App makes bars more social | AspenTimes.com

App makes bars more social

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

Greg Studley, left, and Ryan Sterling get ready to post a message on the monitor in the background at El Rincon using the Soapbox app the two developed.

Have you ever been at a restaurant or a bar and had a great meal or drink and wanted to let others know but didn't have a way to share that information? Maybe you had a question about Aspen but didn't know whom to ask.

Meet Soapbox, a new app developed by two Aspen co-workers that is showing up in bars across town. The app is available though Apple and is already in use at the Square Grouper and the J-Bar at the Hotel Jerome and had a kickoff party at El Rincon on Friday. It is scheduled to be available at Ryno's Pies and Pints on Dec. 1 and at the Red Onion on Dec. 5.

The idea came to Greg Studley, 39, when he was living in Los Angeles in 2010 and working at a bar.

"One night, I took a step back and saw all our customers texting but not talking," he said. "They were Facebooking and tweeting, but I was wondering how I could get all those people to interact. I thought it would be really cool if I could get what they were doing on their phones and put it up on a TV screen and they could all interact that way."

Studley figured that as the people were posting, the person sitting next to them didn't really matter. They were looking for reactions on Facebook, or maybe they were looking to see if they got re-tweeted.

"At the root of this, people are looking for attention in a safe way," Studley said. "So I thought maybe I could provide a stage for these people, let them put up a funny thought or a question that someone at the bar would respond to and maybe start a conversation in that bar. That's where Soapbox came from, letting people get up on a soapbox to say something. People use their phones like a shield. I know I can't get the phone out of their hands, but maybe I can get them to lower the shield."

Recommended Stories For You

Studley kept that idea in his head for almost three years until he took a job at the J-Bar and met Soapbox business partner Ryan Sterling, 31, who also manages the J-Bar.

Sterling has a Master of Business Administration degree and had some business ideas of his own, but when he heard Studley's idea, he was on board with Soapbox.

Sterling found a developer in 2013, while Studley raised funds for their project. It took about a year to develop a prototype.

The first public testing came in March at the Square Grouper.

"The Grouper is sort of an anything-goes type of bar, and they were more than willing to let us hook it up there," Studley said. "At that time, only mine and Ryan's phone could use the system, so we handed out our phones and let people play with it and got a great reaction. People had a blast and seemed to love seeing their posts publicly. There's a real performance aspect to Soapbox without stepping on stage. There's also instant gratification to seeing your post live."

Sterling said he and Studley aren't doing anything cutting-edge technology-wise, but instead they stepped back and saw something people missed with this type of app.

"It seems like everyone missed this very fundamental value of human interaction," Sterling said. "There's something so valuable in sitting next to someone in real time that will not go away."

"It's new and unique," said Aidan Winn, owner and operator of El Rincon. "It'll definitely add to the social element within the bars that use it."

Laura Herman, Soapbox's advertising and marketing director, sees it as a real social app, especially for people visiting Aspen.

"You could have a person visiting from England and, say, Los Angeles," Herman said. "What are the chances they were going to meet on any other network? So they come here and they're sitting at the same bar where they normally wouldn't have met or talked, except they hooked up through something they both saw on a screen at that bar. I'm curious to see what happens as people from all over the world meet through Soapbox."

The app will offer some creative advertising opportunities, Herman said, like for taxi service or menu specials. Soapbox posts will stay online for four hours, so older posts can be accessed though a user's cellphone.

Sterling said that as the manager of the J-Bar, if he sees someone post something that isn't necessarily positive about the food, drinks or service, he can address those problems before the customers leave and post something negative on TripAdvisor or Yelp.

Studley said that if anyone posts inappropriately, they'll get kicked off the app and won't be able to access it in the future.

Studley and Sterling figure they've invested close to $50,000 and countless hours into the project, but it would be difficult to put a price on the satisfaction of seeing people use their app.

"It's like a dream come true," Studley said. "It's so gratifying to see people enjoy the app."

mmclaughlin@aspentimes.com