It’s not yet 5 a.m. on a misty morning in late April and Kuan Huang has shaken himself out of sleep to squint into the cool light of his computer screen as he frantically checks the weather forecast for the day.
It’s too early for New York City’s morning commuters to rouse themselves out of their own warm beds, but when they do, they might get a forecast-infused text message from Huang. But the text message won’t actually come from Huang: It will come from a little orange cat wearing a yellow rain slicker.
It will come from Poncho.
A new weather service launched out of startup factory Betaworks, Poncho lets subscribers skip the chronological list of temperatures they’d find on weather.com or a smartphone weather app. Instead of a slew of highs, lows, and percentages, they can sign up to receive a text message or email with actionable advice about the day’s forecast.
Bring an umbrella. Put on that extra layer. Keep the sweater-to-scarf ratio strong.
With Poncho — Huang’s weather app with the cute cat logo — he knows that more data isn’t always a good thing, and that, for many people, simple, personal, and timely advice trumps the detailed forecasts of any weather website out there.
Huang wants to perfect his delivery process, because after all, weather dictates a huge chunk of our lives: what we wear, our plans, the small-talk that we have in the elevator, and so on. By automating updates and giving people an easy way to know what to expect and how to prepare before they’re caught out in a blustery day without a jacket, Poncho makes our relationship with the daily forecast much more seamless.
Betaworks, Poncho’s parent company, is hard to define. To keep with our weather theme, it’s like a big umbrella: it’s one entity, but it oversees a lot of different smaller (and not so small) companies. It buys, spins-off, starts, and runs startups.
Kuan Huang joined Betaworks from Hatch Labs (where dating app Tinder was born) back in January as part of its inaugural Hackers in Residence program. Despite its newness, the Hackers in Residence program has already spawned hits like the addicting iPhone game Dots and GIF database Giphy.
When six bright, young builders first joined the program in January, they each had several weeks to brainstorm ideas. Huang’s first few flopped with Paul Murphy, the Senior Vice President of product at Betaworks who oversees and offers advice for the Hackers In Residence program. To inspire Huang, Murphy made a suggestion: Betaworks is interested in the weather space.
Huang, who moved to the U.S. from China after college, was no expert in meteorology. Most days, he couldn’t even remember to check the default weather app on his phone. He wasn’t used to it.
Back home in China, he got all weather-related prompts from his mother, who he lovingly describes as a “helicopter parent.” She knew his schedule and would call on nights that he would be out late to tell him if he needed to bring an extra layer.
“My mum never told me that there’s an ‘x%’ chance that it’s going to rain tomorrow: She told me to bring an umbrella or not,” Huang explains. Thinking about the ease of that experience, an idea blossomed: “I wanted to build something to take out all the numbers, and give only actionable information — don’t just tell me what degree it is outside, tell me what it means.”
And so, from a kind-hearted mother’s needling, Poncho was born. Once the idea got the thumbs up from Betaworks, Huang, along with his fellow hackers with their independent projects, had a little under three months to start turning his pipe dream into a real product.
“F**** It. Ship It.”
Betaworks believes in throwing projects out into the wild fast. So Huang started testing the idea as simply as possible.
He collected the phone numbers, emails, and the desired message-delivery times of people in his office. Every night he would check the weather forecast using a weather site called Forecast.io and jot out a message. He would then wake up early the next day to make sure that nothing had changed before manually blasting out advice in emails or texts to his co-workers at their pre-designated times.
People liked the concept, but Huang’s under-140-character briefs felt a little lackluster.
“‘Kuan, can you send me something to make me smile in the morning?'” Huang imitates in a polite falsetto, referencing a co-worker who inspired one of Poncho’s most beloved features: the saucy and fun personality of its messages.
From then on, Poncho revamped the voice of its orange cat with a mix of sassy and sweetness. On an unusually warm day, for example, instead of simply, “It’s warming up so dress lightly” Poncho’s message read: “A tad bit warmer today with temps in the low 70s, so don’t go over board with crazy sweaters and parkas and fur coats and cups of hot lava.”
That “click” moment was in March and working with a contract writer and a few in-house engineers, Huang worked furiously to build a consumer-facing product that could collect and store users’ information and automatically send them their personalised weather updates every day.
In mid-April, Poncho was the first Hacker In Residence company to officially launch.
Growing Up and Looking Forward
From feedback that he’d received from early users, Huang started adding features to more fully integrate Poncho into users’ morning routines.
Poncho now also checks pollen levels if you have an allergy, can remind you to take your dog for a walk, gives a heads-up about moving your car for alternate side parking, and will alert you if there are any issues with the subway line that you take to work. You can opt to receive two messages a day: one in the morning and one before you head home from work. By clicking on a link in the message, you can expand it for more details.
By July, subscriber numbers were growing steadily and Kuan’s mostly-solo mission had expanded to a team of six.
Annalise Domenighini and Alex Bedder are the creative editors, so they tag-team the voice and social media presence of Poncho’s orange cat, writing the weather emails and texts and keeping up its amusing Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.
Lynn Maharas left The Daily Beast to join as a front-end designer and developer. Karthik Ramakrishnan, one of Huang’s old partners from Hatch Labs, jumped into the nitty-gritty of biz dev, partnerships, and marketing. Huang works on further developing Poncho’s technology, but he still wakes up in the morning to double-check the forecast.
Most of Poncho’s growth has been organic — on average, it adds 5% more subscribers each week — but after winning the “wild card” prize in New York City’s BigApps challenge, the team had the cash to host two promotional giveaways (for branded umbrellas and then an iPhone 5C), which nearly doubled its number of users.
Since launching, Poncho has listened to user feedback to expand its services, and Huang says the company has some more features on the horizon, including more transit support, tracking the score of specified sports teams, and integrating with users’ personal calenders.
Although Poncho is still only available in New York, its almost 10,000 subscribers are joined by a 4,000 strong waiting list of people from other cities who are vying for an automated morning routine.
Huang says that San Francisco, Chicago, or Boston all look like promising options for the future, although he couldn’t name an exact expansion date because Poncho is still working on the technology to scale to other cities.
“We’ve built this mapping of zip codes,” Huang explains, “We need to add all the zip codes in America with a GPS location, so we can group each area together.”
Once areas are grouped, he can designate which can receive the same messages. That’s one of the biggest challenges for Poncho moving forward: Thinking about how to scale automation without losing the personality of the service. Kuan says that automation will never replace human editors, but that he plans on keeping the team small and New York City-based.
Because, ultimately, the Poncho team wants its little orange feline to be able to bring actionable weather information to anyone, anywhere, with a smile.
“A lot of apps solve problems, but they add one more step to your daily routine,” Huang says. “Poncho integrates with it.”
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