Makers of travel app Zeppelin bring startup to SLO County

kleslie@thetribunenews.comNovember 26, 2013 

San Luis Obispo will soon be host to a new tech startup.

Los Angeles-based interactive technology experts Chad McNeill, Jim Bradbury and Paul Terhaar are bringing their skills to the Central Coast with a new image-based travel app that they say could add more than 100 local jobs in the next two years.

Zeppelin, which will allow users to post pictures and information from their travels and win travel points, discounts and hotel stays, will probably be ready for users by the second half of 2014, co-founder McNeill told The Tribune.

McNeill isn’t new to the startup business: He, Bradbury and Terhaar are founders of interactive technology provider Mzure (pronounced “measure”), which uses video game technology to market brands to customers. Before that, the three worked for video game companies throughout the country, working on projects such as Dance Dance Revolution and Grand Theft Auto.

The trio will be leaving their leadership positions with Mzure (McNeill is the U.S. managing partner, while Bradbury and Terhaar serve as co-founders) to pursue Zeppelin in San Luis Obispo.

McNeill chose to base the business in San Luis Obispo after he spent several months acting as an advisor for SLO Hothouse, a business startup collaboration between Cal Poly and the local business community.

With nearly a half a million dollars invested in the venture among them, and an undisclosed amount in private investments, McNeill said they are well aware of the challenges ahead.

“Our biggest challenge is convincing investors in those bigger cities to take a leap of faith in San Luis Obispo — and in us,” McNeill said. “It’s a different market for us. It’s always easier to have a technology-based company in large cities.”

Another challenge the startup faces is breaking into the competitive travel sector.

McNeill said he thinks because Zeppelin is more social than most travel apps— “almost like a game” — people will recognize that it fills an unoccupied niche in travel planning.

“Planning a vacation shouldn’t be so cumbersome,” he said. “Traveling should be fun.”

When the holiday season ends, McNeill said he hopes to start hiring local programmers and offering annual salaries comparable to those in large cities.

“Smaller market programmers are paid 20 to 30 percent less for the same skills than they would be in Los Angeles,” he said. “It’s important for us to be stewards of good business, though — good programmers are good programmers, no matter where they live.”

McNeill said annual salaries for Zeppelin programmers would probably range between $80,000 and $90,000, though a high-level programmer could be paid more than $100,000.

McNeill said he hopes to hire between 100 and 150 people for the business over the next two years, most in head-of-household positions.

McNeill has yet to find a home base for the startup in San Luis Obispo, though he says he has been working with the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce to find an office location.

McNeill, along with local consultants Eric Meyer and Tod Nelson, also spoke with the County Business Improvement District to see if it would be interested in using Zeppelin on its Central Coast travel website, www.winecoastcountry.com. Last week the CBID decided it would not spend $125,000 to partner with Zeppelin, said Cheryl Cumming, CBID chief administrative officer. McNeill intended to deliver the same pitch to the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.

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