REDMOND, Wash. — Dec. 14, 2011 — At this time of year when everyone seems focused on seasonal gift-giving, ParcelGenie offers a way to reward and acknowledge friends and family immediately when the occasion arises. ParcelGenie lets people send small gifts such as chocolates, button badges or coffee mugs — affordably and almost instantaneously — using a smartphone, nonsmartphone or social media website. With the motto “Ping a Pal a Prezzie,” the U.K.-based Microsoft BizSpark One startup is the world’s first instant gift messaging service.
December 13, 2011
One of the many delicious gifts available through Microsoft BizSpark One’s ParcelGenie.
“We are pioneering the concept of gifting as communication,” says John Taylor, CEO and co-founder of ParcelGenie. “With our service, people can respond to news from friends, co-workers and loved ones — an achievement at work, a personal goal achieved, a quick thank-you, or someone not feeling well — with an immediate, low-cost real little gift and personal message. ParcelGenie closes the gap between thought and action, making it easy to do something meaningful to deepen emotional connections with the people in our lives.”
Virtual gifts have become popular for their immediacy, but they lack the satisfaction of a physical gift that can be touched or tasted. Physical gifts are great, but it takes time and effort between the thought of sending a gift and their actual dispatch and delivery.
“ParcelGenie is not a replacement for traditional gifting services or for major holiday or event gift-giving, such as weddings or birthdays,” says Taylor. “Our service is designed to be part of everyday communications, as a way to let someone know you’re thinking about them. You can be walking down the street, standing in line, or sitting on a bus or train, and in the same time it would take to send a virtual gift, you can send an inexpensive little something, quickly and easily selecting a recipient from your mobile phone address book or social media contact list.”
Dual Business Models Extend ParcelGenie’s Reach
“We are a technology business with a retail business model,” says Taylor.
In Europe, ParcelGenie operates principally as a direct service to consumers, branded under the ParcelGenie name. Elsewhere in the world, including in the U.S., the company works with major retail partners offering its instant gift messaging service as a white-labeled option on the retailers’ ecommerce sites. For instance, in addition to a retailer’s “Buy” button, its website might include a “Gift” or “Ping” button that initiates contact with the ParcelGenie service.
Whether directly or through a partner, an entire ParcelGenie gifting session takes only a few seconds. The sender chooses a gift from the ParcelGenie gift catalogues (e.g., some candy, lip gloss or a key ring), enters the recipient’s mobile number or social media contact information, adds a personal message, and pays for the gift, which usually costs less than $10 (U.S.).
At this point, if the transaction is happening through a partner’s site, ParcelGenie’s back-end system takes over, capturing the recipient’s address confidentially. The recipient receives a message saying that the gift-giver has sent a gift and asking where it should be delivered. ParcelGenie handles all aspects of the fulfillment of the order, optionally including customer service on behalf of partners.
“More than 99 percent of the gifts sent using ParcelGenie are claimed within two hours, which is a very good key performance indicator,” says Taylor. “Moreover, not only do gift-givers frequently become regular users of our service, but recipients often start using ParcelGenie to send their own gifts.”
Powered by Microsoft, From the Start
ParcelGenie co-founders Taylor and Chief Technology Officer Richard Tolcher met at Oxford University when both were pursuing their doctoral degrees: Taylor in the politics of economic crises and Tolcher in computer science. From the company’s founding in 2007, it has used Microsoft technology — against the advice of early investors, who wanted the startup to use open-source technologies.
“We built our original system on the full Microsoft development stack, first as a dedicated server configuration and more recently migrated to the Windows Azure platform,” says Taylor. “The Windows Azure cloud-based environment is crucial for scalability, without incurring high fixed costs traditionally associated with dedicated server configurations, and while enabling operations globally and at large and often spikey transaction volumes.”
ParcelGenie also uses Windows Phone as the test bed for all new features, such as the ability to personalize button badges with photos or text. “We have found the Visual Studio development environment to be the friendliest, most flexible and intuitive to develop in,” says Taylor. “It’s just a great environment for developers. In fact, it was the ease of development and success of ParcelGenie on Windows Phone that influenced consideration of the mobile channel as the core of ParcelGenie’s service.”
ParcelGenie was one of the first companies to join BizSpark, at the program’s inception in November 2008.
“Naturally we appreciate the software cost benefits, but for us the much more important benefit of being a BizSpark One member is Microsoft’s help in enabling us to move quickly and scale globally,” says Taylor. “They give us pre-market access to new Microsoft technologies, like the most recent version of Windows Phone. And our BizSpark connections have been instrumental in introducing us to the right people at the right time, especially our partners worldwide.”
Having reached the end of its three-year BizSpark tenure, ParcelGenie has officially graduated from the program — but the company will continue its association with BizSpark One and will stick with Microsoft technologies.
“We realize that many startups have a tough time justifying the purchase of Microsoft technologies, which is why the BizSpark program is so helpful, especially at the beginning,” says Taylor. “For us, I can’t imagine not using Microsoft technologies. It made it possible for us to deliver our innovative service to the marketplace quickly, delivering a simple, scalable, reusable and gratifying experience to consumers while building our rather complex back-end and logistics systems. Now, Microsoft is enabling us to scale to high-volume, global levels, so that our vision of instant gift messaging can be a part of people’s everyday experiences worldwide.”