Nightlife has always been one big guessing game: Show up at a bar, wait in line and finally make it past the bouncer, while wondering the whole time what lies behind the front door. Will it be too mobbed or too empty? Will the crowd be too young or too old? Too many men or too many women?
"It's a big problem," says Ben Silbert. "The only way someone knows how crowded a bar is or the split of genders or ages is they actually have to go in or know somebody who is inside."
But Silbert, the founder of Bar & Club Stats (BCS), a new nightlife startup, is on a mission to take the guesswork out of going out.
His solution? A system that gives users real-time demographic data at bars and nightclubs. The soon-to-launch site and app will allow prospective patrons to see the number of people who have entered a venue, the ratio of men to women there, the age of patrons and even patrons' hometowns, all without ever setting foot inside the place.
Want a bar where at least 55 percent of the patrons are women from your hometown and no more than 10 percent are men from your least favorite city? Silbert's tool tells you where to go.
So how does it collect the data? Get ready for the "why didn't I think of that?" feeling: ID scanners. You know, those big, clunky contraptions bouncers use to check whether your driver's license is real or fake.
Silbert partnered with a technology company to offer bars a scanner that clips onto a bouncer's iPhone or iPod and extracts four pieces of data from a patron's ID: gender, age, zip code and time of entry. The scanners extract the information anonymously, meaning a patron's name or address is never transmitted to a third party. The anonymous data then gets pushed in real-time to BCS's site, where users can view it to determine whether or not a venue's current crowd is appealing.
Nearly 20 bars and nightclubs in New York and New Jersey have started using the scanners since Silbert launched in November. They're using the scanners, Silbert says, in part because the data extracted from IDs offer businesses valuable insight into who their customers are.
Silbert expects to launch the consumer app in June, which means this summer you may be sending out far fewer "How is it?" texts.
How did you come up with the idea?
One day, I went to go meet my friend at a bar to watch a football game. As I was walking over, he shot me a text saying, "The bar is so packed, it sucks." But I went in anyway, had a beer or two, and we just sat there thinking: This is terrible, we don't want to fight people for a view of the game. Eventually we left and just wandered around for a while in search of a bar that was empty enough for us to watch the game. It all made me think that there's got to be a better way.
What was the aha moment?
Well, we knew of a couple startups that had a similar idea to help people see what bars were like without actually going there. They were installing cameras in bars and using digital imaging to generate demographic data on the people there, or stream the images to a site where users can see the current patrons. A bar in my area actually started using one, but they got rid of it because their bar was too dark and it was a huge pain in the ass for the staff to change the film every night.
Then it hit me: What about the scanners that bouncers use to check IDs at the front door? I've seen how big, bulky and ridiculous they are. So we came up with the idea for an ID scanner that's much better than the models on the market now and one that could work through an iPod or iPhone.
We started talking to engineers and found this hardware that just came out in July which is mainly used for scanning inventory for Walmart or retailers with millions of palettes of product. I thought, "You know what, let's try to use this thing for ID-scanning," and here we are.
What is your vision for the consumer product?
We don't want to be the next Yelp, but we want our site and smartphone app to be thought of in the same breath. When people go on their computers or phones on Friday at 5 p.m. to see what's happening, they'll go to Yelp to find a bar they like, and then they'll come to us to see what that bar was like last Friday night or two Friday nights ago. They'll see that during the past few Friday nights the bar got crowded around midnight with the right demographic, and they'll say, "Let's get there at 11:30 so we can beat the rush and post up at the bar."
We're also working on a push notification type of thing. So if you know you may want to go to a particular bar that night, you can set up a notification for when that bar has more than, say, 200 entries, and 55 percent of those entries are women. And if and when that happens, you'll receive a notification on your phone.
What's your pitch to bar and club owners? Why would they want to equip their bouncers with your scanners?
For one, it will save them money. The generic model that most bars own go for about $1,400. Our scanners, we either rent out for $60 a month or sell outright for $899. Also, generic scanners don't have any communication ability. If you're a bar owner and want to find out everybody who was at your bar, you'd have to plug the scanner into a USB port in your computer and then upload the info through Excel. Our scanners extract four pieces of anonymous information -- time of entry, age, gender and zip code -- and will push the data to our site, where owners can view it in just a few clicks.
They'll be able to go to our site and plug in the time they want demographic data for. For example, if they think that they were incredibly profitable towards the end of Thursday night, they can take a peek at 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. They may see that 30 percent of the people in the bar were 20-somethings from Long Island. Now they know to focus their marketing efforts on getting those people in the bar again.
But why would bars and nightclubs want you to share their venue's demographic data with the world?
I believe there's a certain demographic that appeals to somebody out there. If you've got an empty bar on your hands, that could appeal to somebody. If your bar is filled with men in their 30s, that might appeal to somebody.
In addition, by sharing their information for our users to consume, they're having a direct interaction with potential customers -- and that's valuable. For instance, they can leverage that interaction to target consumers with incentives, such as deals on drinks at a certain hour.
What about when a patron leaves the bar? Can you track that?
No, we cannot.
Is that something that might hurt the viability of the app?
It remains to be seen. We've kicked around the idea of creating some sort of formula that factors in the time of entry and historical data to predict how long a patron will stick around. But listen, no technology is perfect. We're just going to be open with users and tell them that this isn't a perfect measure of who's there, but it's a lot better than what's out there now, which is mostly just guesswork.
Have you filed a patent on these scanners?
We've filed a provisional patent, but not on the scanners. Our patent application is for the method of producing patron data based on identification card scans.
And what about the app's name? Are you sticking with Bar & Club Stats?
The name for the consumer app is definitely going to be different. Got any ideas? My friend suggested "The Situation," like that guy from MTV, which could actually be great.
Name: Benjamin Silbert (Co-founders: Andrew Jennings, Peter Sorgenfrei)
Company: Bar & Club Stats
Age: 31 (Jennings 29, Sorgenfrei 37)
Location: New York
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ben Silbert created the ID scanners that his company, BCS, offers to bars and nightclubs. Silbert actually partnered with a third-party technology company to offer the ID scanners, rather than developing the original technology on his own.