Many travelers go through a last-minute debate when they’re heading to the airport. Should they call Uber or Lyft, knowing they may have to wait a while for their next pickup if they fly back during rush hour? Or should they risk hassles like getting stuck in a pricey parking lot or one so far from their terminal that they could get stuck sprinting from a snail-like shuttle moments before takeoff?
Noson, a startup based in San Francisco, aims to offer an alternative. Consumers and business travelers can use its website to book a parking spot at or near the airport online for steep discounts. Almost like an Airbnb for parking spots, the service helps parking lot owners rent their spare capacity.
It’s catching on. Co-founder and CEO Patrick Murray, a 2010 graduate of Penn State University, says Noson is on track to break $1 million for 2018.
Noson is part of a fast-growing trend—the growth of seven-figure businesses staffed only by the owners. In 2016, there were 36,161 nonemployer firms (meaning those without W-2 employees) bringing in $1 million to $2.49 million in revenue, according to the U.S. Census Bureau; 2,074 generating $2.5 million to $4.99 million and 316 bringing in $5 million or more. The number of nonemployer firms bringing in $1-2.49 million, the largest revenue category above $1 million, is up 35.2% from 26,744 in 2011.
Nonetheless, Noson is in a challenging niche in which to hit $1 million. To give you a sense of the landscape, Census data shows that only 46 nonemployer parking lot and garage companies broke $1 million in 2016. Noson doesn’t own parking facilities, so that’s not quite an exact parallel, but if you look at “travel and reservation arrangement services,” there were 106 businesses at $1 million or above.
Here’s how Murray and his partner Brett Harwood pulled it off.
Find accessible inspiration. Murray, one of seven children, was a kid who gravitated to classic entrepreneurial starter activities, like trading baseball cards and running a newspaper route. After graduating from Pennsylvania State University, he read two books that made a strong impression on him: Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity, and The 4-HourWorkweek, by Tim Ferriss.
With student loans to pay, Murray concluded that the immediately actionable approach to entrepreneurship in The 4-Hour Workweek, was the most relevant at the moment—“I needed to pay off student loans,” he says—and started a series of ultra-lean businesses with his friends. One such venture provided bus rides during spring break on Panama City Beach. He also made forays into importing products from China, selling theme park tickets at a discount, and marketing excess capacity at parking lots, movies, restaurants and other venues for a discount at Way.com, a startup he joined in San Francisco in 2013.
Get specialized. Murray and his partner at Way.com went their separate ways in February 2016, but Murray soon teamed up with Brett Harwood, founder and principle of Park Equity, a mentor he’d met along the way. Harwood, chairman of Welcome Parking, a service that provides parking management services to owners of parking facilities in New York and New Jersey, had been past president of the National Parking Association. Given his own experience in parking lot sales, Murray wanted to build on what he had learned, and Harwood was up for backing him.
Their research showed that the airport parking industry—which accounts for a big chunk of the U.S. parking industry’s revenue— was essentially ignoring the idea of dynamic online pricing. In March 2016, they set out to create Noson, a company that makes it simple to park at or close to the airport inexpensively, enabling consumers and business travelers to book online.
Practice deep listening. Murray soon began phoning airport parking providers at 100 airports across the country to find Noson’s first partners. “I pitched all of them and let them know I could increase their revenue,” says Murray.
As their target partners shared feedback on Noson, Murray and Harwood realized their approach would work better if they provided unbranded parking on their site, in a model similar to Hotwire. If they offered it by the parking lot provider’s brand, why would anyone have an incentive to pay full price for the spots?
The unbranded approach, which they tested with three initial off-airport partners, caught on quickly at a time when many parking providers find their revenue threatened by the growth of ride sharing services. To make sure that consumers knew they would actually be getting a spot near their terminal, the site indicates the travel time to the airport.
Keep tech costs down. With most of the parking lot companies it partners with, Noson—funded with $200,000 from Harwood— today relies on a software called netPark to keep track of which spots are available. It pays the parking lot providers once a month, providing them with a welcome revenue infusion.
Noson’s site itself, which continues to evolve, was built inexpensively from Weebly, which Murray had used in college, and Typeform, used for building online forms and surveys, to keep track of parking inventory. They used Stripe to collect payment and Zapier to create Google calendar events for the parking reservations and to send reminders to customers.
The business took off quickly, and Murray, who operates from the coworking space Galvanize, says Noson is on track to break $1 million in annual revenue this year. “We were able to get to $1 million by expanding and adding more partners,” he says.
With the site growing rapidly, Murray has brought on a team of eight part-time contractors to extend what the founders can do. The contractors tackle tasks such as web development, content and search engine optimization.
Protect your lifestyle. Although Murray is running a startup in a city where it’s not uncommon for founders to work around the clock and live on Soylent, he’s also the father of a baby girl and doesn’t want to spend every waking moment at work. His current plan is to take one day a week off to take care of her. “I like looking at life holistically,” he says. “I’m grateful this job gives me the flexibility to look at life this way.”
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