Gleaning insight on buyer habits, swipe by swipe

By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
Angus Davis, already well-known to Rhode Islanders as a high-tech entrepreneur and civic leader, is now adding retail guru to his resume with his latest venture, Swipely. More

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A PBN SPECIAL SECTION: 2010 INNOVATION AWARDS

Gleaning insight on buyer habits, swipe by swipe

PBN PHOTO/BRIAN MCDONALD
CREDIT DUE: The Swipely engineering team, from left: Joshua Napoli, Tucker Sylvestro, Barnaby Claydon, Angus Davis, Anthony Accardi, Matt Gilooly and Bright Fulton. Davis, PBN’s innovator of the year, describes the online-shopping platform as “Twitter for your credit card.”
By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
Posted 9/20/10

Angus Davis, already well-known to Rhode Islanders as a high-tech entrepreneur and civic leader, is now adding retail guru to his resume with his latest venture, Swipely.

He’s not pushing a product you’ll find on store shelves; instead, he’s hoping to change how people shop, by allowing them to talk about their purchases at an online site – swipely.com – and earn rewards when they use their credit or debit card.

“I was ready to launch another startup,” said the Providence company’s CEO, “and we were looking at something rooted in the tremendous growth of social media, as well as the huge shift in payments from cash to cashless credit and debit cards.”

Swipely opened for business last May, but at that time the service was by invitation-only. It has been available to the public at large since Aug. 18. At this early stage, the company isn’t ready to disclose how many Internet users have signed up, but Davis sounds optimistic. “I can tell you that in the invitation period, we had twice as many people interested as we could accommodate,” he said.

Here’s how Swipely works: A user creates an account at the Swipely site by picking a username and password, and – if you choose – submitting credit and debit card information. You can also fill out profile questions meant to encourage online conversation among users. If you provide credit card data, Swipely will collect information on all your card purchases. You can also elect to provide e-mail receipts from more than 6,000 online retailers.

Then go shopping – and go online to post recommendations based on your purchases and chat about them with other Swipely users, as well as the folks you know from Facebook and other social networking sites. Glamour magazine calls the site “Twitter for your credit card.”

If you’re making purchases you’d rather keep private, don’t worry; you can limit how much of your spending record is made public on the site. “You choose which purchases you want to share,” Davis noted. “Nothing gets shared unless you want to tell your friends.”

The big lure for consumers is the savings available to Swipely users. Shop a specific store or make a certain number of purchases, and you could be rewarded with a “Swipely badge” good for discounts and freebies. “If you swipe 10 times at iTunes, for example, you’ll get a turntable badge that gives you three free downloads,” said Davis.

So what happens to your credit card information when you join the site? Nothing, according to Davis. “Swipely does not collect or ask anyone for credit card numbers,” he said. “Swipely does not sell our users’ personal information to retailers or to anyone else – your privacy is not for sale.” The site’s privacy policy is endorsed by TrustE, the leading online privacy-protection watchdog.

The company will make money by offering retailers marketing opportunities. “Swipely’s business model is based on helping businesses attract, understand and retain their best customers with behaviorally targeted offers, aggregate shopper analytics, and loyalty programs,” the CEO said.

Consumers have already shown a strong interest in sharing opinions on products, stores and restaurants on Internet sites, Davis notes. He points out that more than 100 million people do so on sites like Yelp for restaurants, TripAdvisor for hotels and Flixster for movies. He believes his site will make that activity easier and more enjoyable. “Swipely lets you talk about all of those types of reviews and more in one central place centered on your friends whose opinions you trust,” he said.

The company has already raised more than $8.5 million in capital, attracting investors who’ve also put their cash into Zynga, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Skype and Zappos. Davis’ success at finding investors comes as no surprise. Though he’s just 32, he already has a strong record as an Internet innovator and entrepreneur.

At 18, the Rhode Island native relocated to California for an internship at Netscape Communications. A few months later he became the company’s youngest full-time employee, with the title of product manager for the Web browser, its flagship product. “I blew off college to go to Netscape,” he said. “It’s not something I would recommend for everyone, but it worked to my advantage.”

Davis left Netscape when the company was acquired by America Online. He then helped launch Tellme, a speech-recognition product that enabled consumers to access the Internet from any phone with their own voice. The company grew to more than 350 employees and boasted more than $120 million a year in sales before it was purchased by Microsoft in 2007.

At that point, Davis returned to Rhode Island, where he’s made a name for himself as a civic activist. He serves on the state’s Board of Regents, the panel that sets Rhode Island’s education policies. He got involved, he said, because he saw “the lackluster performance of Rhode Island schools” as a roadblock to the state’s economic growth.

As a board member, he worked to end the moratorium on new charter schools in the state and helped eliminate the ban on alternative teacher certification. More recently, he was involved in efforts to win a $75 million education grant from the federal government.

Davis also co-chaired the search committee for a new commissioner of education. The job went to his choice, Deborah Gist, who’s generated national headlines with her no-nonsense approach.

He’s also become known as a mentor for other entrepreneurs, especially those who are looking to do business in Rhode Island. “I’m an angel investor and involved with a lot companies as an adviser and investor,” he said. “But right now my day-to-day focus is Swipely.” •

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