This startup stands in line so you don’t have to



The biggest enemy of a shopper is the queue. It’s especially frustrating to do so for a simple transaction like paying a bill or making a bank deposit. In the Philippines, where most establishments are not yet fully-automated with payment machine kiosks, this is a big problem. Apart from wasted time for consumers and businesses, it can also mean lost revenue if a customer leaves because of the long queue. This is where the startup TimeFree comes in.

TimeFree queueing system allows consumers to use their time for other important things while waiting for their turn. It does this with an SMS-based notification system. TimeFree’s software will be an add-on to the system behind a store’s ticketing kiosk. So instead of impatiently waiting in the establishment, a customer can go out and do other tasks – like have a quick meeting with clients or buy groceries – while not missing their turn.

The idea came about when TimeFree CEO Chino Atilano was in line to pay his tuition fee back in college. He thought of creating a solution that can save people’s time, and this became the focus of his thesis, together with his co-founders. It’s provided as a business-to-business solution to companies.

Behind the SMS notifications are a proprietary algorithm Atilano and his co-founders created. It uses a time-based algorithm wherein the system calculates the past 10 days’ average transaction time per customer at the particular establishment and then notifies the customer when he’s a few minutes from his turn. In addition, it also has a positional SMS where it’s the customers’ prerogative when they want to be notified. For example, if he’s the tenth person in line, he can opt to receive an SMS when, say, the fifth in line is already being served.

Long queue to success

But creating a proprietary algorithm for queueing wasn’t an easy task, says Atilano. He adds:

We had more than 10 iterations to figure out the correct algorithm on when the SMS sends out and to minimize the chances of people coming back when it’s still long before their turn – or missed it. So we came up with series of algorithms to solve the problem. It’s not easy to come up with a queueing solution. The general idea is very basic but when you go to the specifics it’s very complex. That’s why it took us some time for the algorithm to really work.

TimeFree was part of the first batch of incubatees at the Ideaspace Foundation incubator, which is backed by local telco Smart. Started as a simple thesis project back in 2009, it’s been quite a long journey before the team was able to generate revenue.

TimeFree’s first iteration was as a hardware-based solution where users needed to insert a five-peso coin to make it work. “Back then the startup scene wasn’t as vibrant as it was today. […] We saw the opportunity to make money out of it, but at that time we didn’t know how to do it,” say Altilano.

But the team’s first product was good enough that even prior to the incubation period, Smart invested Php 500,000 ($11,290) as seed funding to help them evolve the product. On top of this, it has also received Php 500,000 in funding from Ideaspace’s incubation program.

But when the team finally had a viable product in place, attracting clients wasn’t easy. Atilano started talking to clients in December 2012. After numerous deals fell by the wayside, he realized that powerpoint presentations don’t always work and it’s more important to get companies involved and hear their needs.

Expanding quickly

It seems that Atilano has learned the ropes of dealing with clients quickly. Because only a month after the initial struggles, the startup successfully closed a deal with a Philippine company. Atilano says it was validation for the team that their creation can be a valuable addition for businesses. TimeFree closed a deal with a Hong Kong-based financial services company last month.

TimeFree generates revenue through the licensing fee and the SMS allocations it provides the business on a per-branch basis. Since it started up, the young company has already earned more than $140,000 in revenue.

TimeFree now looks to raise more funds to support regional growth. Apart from the Philippines and Hong Kong, it also plans to tap into businesses in other Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia.

(Editing by Steven Millward)

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