Have you ever found yourself on a road trip, gazing out of the car window, wondering about the history and stories behind the places you pass?
Autio, a groundbreaking mobile app, aims to transform your travel experience by bringing these stories to life. We had the opportunity to chat with Woody Sears, Co-Founder & CEO of Autio, to delve into the captivating world of curated audio stories and learn how the company is paving the way for a new category of travel apps.
Learn about the inspiration for this unique app, how they think differently about metrics like user engagement and Sears’ advice for mobile app success today, why Autio and Zendrive joined forces, and what’s next for the company.
Let’s start with a brief overview of your company. What does Autio do and who does it serve?
Woody Sears: I've been a lifelong traveler and road-tripper. That's how we used to travel in my family when I was a kid. We drove all over the western United States and had a lot of great trips, but there was a lot of time on the road where we didn’t quite know what to do with our time. And I’d hear these stories along the way, either shared by my parents or from things I'd learn about in roadside markers, that really intrigued me.
When my wife and I started traveling together, we would see things on the side of the road, like a small town, and wonder how they got there. Or we’d see a mountain peak and wonder what the name of it was and how it got its name. We'd be looking these things up on our devices with our heads down, and only sometimes finding the answers, but a lot of times not.
We wanted an experience that was more hands-free, drawing you into your surroundings so you could learn and listen to what was going on outside the car window.
Autio is almost like a museum curator headphone experience but for the open road. We built this in part for ourselves, but we knew there were other people out there that would greatly benefit from it as well.
We tell stories about history, culture, and natural wonders and share local insights that inform and engage people about their surroundings. These 3-5 minute audio stories about places across the United States are all professionally narrated, and we're even branching out beyond the US now.
Ultimately, Autio’s purpose is to entertain people along their journey.
What makes Autio unique? Do you see it as a category-defining app?
WS: Autio is a unique app in a brand-new product category. While there are other location-based audio guides available, they are often limited to walking tours or specific destinations like national parks.
Autio stands out because we entertain users throughout their entire journey, not just at major tourist spots. We focus on the fascinating places in between.
Is there a specific persona of Autio’s power users, or is there a diverse mix of personas that interact with the app?
WS: Autio's users are curious travelers who want to learn about the places they visit or pass by. Our app caters to a variety of people, including RVers, van lifers, families on occasional road trips, and weekend warriors that aren’t necessarily taking long trips. Many users listen together with their partners or families. They often have a college education and a love for exploration.
What role do personalized experiences play in driving user engagement for mobile apps, and how does Autio deliver its own personalized experiences?
WS: Personalization is still in the early stages for us. Our app already tailors the experience to the listener by triggering stories based on their location. This gives a curated feel to the content as users receive notifications or stories will automatically begin to play when the app is open and when they enter the range of a new story. So many times it feels like the tour guide is right in your car, which is a very personalized experience.
We also offer features like favorites and playlists, and we have plans to expand personalization around community-driven things. But there is definitely a huge opportunity for personalization in our app, and it’s something that’s very much of interest to our customers.
What are some of the key factors that can help apps survive and thrive in the current economic environment?
WS: There are so many apps out there, and so many problems these apps are trying to solve.
Apps that solve customer problems effectively and complement their lives have a good chance of success.
Monetization has evolved from premium apps to free and ad-supported models, and now to subscription-based approaches so apps can deliver long-term value to customers. Building ongoing relationships with customers and continually delivering that value is crucial. It's a symbiotic relationship where developers can keep evolving the app while providing long-term value to users.
Let’s talk about Autio’s partnership with Zendrive. What do you hope will come of this partnership, and how will it benefit your users?
WS: Our partnership with Zendrive is a great fit because we both serve an audience that is interested in curated experiences based on driving and location. Autio users have already allowed location tracking and push notifications, and many of them own or use vehicles regularly.
By offering our users potential savings on auto insurance and access to our unlimited streaming content, they’ll become even more interested in a membership. We believe there are many who are looking for ways to access Autio without having recurring or one-time charges. Through our partnership with Zendrive, Autio users not only get membership access, but they also end up potentially saving money on auto insurance. It really benefits both parties.
What are some of the biggest challenges your space faces today, and how is Autio working to address these challenges?
WS: One of the challenges is the abundance of content competing for people's attention, especially through social media platforms.
Autio addresses this by providing a break from screen-focused engagement, so people can take a break from looking at their screens – especially while driving. Many of us need to remove ourselves from that “always on” mentality.
We think a little bit differently about metrics like engagement. We aim to be a tool that enhances the journey rather than monopolizing it. Our goal is to deliver a complementary experience that allows users to unplug and be present, leaving a lasting impression rather than a temporary distraction. I think that’s something our customers really appreciate.
How do you see Autio being a pioneer in its own space and paving the way for other entrants?
WS: We hope to inspire others to create similar content and be a home for millions of untold stories. While we have created most of the content so far, we see opportunities for newcomers to contribute to the audio app and platform. Autio can provide a platform for these stories and contribute to the growth of the space.
Which trends/changes/predictions are you most excited about in mobile app development?
WS: Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have shown great promise, but they haven't quite reached mainstream adoption. In our case, we consider ourselves a more accessible form of AR with our audio stories that bring landscapes to life.
There are exciting opportunities for other overlays that don't require wearing something on your face, allowing users to have unique experiences. Whether it's incorporating these features into vehicle dashboards or other contexts, it can be a fascinating addition.
Additionally, the expansion of coverage and high-speed data enables us to deliver exceptional experiences in more places. We also have the advantage of working offline, which is crucial for travelers exploring remote areas like national parks, where there may be no network coverage. In such cases, we can still provide relevant historical stories and content.
What are some of the best practices for in-app engagement and retention that apply to audio apps? What are some of the common mistakes that players in the space make?
WS: Communicating with your members before their subscription renews and ensuring they are aware of the upcoming renewal is crucial.
Remind users of the value you have provided so far and reiterate your promises for the future.
We typically do this through email, as we find it to be the most effective method, along with occasional and targeted push messages. We want to avoid overwhelming the user with non-essential app features. It's important to strike a balance between ongoing communication and making sure users are clear on the value proposition.
So what’s next for Autio? What’s on the roadmap?
WS: We have seen significant demand for an Android version, and it will be available very soon. This is our biggest upcoming initiative.
Before we end, tell us about your recent Shark Tank experience. How did you stay calm and composed in front of an intimidating audience?
WS: Shark Tank was a captivating and nerve-wracking experience, but I'm grateful for the opportunity. I received comments about my ability to remain calm and composed, although I personally feel it may have been less so. I believe my advantage was having regular conversations with investors, sharing our story, and being asked numerous questions.
Some of the early-stage startups on the show haven't had the opportunity to go through that process, so they may be caught off guard by new questions and have to think on their feet. That's when the Sharks can sense vulnerability.
Fortunately, we didn't encounter any of those situations during my time on the show.
Get more information on Autio here. To learn more about how Zendrive partners with leading apps like Autio via its Insurance Qualification Lens (IQL) solution, contact us directly below.