Interview with Mike Macadaan, Urbandig

Story by Benjamin F. Kuo


Have you ever visited a city, and had a tough time figuring out where the real locals hung out, where the genuine experience--as opposed to the tourist experience--could be found? That's the problem Urbandig ( is looking to solve. One of Urbandig's co-founders, Mike Macadaan-- the former VP of User Experience at MySpace, and creator of the technology conference Twiistup--sat down to talk to us about the company.

What's the idea behind Urbandig?

Mike Macadaan: It's actually a thesis I have had since 2004. I traveled a lot when I was with AOL, and it was always unfortunate that I was at the mercy of whatever was within a few blocks of my hotel when I traveled. Typically, those are the tourist traps. I think that a lot of people that travel, or people who have moved to a new area, who want to know where the locals are hanging out and meeting. They want to know where the good restaurants and dive bars are, not where the tourist traps are. It's really a problem that exists, and one that I haven't really found a solution for. When I had this idea in 2004, there was no iPhone, and smart phones didn't play well. Now, it's perfect, both because I'm a big iPhone guy, and soon will be an Android guy, as we're developing a version for Android. I actually just got a chance to do this in Portland, and I got to test all of the content coming in from my Portland guides on Urbandig, which I thought was very empowering. I could just go there, and didn't have to find someone and ask them what to do, or hope that they're not just steering you someplace that is paying them--like which happens with the concierge model. That's really empowering. There are lots of knowledgeable people that we find to write these guides--people who grew up there, and who are experts in the area. It's working out really well.

When did you launch?

Mike Macadaan: We launched in August. We originally launched in L.A., San Francisco, and Vancouver, essentially anywhere we had team members. We're staying true to our purpose, which is really finding experts in those areas. When we saw that it worked, we very quickly started finding experts in other cities, so we're now also in Portland and New York City. We'll be in Austin, and then in D.C. by the end of the year.

It sounds like an interesting story behind how it started--tell us how the site came about?

Mike Macadaan: After MySpace, I had a little bit of downtime. I had some really smart friends up in Vancouver, and they wanted to partner with me in creating something, but we just didn't know what. They came down to Los Angeles, and we brainstormed ideas, and basically--in 24 hours-- we revitalized my original idea, but for the iPhone. Just as quickly, we figured out the tactical plan of putting it together. It became a project of passion, and we wanted to get it done super quick, because we believed in it, and saw that there were many others trying to do the same thing--big companies--who had been trying to do this for years, but just hadn't cracked the code. Mike Edwards, who is an investor that lives in Whistler, and who is an angel, basically funded it. He's fairly well known, he funded another company called Punchd, which recently sold to Google. We met for the first time, and really hit it off, and he footed the bill to get this built. The team sketched it out over a weekend, found someone that would pay for it, and we built it in the middle of the night and launched it, without telling anyone, and then Apple recognized it as a staff pick and on what's hot, new and noteworthy.

There are lots of companies who are trying to crack the code for local--even your old employer, AOL is into this--what's the most unique part of what you've done?

Mike Macadaan: Probably, it's that we've stayed true to the mission, which is not highlighting and establishment unless we have 100 percent confident that it is something worth checking out. We get the local experts in an area to vet those locations. Those experts are people who know something like hamburgers, dive bars, or vintage clothes shopping. They're the folks, that if you tell them about putting Father's Office or In-N-Out as the best hamburger in Los Angeles, they'll tell you you're absolutely wrong. We've got Pete from the Burger Review, who will tell you that those guys do not have the best burger in LA, and will tell you why, because that is all he does. Pete literally never eats anything but healthy beans and greens so that he can go out and eat a half hamburger every day, to tell you why there are seven other, absolutely better places for burgers in Los Angeles. One of them is Miru 8691, a Korean, hole-in-the-wall restaurant, which is the best burger in LA. That's what makes our site unique. We've spent the time to find the experts, scouting out the best bloggers and others who know the community, for our reviews. Our scouts are putting us in touch with the absolutely best experts in an area, those who are really motivated to create these guides for us. In the past, their reviews have been through blogs, and as you know, the second your write a blog post, it falls off a cliff. However, if you publish a guide, and someone is an authority on something in their city, that guide never disappears. We're just being super true to content. It's not the stuff you would get from a run of the mill hotel, it's stuff that is a little bit off the beaten track.

So you've tapped bloggers for experts on the site?

Not all of our experts are bloggers. There's a tour called the Walk of Shame Tour -- if you don't know what that it, it's about finding the easiest places to hook up in Los Angeles--and my editor told me, why don't we have Lucas Dick, the son of Andy Dick, write that guide? I said--we don't want to just feature some celebrity's son, unless it makes sense. But, we found out that who better to know that then Andy Dick's son, who has a front row of to that scene. He was open to it, didn't have a blog, and is a very charismatic, budding comedian. Another tour of ours is Pigskin Pubs. There are a bunch of bars in LA, where you can watch your home team, whether that is the San Francisco saloon on Pico to root for the 49ers, or other locations. We have someone who was commissioner of his Fantasy Football league, and also didn't have a blog. The big differentiator we have, is we've been finding people and getting them to provide not just a guide on where to go, but what the best part of what's going on at these places. It's what night to go to the bar, which chef to order the burger from, what temperature to order the burger, and notes like hidden menus. For example, there's a bar in Echo Park called the Good Luck Club, which is modeled after a club in Chinatown, and has something called "double happiness", which is Tsingtao and some king of borderline illegal liquor. It's not on the menu, and you either have to figure it out from a friend, the bartender, or use Urbandig. That's the fun part of tapping into local knowledge--you know exactly what to order and what not too. It's fun.

What have you learned from that whole experience so far?

Mike Macdaan: Being from Nothern California, Los Angeles is so spread out, it's hard to know where to go. There are new places showing up all the time. I think that Twiistup and MySpace, and being around lots of smart people who are critical about technology, about what's available, what works, and what doesn't work, I figured out that having a curated model around getting experts to recommend what to do was important. At the end of the day, If I'm spending a lot of money on going out., I can either use something crowd-sourced, and get sort of an overall view, and I can go to a restaurant and get burned--and I hate wasting my money--or, you can turn to curated experts and get a great experience, which is what I'm a 100 percent believer in.

Finally, what's next for Urbandig?

Mike Macadaan: Urbandig is going to be expanding, and I suspect we'll be in all of the major metros in this country in 2012. We also have an editor who will take us global, and we are just going to continue to find the best spots to go. There are also some other kinds of things we will be partnering with vendors about, such as not only finding that hidden, off-the-menu stuff, but other things that vendors are really exited about. We're trying to make the experience really cool and innovative. Plus, beyond Urbandig--I'm a co-founder on Urbandig--I've also actually got another project I'm ramping up with others, which will be public pretty soon.

Thanks, we look forward to hearing more!


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