The Thaw team, from left to right: Miles Ranisavljevic, Nate Rankin and Cooper Crosby. (Thaw Photo) For years, people have lamented the “Seattle Freeze” — the chilly reception that sometimes greets those looking to make friends in this area. Now a Seattle startup called offers an icebreaker for adults looking for new connections in the Northwest and nationwide. The business follows the standard dating app model of building profiles and making matches but with Thaw’s own twist, most notably the option of choosing more nuanced answers to questions about your interests that have the added bonus of being somewhat funny and clever. The goal was to make it “actually fun to build out a profile, which is something that is usually pretty tedious and unappealing,” said co-founder and CEO . Thaw also lets people to look for friends of the opposite sex. Other friend-matching sites such as Bumble BFF only allows you search for friends of the same gender and Hey! Vina, an app affiliated with Tinder, is only for women. The connecting site Shapr has more of a networking focus. Rankin officially launched Thaw near the end of 2018, but has been working on the project for a couple of years. Before Thaw, Rankin co-founded Wanderled, a digital marketplace for artisan goods from Guatemala. Nate Rankin, co-founder and CEO of Thaw. (Thaw Photo) Other Thaw co-founders include designer , who previously worked at and did design work for startups including and (which has also been ) and engineer , the iOS developer at , an online moving and delivery company. Rankin wouldn’t share their number of active users, but said there are a few hundred downloads a day. Thaw recently began running ads promoting the app. It’s currently only available for Apple devices, with plans to build an Android version. For revenue generation, Rankin said they’ll likely offer a basic service for free and eventually provide premium services as a subscription. They could also offer targeted advertising or partner with restaurants and event organizations to provide deals to users based on their profile interests. Social networking and the misuse of personal data are hot topics in the news these days as Facebook and Google, in particular, are facing serious criticism for some of their business practices. While these are early days for Thaw, what will the business do to avoid these sorts of missteps? “It’s something we’re going to need to think really hard about, and we’ve talked about already,” Rankin said. “I don’t exactly know what we’re going to do, but it’s something that is certainly very top of mind.” Rankin’s first startup shuttered in 2014 after two years. From the experience, he learned that while people might like your business idea, that doesn’t mean they’ll actually buy it. With Thaw, Rankin started with something people explicitly said that they wanted — a better tool for making friends — and then developed a product to meet that need. “If you ask someone, ‘What do you think of this idea?’ that’s not very helpful,” he said, “It’s a lot more effective to ask people very straightforwardly, ‘Would you use this, would you spend money on this, would you spend your time and energy on it?’” Rankin hopes that increasing numbers of people will continue to answer “yes.” We caught up with Rankin for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire. Thaw matches potential friends according to interests. (Thaw website) Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: Thaw is an app that connects people looking to meet and make friends nearby. Making new friends as an adult is hard. Thaw makes it easier. Inspiration hit us when: I moved to San Francisco after graduating from college and had a really hard time making friends. Aside from my co-workers, I didn’t have the common connectors I had previously relied on to meet people: dorms, classes and sports teams. The more I talked to other people, the more I realized this was a problem I wasn’t experiencing in isolation, and Cooper and I got to work! VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Staying bootstrapped has allowed us to launch and transition into working on Thaw full-time on our own terms, but we’ll be looking to raise a seed round in the not-too-distant future. Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Constantly talking to our users to better understand what’s hard about making friends, which features would help, and building them quickly. Other apps do a fine job of matching potential friends based on age and proximity, but it turns out there’s a lot more to making friends than that. For example, it can be tricky to initiate conversations and transition from chat-in-app friends to hang-out-IRL friends. Getting that feedback has allowed us to build features that directly address problems people face throughout the friend-making process. You say you like camping, but how much really do you like it? Thaw let’s users get precise in their preferences. (Thaw Image) The smartest move we’ve made so far: Turning some particularly “honest” feedback into the feature that really differentiates us from other apps in our space. We had planned on matching people using interests on a binary yes/no scale (for example, you either like snowboarding or you don’t), and the feedback we received showed us that approach was too limiting. Now you can indicate whether you hate snowboarding, snowboard a few times a year, or basically live in the mountains during the winter. Not only does this help us match potential friends better, but it takes something boring — setting up a profile — and makes it fun. The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Initially we only launched in Seattle and users who downloaded Thaw outside of Seattle were put on a waitlist. We did consider that users who downloaded the app and had nobody nearby to match with would get frustrated and delete the app. And as it turns out, that’s exactly what happened. We opened Thaw to the whole U.S. and retention has gone up considerably. Which entrepreneur or executive would you want working in your corner? Between his time as a founder and investor, it’s hard to imagine someone being able to add more value than Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. There’s a fair amount of overlap between Thaw and Reddit, where he built a strong community and helped connect people who didn’t previously know each other. It would be awesome to pick his brain about what he’s learned from the companies he’s invested in, and he’d be an invaluable resource as we start the fundraising process. Our favorite team-building activity is: Team dinners with our partners. The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Communication and initiative. We often work out of our respective homes, so it’s important for us to be in contact throughout the day and take care of what needs to be done without much oversight. We’ve only hired one person so far, but the bar has been set high! What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Don’t ask people if they think your idea is good. Ask people if they would use it themselves, and why. Also, talk to users constantly, iterate quickly and be willing to admit when you’re wrong.
