YARMOUTH, Maine — There are not many business owners who, when asked about the shutdown of the federal government, break into a grin.
But Kerry Gallivan does. And you can’t blame him. The political machinations in Washington that led to the federal shutdown, which lasted 16 days and ended on Wednesday, gave Gallivan’s company an unexpected boost in exposure.
Gallivan, a Yarmouth resident, is co-founder of Chimani, a company that develops mobile apps for visitors to national parks. The apps, which are available on both Apple and Android devices, act as clearinghouses of information on the parks, providing everything from trail maps, shuttle schedules, information about local businesses and even weather forecasts.
So, as the National Park Service shut down the parks, stopped updating their websites, shuttered the information centers, tourists were desperate to discover what exactly was closed and what other local options exist for entertainment, food and lodging.
“We’ve been disseminating a lot of information through our apps, and we do that primarily through push notifications,” Gallivan said on Tuesday, when the shutdown was still ongoing.
Gallivan, whose background is in education and nonprofits, founded the company in 2010 with Shaun Meredith, a software developer in Harpswell. The first app it released was for Acadia National Park.
Today, the company has apps for 14 national parks, including Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Because each park has an app for Apple’s operating system, Google’s Android system and Amazon’s new system, the company actually manages about 45 apps. The ultimate goal is to have a separate app for each of the country’s 401 national parks, Gallivan said. Its also already at work on an app for Baxter State Park, he said.
Because most national parks are remote, Chimani’s apps are developed so the vast majority of their content is accessible even if a visitor’s cellphone doesn’t have service.
Gallivan and Meredith have bootstrapped the company for the past three years, meaning they’ve built the business in their spare time. Both have other jobs: Gallivan is director of technology for School Administrative District 75, which covers Topsham, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Harpswell. Meredith owns a software development company in Harpswell called InfoBridge.
“It’s incredibly stressful, but at the same time I recommend it as much as possible because I’ve learned so much,” Gallivan said about his experience as an entrepreneur. “And now we’re in a great position.”
The company is now at the point where it’s looking for investors to provide the necessary capital to build a team and elevate Chimani to the next level, Gallivan said. This past week Gallivan secured an opportunity to pitch Chimani on a national radio show, Dream Big America, that helps startups raise funds.
“The two founders are both incredible people and exemplify the hard work and make-it-happen cleverness of Maine entrepreneurs,” said Don Gooding, executive director of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, who helped mentor Gallivan in the center’s Top Gun program for entrepreneurs. “Chimani has great promise for the Maine economy because those are the kind of entrepreneurs who can build large companies.”
The company’s origins can be traced to Acadia’s Gorham Mountain. Specifically, to a “rainy, miserable” day in early April 2009 when Gallivan found himself on the mountain with his first-generation iPhone. He wanted to figure out where he was on the trail, how many more miles he had to go and what kind of rain he could expect.
“I thought, ‘here’s this incredible computer in my hands, I want it to do more.’ There was really no need to have this other stuff,” he said, referring to paper maps and guidebooks.
When Gallivan got home, he reached out to Meredith, who he knew from Meredith’s time as Apple’s lead engineer in Maine during the initial implementation of the state’s laptop program.
The company launched its first app in May 2010. Because an average park visitor already spent upwards of $50 on guidebooks and maps, Gallivan and Meredith thought $9.99 was a reasonable price to charge. While the company logged some downloads and posted “decent” revenue, the marketplace for apps wasn’t quite ready for a $10 app.
Their early thinking went like this: Software developers put in the same time and effort to develop a program for a desktop computer that they would for a mobile device, so why not charge a price that reflects that?
“That was the norm we all had, but that did not convert over to the mobile app world,” Gallivan said. “So the price point just kept falling dramatically, mostly driven by Apple because they want to sell devices; they don’t necessarily want to sell apps.”
During National Park Week in 2011, Chimani experimented with making all its apps free.
“In five days we went from a total of 8,000 downloads to over 125,000, and that was because everything was free,” Gallivan said. “So we quickly got a taste for that price point.”
Chimani made all its apps permanently free during National Park Week the next year, and hasn’t looked back from the “freemium” model, Gallivan said. The downloads increased and the company started to pick up some momentum.
“We really saw the branding start to kick into gear. That’s when we really decided to make the push to make as many apps as possible,” Gallivan said. “There were a couple companies that made an app for one park or two parks, but there was no one going out there and trying to be the brand across all these different parks.”
The Maine Technology Institute provided a $25,000 seed grant to help. In spring 2013 Gallivan participated in the MCED’s Top Gun program.
Because the app is free, the company’s major challenge is making money, according to Gooding and Joe Michaud, a digital media consultant who has acted as an informal mentor for the company since it participated in the Top Gun program.
Chimani is developing a variety of revenue streams: in-app purchases, a subscription model that would provide enhanced services to users, licensing content to websites such as a TripAdvisor, and advertising.
“From a business standpoint, there’s a huge opportunity for them to engage national sponsors, people who sell equipment or services to people that visit national parks, as well as connect local retailers with people visiting the parks,” said Michaud, who’s the former president of MaineToday.com.
Since its launch, the company has logged roughly 563,000 downloads. Gallivan counts about 120,000 people as active users.
While an impressive number, it’s still not quite enough to attract the kind of large national advertisers, such as L.L.Bean or REI, that would want to reach the audience Chimani can provide, Michaud said.
Chimani finds itself in the classic entrepreneurial “chicken-and-the-egg” situation. It needs to build its business, release more apps and attract more eyeballs before it will attract large advertising clients and grow its revenue. But it needs revenue to grow its business.
To elevate the business to the next level and grow its active-user base to a point where the big advertisers will start paying attention, Gallivan has begun for the first time looking for outside investors. Last week, he switched the company to a Delaware corporation, a move that assuages serious investors who may be wary of companies registered in any other state but Delaware.
Gallivan can’t disclose how much money the company is looking to raise, but said the plan is to “look at what we’ve done to date and put it on steroids.”
“Venture capital is not alway the smart thing for someone to go after, but it could crack the chicken-and-the-egg conundrum,” Michaud said. “They have this huge advantage in they got pretty good traction virally, which is hard to do, and they have half a million downloads, so that’s a great place to start.”
He hopes to pitch his business in the near future to the Maine Angels, which is a group of independent investors willing to fund early startup companies.
“I thought I’d be pitching to Maine Angels a lot earlier,” Gallivan said. “I’m glad I didn’t because of everything that has been learned, and we’re far more attractive now.”
New federal guidelines may also make raising capital easier. The Securities and Exchange Commission on Sept. 23 changed the rules to allow startup companies to more openly advertise that they’re looking for investors.
“Chimani is extremely well positioned, because of the nature of the product, to appeal to a crowdfunding marketplace,” Gooding said. “I would not be surprised if that becomes a piece of their overall financing mix.”
When asked where he’d like to see Chimani in five years, Gallivan doesn’t hesitate.
“To be sitting right in the Old Port with a great warehouse space and serving as one of the spokes of an emerging startup economy that plants an anchor right in Maine. That’s always been the goal. To build a great company, an innovative one, but to show you can do it in Maine.”