million, by an Indian upstart startup called Zomato. First order of business, gulp: Bring in a new CEO.