Sean Wycliffe does not know exactly how many empty seats there are on any given day in movie theaters. But if his Oakland-based startup DealFlicks is successful, whatever seats are empty will be filled.
The company, which offers movie tickets and concessions up to 60 percent off, launched in April. So far, they have signed up four cinemas.
"I would love to have something ... blow up and do really well," Wycliffe said.
The effort has entailed 60-hour weeks for Wycliffe and his partners, Kevin Hong and Zachary Cancio.
While Cancio works on the DealFlicks website, the others are busy trying to pierce the rings of staff that surround movie owners, or hunting them down at conventions. Eventually they're hoping to raise as much as $1 million from angel investors, Wycliffe said. So far they have raised $50,000.
They haven't charged for DealFlicks yet but will begin taking a 10 percent cut off tickets sales. "Right now we're just bootstrapping," said Wycliffe, sitting at an Oakland cafe.
He graduated from the University of California-Berkeley in 2010 with a bachelor's degree in economics instead of his original choice, business and math.
"I didn't want to kill myself as hard," he said, adding that he regretted not having taken more computer classes in college. More tech know-how, he said, "would have been worth killing myself for."
The idea for DealFlicks originated during a matinee in 2010 -- maybe "The King's Speech," Wycliffe said. Empty seats surrounded him.
"All of a sudden the light bulb clicked," he said. "Why not do a Hotwire for movies?" Instead of hotel rooms, DealFlicks would discount unsold cinema seats instead of empty hotel rooms and flights.
But finding someone to build the site proved to be the greatest challenge, said Wycliffe, whose role models might seem like an unlikely duo outside of Silicon Valley: Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and microcredit entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, a fellow Bangladeshi.
Wycliffe lost his first partner to the tech boom. "So that was kind of programmer No. 1," he said.
By the time his second programmer turned out to be a disappointment -- and Wycliffe learned some coding on his own -- it was late 2011. He started thinking about business school instead of movie seats. He had since founded Project Pueblo, a nonprofit that tries to improve economic and living conditions, most recently in April, among the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
Then a finance-minded friend, Hong, 27, joined DealFlicks.
After losing a third programmer, Hong found Cancio, who revamped the system for this month's launch.
"It's just five times better," Wycliffe said, pulling up the site a day before it went online. The site gathers data from the movie theaters websites and displays available deals. The catch is that users only find out which showtime they will attend after they pay. The model makes planning a night at the movies problematic.
"At the same time it catches another market -- people like me," the 29-year-old Wycliffe said.
Those are moviegoers with flexible schedule for whom a bargain trumps planning.
Wycliffe will have to show theaters that DealFlicks can make them money if he wants to bite into what he estimated to be a $40 billion worldwide movie market.
Struggling theaters are eager for help recapturing business drained away by Hulu and Netflix. But it's too early to quantify whether that has been happening, said Allen Michaan, owner of Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, which has signed on with DealFlicks. "We're just trying to rebuild our customer base."
The owners of the Gardena Cinema in Gardena, Calif., were won over by Hong's persistence and shared Korean roots as much as DealFlicks promises. The 800-seat cinema competes with megaplexes that can afford to change their films every week, said Judy Kim, the daughter of the owners. She didn't have numbers handy, but said, "They brought in people."
Wycliffe said he wants to avoid the temptation of turning DealFlicks into an advertisement billboard, or charging "convenience" fees.
There are no plans to sell user information to third-party marketing companies, a common way startups stay afloat. "I don't know how users would feel about that," Wycliffe said.
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