Written by Andrew Seale

Most people do their best thinking in the shower, Wyatt Shaw’s epiphany came in an Uber. And rightfully so, he’s spent a lot of time in the backseats of stranger’s cars, explains Dan Forte while the Portl Media co-founders are going through Shaw’s Uber statistics.

“The guy’s spent 10 days of his life in an Uber,” says Forte. “That’s a lot of idle time…”

The pair, who’ve been friends since they met at Dalhousie University on the east coast, had been brainstorming business ideas with another friend, Duncan Brown (Portl Media’s third co-founder), when Shaw’s Uber inclinations and the dead-time it afforded him came up.

What if there was a free touch-screen system in the back of Ubers with hyper-local info on restaurants and events? asked Shaw.

“It’s a mix between the billboard and the digital banner ad,” explains Shaw. “Rides are 15 minutes on average so it’s a great time for a brand to really connect with somebody on a one-to-one basis.”

Particularly through videos like movie trailers, sports highlights, local news as well as games and insight on food and events.

So in the winter of 2017, they began chipping away at a business plan on the side. But having all been involved in startups they knew it was nothing without a pilot so they enlisted the help of 10 Uber drivers in Toronto to test out the Portl Media system – a software and hardware package fixed to the back of the headrest in their cars.

“It went really well with 90 per cent of the people who got in the car using,” says Shaw pointing out it’s an opt-in system so riders choose whether or not the system engages with them. He said the aim was to give riders real value rather than “the New York cab where Jimmy Fallon screams at you for 25 minutes and you can't really turn it off… People opt into our platform”

“It’s completely up to the rider,” adds Forte.

The pilot a success, Portl Media entered a Schulich startup night pitch competition. They ended up winning, got a $15,000 loan through Futurepreneur, hired their first employee – a full-stack developer – and rebuilt the software. Since then they’ve inked advertiser deals with card maker Bicycle (who designed two original games for the system), Vice and notable.ca.

The startup says it’s ready to launch in 1,000 vehicles, and while they’re still focusing on building strong partnerships, they see a future where Portl Media has presence wherever people have idle time – be it waiting rooms, hotels or AirBnB.

“We're really focused on location-based advertising where people are getting picked up and dropped off… offering up coupons, promotions, telling them about events in the area,” says Shaw.

And, with their headquarters set up in Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone, Toronto continues to be the proving ground.

“We were going to move to New York but we turned it down because we wanted to grow our presence here,” says Forte. “(Toronto) is a huge city for Uber and ride-share in general – we've such a good backyard to play in, why not use it?”

Photos: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)