Updated: January 16, 2013 6:04AM
Web design team leader Nathan Henry turned to technology to save nearly 50 percent on his regular parking downtown — and he has no contract tying him any single garage.
He uses ParkWhiz, a free web and mobile site that tells motorists in real time the cheapest parking garage vacancies nearby, and offers a discount on those spaces.
“Sometimes I take mass transit, but sometimes I need my car,” said Henry, a South Loop resident who drives to work in River North. “I didn’t want to pay $20-plus each day.”
He also wanted to avoid getting locked into a monthly parking contract.
Henry has never gotten frustrated by pulling into a full garage.
An example of a ParkWhiz offer is at the 60 E. Randolph parking garage, where a motorist who wants to park for the day pays $14 instead of the non-ParkWhiz rate of $30.
To make money, ParkWhiz charges a 15 percent commission from parking providers, such as garage and venue owners.
ParkWhiz got its start six years ago as the brainchild of CEO and co-founder Aashish Dalal, whose then-fiancee — now his wife, Reepal — told him how frustrated she was when her monthly parking spot near Fenway Park was taken without notice by Boston Red Sox fans or visitors to a big event. When that happened, she had to drive to an out-lot, and was late to her law-school class at Boston University.
“I started writing a business plan,” said Aashish Dalal, a 35-year-old resident of Roscoe Village who had grown disillusioned working at big corporations.
ParkWhiz has been profitable from the start.
Its contract list includes the Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Auburn University Tigers football team, the Lyric Opera, 125 parking sites throughout Chicago’s downtown and parking venues surrounding Wrigley Field, as well as event partners such as TicketsNow and StubHub. Its top markets include Chicago, Dallas, New York and San Francisco.
More than 1 million people have used ParkWhiz’s 2,000 parking venues nationwide.
“We marketed ourselves as the ‘Orbitz’ of parking,” said Dalal, who started the company with about $7,000 of his own cash.
ParkWhiz co-founder Jon Thornton built the company’s website and its back-end infrastructure.
“It was a lot of time, energy and perseverance,” Dalal said, noting that ParkWhiz boasts a 95 percent customer satisfaction result from surveys.
Despite growing competition, including from Chicago-based SpotHero and San Francisco-based GottaPark, ParkWhiz has enjoyed 150 percent year-over-year revenue growth in each of the past three years. Part of the growth comes from people’s increasing use of mobile devices. One-quarter of ParkWhiz’s customers find their parking spaces with a mobile device.
To improve the mobile experience, the company will launch on Dec. 31 a free app for Android and iPhone users, downloadable from iTunes.
The Android and iPhone software platforms allow for more interactive uses, such as panning a view, pulling up maps and locating real-time open parking spaces while inside the parking site, for ParkWhiz customers with those devices, Dalal noted.
ParkWhiz is growing so fast, it is finalizing a round of venture capital and intends to more than double its 20-person workforce in the next 12 to 15 months.
And the company will move its headquarters in the next three weeks to either River North or the West Loop from its current Roscoe Village offices.
Northwestern University Transportation Professor Hani Mahmassani says parking apps are creating a new, more efficient parking-space marketplace.
But he said the system is still patchwork, since some parking-garage and parking-lot owners don’t participate in the apps program, and some likely withhold information at times when they know they can fill their spaces with customers who will pay the full price.
Yet motorists are finding a way to tell each other about open spaces when they see them via crowdsourcing apps such as Google’s Open Spot, said Mahmassani, director of Northwestern’s Transportation Center.
The next stage of the parking evolution may see parking-site owners installing sensors so they can let drivers reserve one particular spot in the garage or lot, Mahmassani said.
Meanwhile, ParkWhiz’s Dalal welcomes his company’s move so he can be part of Chicago’s growing tech-hub scene — a major change since the time he started and found it a challenge to build a network of fellow tech entrepreneurs.
“I networked with GrubHub co-founders Matt Maloney and Mike Evans; Karan Goel of PrepMe and Genevieve Thiers of SitterCity,” he said. “Back then, you had to scrap to meet people.”