Though just a year old, sales at Boulder’s The Waffle Lab on University Hill were exceeding expectations on most days. Except for Thursdays, between 3 and 6 p.m., the restaurant’s slowest time of the week.
“During that time, we would get one or two customers,” said Brad Roumaya, owner of The Waffle Lab.
So in September 2022, he turned to a new startup in town, Nigh, whose entire focus is bringing patrons to Boulder businesses during their off-peak hours. When Nigh’s employees explained the company’s mission, Roumaya threw them a challenge.
“He told my team, ‘If you could bring me 10 customers at that time, I would be amazed,’” Josh Ritzer, Nigh’s founder, said. The next Thursday, Nigh’s app brought The Waffle Lab about 70 diners during those three hours — most of them, Roumaya said, first-time customers.
Nigh, Old English for near, launched in spring 2022 out of coworking space Galvanize Boulder, several months after Ritzer began talking to local businesses to get their input about the app. He moved to Boulder seven years ago with his family from Silicon Valley, where he spent nearly a decade at Accenture, an information technology consulting company. Ritzer saw an opportunity to bring the work he had done helping Fortune 500 companies solve problems with high-end tech to a local scale. He invested $600,000 of his own money to launch Nigh.
“My dream is to revolutionize local commerce, to give the same level of technology and opportunity to [local businesses and] service jobs that big companies have capitalized on in the last 50 years,” he said.
Through its app, Nigh offers time-sensitive deals and spontaneous experiences to users who are near the business at the time the deals appear on the app. The goal is to bring in customers within minutes of the notification.
Nigh has partnered with 49 Boulder businesses so far — restaurants, climbing gyms, yoga studios, nail and hair salons. The app has around 3,400 users, most of them CU Boulder students. Nearly 80% of its users are 18 to 22.
The app is still in a Boulder-only pilot stage, and businesses can still partner with Nigh for free. In the future, for every in-app purchase, like a ticket for a deal or a reserved class spot, Nigh will take a transaction fee. Ritzer said he hasn’t yet determined how much the fee will be, though he said it won’t be as much as Groupon’s or fees of delivery apps like Uber Eats, both of which take 15% to 30% commission from businesses.
“I call those one-percenter technologies,” Ritzer said. “They’re helping a smaller amount of people get rich at the expense of people with local jobs.”
Ritzer has 16 employees — half are paid student interns who have helped spread the word on campus and grown its users. Ritzer hopes to scale to the Denver-metro area, then other major U.S. cities.
A mix of Uber, Eventbrite and TikTok
To get businesses on Nigh, Ritzer meets with them to determine which days and times they could use more customers. Together, they plan a “drop,” a time-limited offer or last-minute opening at, for instance, an exercise class or nail salon. Once daily, Nigh sends a push notification to app users who are near the promotion, using a similar location-based algorithm to Uber’s. (Those using the app outside of Boulder are notified they’re out of range.)
Alerts have been as broad as, “Rush to Lollicup for any milk or flavored tea” and “Freshen up your Friday with a pedi.” Others have been more specific, a deal on wings at Peckish, for example, and available spots at a Yoga Pearl class, similar to experiences the website Eventbrite offers.
A Nigh notification delivered on a recent evening advertised “tickets” for two beers for $5 at Hapa Sushi the following night at 10 p.m. It read, “Get your ticket ASAP for an amazing night at Hapa Sushi! Spots are limited.” Open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, Hapa experiences a lag around 10 p.m.
The app’s home screen looks like TikTok’s, displaying scrollable marketing videos that promote businesses based on proximity.
For now, Nigh creates these short videos for businesses. The team plans to roll out a host app early next year. This will allow businesses to post their own videos and drops, paying a percentage of their sales to Nigh as a transaction fee.
Because Nigh users are largely college-aged, most drops occur on University Hill or elsewhere near campus. “College kids are the lowest-cost users for us to grow and scale the platform,” Ritzer said. “Young people are far more likely to try a new app and share that app with their friends.” Some drops cater specifically to CU students.
“Everybody needs CU students,” said Angelie Timm, co-owner of Bohemian Biergarten, who said the restaurant’s profit margins were shrinking even before the pandemic. During Covid-19, Bohemian Biergarten lost business in their backroom from 9 to 11 p.m., where they host comedy shows and karaoke. The restaurant has become busier with people adjusting to post-pandemic life and wanted to see if it could attract even more customers.
“The new students haven’t really heard of us,” Timm said. To cater to them, Bohemian Biergarten did a recent drop for beer and a pretzel in its back room that sold out immediately. “It was wildly successful. People didn’t necessarily buy a second drink like we were hoping, but it was good exposure.”
Timm hopes to participate in more experience-based events with Nigh.
In contrast to salons and exercise classes, which might benefit more from last-minute users filling empty time slots throughout the day, restaurants often have happy hour or similar deals to draw in business during slow periods. “What we’re looking for is to create an experience,” Timm said, through events like schnitzel night or televising World Cup games starting next month.
‘Everybody needs CU students’
Because Nigh is still in early development — and Ritzer can create only so many drops with his 16 employees — only those who receive a link from someone on the app can download it.
Nigh isn’t searchable in the Apple app store. Ritzer said he hopes to keep it that way.
“I would love to avoid the app store forever, if I can,” Ritzer said. “One bad review can sink you very quickly if you’re a startup.”
Ritzer said he’s relying on word of mouth in the community and his bench of connected business advisors. They include Timm, Dana Faulk Query, co-owner of the Big Red F Restaurant Group; Josh Dinar, co-owner of the Working Title Food Group; John Tayer, president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce; and Chip, CEO of the Boulder Downtown Partnership.
“Josh wants really visible, active, local community members,” Timm said. “The whole app is about local and building a community from the ground up.” The business community is helping Ritzer figure out what local establishments need from the app.
“It’s all about community and supporting local businesses in a new way, and it’s working,” Ritzer said. “There’s no better place in the world to build this type of platform, putting local business success first.”