Flickr founder Caterina Fake’s latest startup has been shrouded in mystery ever since she announced she was working on it in June of 2011, and she recently pulled back the curtain to reveal details about the company. The app, Pinwheel, is a way to find and leave notes around the world. It’s opening up in private beta starting this week, both on the web and the mobile web, with iOS apps planned next. The company already raised a seed round of funding from a long list of investors last year, and GigaOM is now reporting a $7.5 million Series A round led by Redpoint Ventures.
Fake wrote in a blog post that the native app will provide the richest experience, and the company is currently hiring iOS developers as well as content interns. “I love the internet, and loved this idea,” Fake said in an interview about the motivation behind the company. Fake says people can use Pinwheel to leave public or private notes which can be shared with an individual, a group, or everyone using the app. Users can follow people, places, or follow sets of notes. Once the native app is released, it will allow users to get notifications on their phone based on the people and places they’re interested in. In terms of what constitutes a note, Fake says early users are leaving poems, photos, and private notes for friends. Before anyone could apply the nickname for her, Fake admits it sounds like “Flickr for places” (ish). But photos are only one kind of content being shared. As for what kind of content is appearing in notes most often, Fake says it’s too early too see any trends. “Since it’s been only a tiny group of friends and family so far, we can’t say yet. This is something we hope to find out as the beta progresses.”
The company will make money by offering sponsored notes. Fake gives the example of a local author and real estate agent who are already using the tool to promote their businesses. She says they’re planning several discovery features, which will be important to companies buying paid spots. “You’ll always be able to see popular notes and public notes as you wander about,” Fake said.
Pinwheel isn’t the first app to introduce the idea of notes tied to a location. Matchbook is an app that allows people to create private notes tied to a location, and Foursquare allows users to leave tips tied to locations, but they’re often only discovered once a user checks in. Fake knows there are other apps with note features, but wanted to bring it to the forefront. “Notes is a feature on many apps, but it seemed to me like it should be THE feature,” she said. She says there are no current plans to partner with existing location-based services to cross-post notes, but she’ll “see how things develop.”
She also says it’s unclear whether sponsored notes will be the only plan for revenue. With merchants able to leave tips at other locations and specials at their own for free on Foursquare, there will need to be a compelling reason to pay for Pinwheel’s option. “Since we haven’t fully launched this feature, it remains to be seen,” Fake answered when asked what incentives Pinwheel would offer to merchants so they would buy sponsored notes instead of finding free alternatives.
While the app has obvious use cases for consumers, the real benefit could be for merchants looking to connect with new customers. Brick-and-mortar storeowners are already using tools like Yelp, Google Places and Foursquare to attract a hyper-local audience. But while Foursquare focuses on tips after you’ve already checked into a location, Pinwheel notes can attract a customer who’s in a certain area and interested in new experiences. As merchants continue to look for ways to connect with their next loyal customers, tools like Pinwheel are hoping they can capitalize on the online-for-offline trend.