David Adams, founder of the Seattle-based startup SniffSpot, with his dog Soba, at a property in the city where they had access to a fenced-in yard. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser) When David Adams moved back to Seattle, he settled in an apartment on the seventh floor of a building in the city’s Belltown neighborhood. On Tuesday, Adams and his dog Soba were enjoying a grassy backyard behind a stranger’s house in Ballard, thanks to the company Adams started six months ago. is a marketplace that connects dog owners, who are looking for a safe and convenient space for their pet to get some exercise, with property owners, who have room outside for pups to play — and the desire to make a little easy money on the side courtesy of the sharing economy. Originally from Ohio, Adams, 31, moved to Seattle in 2010 and spent just over three years at Microsoft. He moved to San Francisco to found his first company: , a marketplace that helps users find monthly furnished housing. That company raised more than $12 million in funding, and Adams still maintains a seat on the board and travels to San Francisco regularly. “The trend that I have is that when I start a company, I start it based on my own problem,” Adams said. He used to always live in furnished rentals, until his girlfriend expressed an interest in something different. “I adopted Soba a year and a half ago and I’ve been taking her around to dog parks. She’s super high energy. I just always have had bad experiences there.” David Adams lives in Belltown near downtown Seattle and uses SniffSpot properties to get his dog Soba the proper amount of exercise. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser) Integrating pet services and technology is part of a growing trend that appeals to people in larger cities, especially in places like Seattle where so many Amazon employees and others take their dogs to work. Seattle-based has found huge success with its pet-sitting and dog-walking marketplace, and SniffSpot is clearly playing off that demand — with a twist of its own. “Thirty percent of dogs are owned by millennials, and millennials are moving into cities,” Adams said. “So you’re having an all new set of problems with dogs. That’s why you’ve seen Rover be so successful, you’ve seen Wag be so successful, because they’re new services that appeal to urban dog owners. It’s just getting started.” Seattle Parks and Recreation offers for dogs to run free. But after Soba was bit at a dog park and required a vet visit, Adams figured there had to be a better way to get his dog the fresh air and exercise she needed. “I think that dog parks are a really important public service. You’ve got to have them in the city,” Adams said. But SniffSpot caters to people and pets who are looking for a more controlled environment, often because the animal comes from a background that makes it more reactive around other dogs and people. SniffSpot works pretty much like Airbnb, the online hospitality business. Through its website, SniffSpot users can browse a variety of host properties — there are about 70 in the Seattle area right now and Adams is hoping for many more. Hosts provide information and pictures related to the property, including details about fencing. They can set restrictions on times, breeds and numbers of dogs allowed at any given time. It’s possible to reserve a space for solo dog time, or meet up with others. Users choose a date and time to reserve and pay through the site. Soba (and Brobee from “Yo Gabba Gabba”) got a workout on Tuesday in Ballard. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser) In Ballard, I met Adams and Soba at a typical house in the neighborhood, advertised on SniffSpot as We let ourselves in through the side gate and found a sizable area in the back for Soba to explore. There were toys scattered about and a bowl full of water on the back deck. “Having off-leash exercise is really important for a dog’s health,” Adams said, as he talked about the full range of exercise that a dog requires, beyond walks on a leash, and how that benefits the animal not just physically, but mentally, too. It’s clear that the young entrepreneur is combining his marketplace and tech experience with a new passion for pets. “I’ll be the first to say I didn’t know anything about dogs when I adopted Soba,” Adams said. “And I’ve been learning a ton.” A totally bootstrapped endeavor, SniffSpot is pretty much a one-person operation right now. Adams has relied on contractors for a little bit of help, but he’s taken no outside funding and is doing no marketing right now. He believes the right way to start a company is to build a product that people want and need, and then the product will take off on its own. In the two full months since the website has been up and functional, SniffSpot has seen 60 percent growth month over month. An app will get built eventually, he said. Soba gets a drink of water on the back deck of a SniffSpot property after running around for 30 minutes. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser) There’s no requirement to be a host on SniffSpot, so long as the property doesn’t contain any hazards and is owned by the person posting it. Hosts are vetted through name, email and address checks and generally there is an interview and even a site visit if needed. Hosts can set their own price, with $4 being the minimum per pet, per hour. SniffSpot takes 12 percent of the revenue. “We’ve got hosts on our platform making $60 a day,” Adams said. “You’re not investing in the space. You’re not working. It’s not like Uber where you’re going and driving for hours to make money. You just let someone come use your yard — maybe you’re at work or something else and you’re just making incremental income.” Users are expected to treat the space like it’s their own — clean up the dog poop and toys, be courteous to neighbors, etc. SniffSpot hasn’t officially launched outside of the Seattle area yet, even though some properties are listed around Washington and in other states. A couple listings on the site show the possibilities beyond a backyard romp. David Adam’s dog Soba, right, plays with Adams’ girlfriend’s dog, Toshii, in the Skykomish River at a SniffSpot called PaJo Ranch. (SniffSpot Photo) Just past Monroe, Wash., a includes a wooded area and access to the Skykomish River for $10 an hour. And south of Seattle in Cinebar, Wash., on a mountainside are available. For anyone who is apprehensive about hiking in open areas with their dog off leash, the bigger SniffSpot properties could provide a solution. Adams, who goes to SniffSpots pretty much every day, sometimes multiple times a day, said there are a million examples of people sharing things these days, but that SniffSpot doesn’t really compare. It’s not really invasive because no one enters your house, they’re in a controlled space, they stay for an hour and leave. Sitting behind someone’s house in Ballard, in rapidly growing and housing-crunched Seattle, he admitted how special a place it was. “If everyone had their own yard, there’d be much less demand for something like SniffSpot,” Adams said. “It’s amazing that these yards actually even exist still.”