Entrepreneurs

Two guys created their dream jobs, forged by a love for tech and beer

A shared interest in technology and beer brought Greg Avola and Tim Mather together on Twitter, but long hours and late nights helped make their mobile beer app, Untappd, the hit it is today.

Millions of beer drinkers around the globe rely on Untappd to rate, review and share beer recommendations.

Greg Avola, Untappd CTO
Source: Untappd
Greg Avola, Untappd CTO

The app began as a side project for the duo, who live on opposite coasts. Now, the business is large enough that the pair left their day jobs to focus on it full-time.

"We thought about industries that were inherently social, but not yet in a real-time digital fashion," said Avola, reflecting on the origin of their project. "We looked at it as an educational platform, merged with the idea of drinking with someone who is right there with you even if they are anywhere else around the world."

The goal was to create a beer-centric version of another app that was popular at the time, Foursquare. But instead of checking into a location, users "check into" a beer.

Launched in the fall of 2010, Untappd arrived as thousands of new brewers and their many thousands more new beers would hit the market. Today, Untappd has 3.2 million users who rely on it to keep track of an even more crowded craft beer market.

Avola, who lives in New York and serves as the company's chief technical officer, studied computer science and has a master's degree in IT. He built the site and its applications and handles all the back-end operations. Mather, who lives in Los Angeles, is the company's CEO.

While Avola wrote plenty of code in school, applying those lessons in the real world proved to be an education of its own.

"They don't really teach how to scale at this level when you're in school," said Avola. "They teach you to build queries for 100 people, not millions of people, so it was kind of a trial-and-error situation for us."

"I had a strict rule where I was not going to do Untappd stuff at work, so time management outside of work became the biggest thing." -Greg Avola, co-founder, Untappd

As the site grew quickly, Avola and Mather worked to keep pace and managed to succeed to such an extent that all but the most loyal users didn't realize it was just two guys working in their spare time. But there were some painful points along the way.

In its first couple years, the app often struggled to keep up with heavy traffic loads on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

"I remember flying out to a conference once, and it was a Thursday night and the whole app crashed," he recalled. "My plane was delayed on the tarmac and I couldn't access the Wi-Fi to fix the problem and it was a real mess."

Avola and Mather fought through the growing pains and ultimately worked to re-engineer the entire site to reduce crashes caused by large crowds in peak hours.

It wasn't just keeping up with the app's rapid growth. Both Untappd founders still had their full-time careers and families to support.

Avola would spend his days in the IT department at ABC News and his nights working to keep his passion project running smoothly.

"I had a strict rule where I was not going to do Untappd stuff at work, so time management outside of work became the biggest thing that we used to work on," he said.

Learning to prioritize the site's many needs was key, said Avola.

"We really focused on making sure we did the right thing at the right time. We had such limited time that we didn't waste it with things that weren't important, and that's kind of what it all came down to," he said.

Avola logged plenty of late nights, but with his supportive wife and a boss that was a "huge Untappd" fan, the app continued to grow — largely by word of mouth, since there was no marketing budget.

"I love walking into a bar, seeing someone I don't know checking their beer into Untappd and sharing with friends," he said. "That shows me we did something right and created something people will want to engage with for awhile."

In February of this year, Untappd merged with Next Glass, a wine and beer identification and recommendation app, and Untappd now operates as a Next Glass unit. This also allowed both Avola and Mather to quit their full-time jobs to focus solely on Untappd.

Among the first initiatives was the recently launched Untappd for Business, which allows bars and restaurants who pay for the service to share and update beer lists in the app and receive data and analytics on customer demographics.

"It's a thing we've built from the ground up, and from the very beginning been very humble about it, and all of sudden now we're getting the opportunity to give it the attention it deserves," said Avola. "To now be able to go to work and say I'm the CTO of Untappd, and it's not just a side project, it's a real full-time job, is a dream come true."