When you're entering a crowded field, sometimes the trick is just to pick the right vertical.
James Hamilton runs Offshoot, a web-development shop in Toronto's Liberty Village, developing web apps for customers ranging from the big banks to neighbourhood associations. But when his team decided to build an app called Resurva that would handle appointment bookings for small businesses, they took it to a businessperson they knew in a peculiar profession: A young barber.
Online reservations are not rocket science, exactly, but as it happens, barbering is a profession that's enjoying something of an indie renaissance: Suddenly, it's the kind of thing that people are lining up around the block for. And now, Hamilton's company is selling its subscription software to barbers around the world.
Where it comes to technology, Mr. Hamilton says, the new generation of barbers tend not to be stronger on social networks like Instagram than on business staples, like managing bookings.
"We were finding a lot of these guys didn't have a computer, and just had a phone or an iPad or something," he says. "You'd be shocked at how many followers these guys have. They've got tens of thousands of followers, but they have zero web presence."
Resurva got its start a few years ago as a trial project that Mr. Hamilton launched with Crow's Nest, a Kensington Market barbershop where his brother, who works alongside him at Offshoot, gets his hair cut.
Crow's Nest, and the 13 barbers who work there, are riding a wave of interest in barbering that owner Jon Roth says has been building for a decade – but which, in the last two years, "has been insane." Barbershops, he says, went into decline with the arrival of the Beatles and the vogue of long hair that came with them, and the rise of unisex salons in the 80s and 90s.
Through those decades, he says, it was African-American culture that "held the torch" for barbershops as a place that was a community hub as much as place to get a haircut. "That's what you strive for, is to have people dropping by, hanging out," he says.
All of which makes barbering culture a curious fit for technologists who's like to bring cloud-based scheduling to their business.
"It definitely took some convincing to get me through the office doors," says Mr. Roth. But he says he was quickly sold on the concept, and has been evangelizing the product through the barbering world; the software has since been picked up at boutique barbershops from LA to Chicago, Ireland and the Netherlands.
In truth, there's nothing that limits Resurva to barbers. The web-based application, which works across all platforms and form factors, handles appointment bookings either for either a sole practitioner or a group operation; it works just as well for massage therapists as barbers.
"At first, you don't know if you're vertical's going to stick, so we tried a few other things," Mr. Hamilton says.
Users log in to book an appointment, and the software will send them e-mail or text reminders when the time comes. Hamilton says that a client can be up and running in less than 15 minutes, after plugging in the basics of who's working which hours.
Mr. Hamilton's philosophy is to keep Resurva lean and simple: Instead of offering a soup-to-nuts retail package, it focuses strictly on appointment booking and scheduling, and is built to integrate with other products, like point-of-sale software or online storefronts like Shopify. Monthly packages range from $20 to $75.
Mr. Hamilton isn't putting an exact number on how many clients he's signed up for now, but says that by this time next year, his firm will mostly be first and foremost focused on Resurva.
"We're getting to the point where it's a real business now."