From a Cubs game at Wrigley Stadium to an afternoon at the Shedd Aquarium, the frustration of finding a parking space in some of the busiest neighborhoods in Chicago can sometimes overshadow the fun of the trip.
However, Winnetka native and graduate Mark Lawrence, 26, is hoping to change that. Joined by partners Jeremy Smith and Larry Kiss, Lawrence has developed "SpotHero," a website and smartphone app devoted to finding cheap and available parking in Chicago.
“The idea came from my personal frustrations with parking,” Lawrence said. “You really don’t know where a space is going to be or how much you’re going to pay. You have to drive in circles. Street parking spots may exist; it may not. I thought, ‘How do we make parking easier?’”
Mark, son of Deborah and Jay Lawrence, grew up in the south loop of Chicago until he was 8-years-old before moving with his family to Glenview, and then settling in Winnetka. He graduated from New Trier in 2004, and then from Bradley University in 2008.
That’s when an idea for downtown parking turned into a business opportunity.
Lawrence’s tech startup could be compared to the popular travel website, Orbitz, but SpotHero is dedicated to finding discounted Chicago parking rather than discounted hotels. More than 100 downtown parking garages have already joined the service, and Lawrence says his company is growing larger by the day.
“Something as small and mundane as parking, when that experience goes well, it completely changes the dynamic of your day and where you’re going.”
“We started working on the idea in October of 2010, but didn’t actually launch the website until July of 2011,” Lawrence explained. “At first we were just focused on the Wrigley Field area to make parking easier, but now we’re all across downtown Chicago. We’ve expanded quite a bit, and our mobile app was just launched last month. ... What we want to do is expand to other cities, replicate the model and make parking easier."
SpotHero works like this: Once travelers decide on a destination, they can visit the SpotHero website or use the free iPhone application. After entering the address, the service provides a list of parking facilities in the area, including their distance from a destination. It will also show the cost and the length of time that fee will cover.
Customers then pay by credit card online and can print out a receipt or pull it up on their smartphone to use at the garage. Lawrence says customers like it because they’re guaranteed a parking space that they chose before leaving, and garage owners like it because they’re guaranteed another customer.
“This is really valuable for people living in suburbs like Winnetka because there’s cost savings and convenience,” said Lawrence. “You want to go to the city, but parking is a big deal. But if you know you can go for $10 total, it could bring more people to the City of Chicago in general.”
Lawrence hopes that by changing something as small and tedious as parking, he can draw more people to the city, in turn, slightly boosting Chicago’s economy.
“Something as small and mundane as parking, when that experience goes well, it completely changes the dynamic of your day and where you’re going,” he said.
According to Lawrence, some of the deals the company worked out have spots starting at $6. Also, if any Chicagoan has a parking space they'd like to rent out and list on SpotHero, they can easily list their spot on the website to make extra cash.
Editor's Note: This article was modified Sept.6 at 4:49 p.m. for clairty purposes regarding free parking.