If he hadn't been laid off or racked up $5,000 in parking tickets, Mark Lawrence might have never launched his digital parking company.
Today, the 37-year-old sits at the helm of SpotHero, which has booked more than $1 billion in online parking reservations — from at least 10 million drivers across 300 cities in the U.S. and Canada — since launching in 2011, according to the company.
SpotHero declined to provide revenue figures, but its website notes that it takes a 35% cut of each reservation. The company has other revenue streams, too — like selling price data analysis to parking sellers, for example.
The idea came from Lawrence's frustrations trying to park his car in downtown Chicago, while working as a financial analyst at Bank of America.
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"The thing that always got me was the street cleaning," Lawrence tells CNBC Make It, adding that his demanding job made it tough to remember to move his car and avoid accumulating tickets.
After he got laid off in 2010 in the aftermath of the Great Recession, just two years into his banking career, he and co-founders Jeremy Smith and Larry Kiss decided to channel those frustrations into a business.
"The whole idea was that there's not enough parking, [and] how do we make it easy to park?" Lawrence says.
Turns out, there was actually plenty of parking, he says: "You just don't know where it is."
From Wrigley Field to New York City
In his spare time, Lawrence had already brainstormed solutions for the inefficiency of traditional city parking, where drivers endlessly hunt for open street spots or pull into a garage and hope for a decent rate.
In 2011, the co-founders launched SpotHero as a peer-to-peer marketplace app where people who owned private parking spots could rent them out. They started with a single spot, owned by a friend of Lawrence's, near Wrigley Field.
The trio put $6,000 of their own savings toward bare essential startup costs, like building the first version of the SpotHero website and app, Lawrence says. But their model was flawed — signing up enough individual privately-owned spots to attract a lot of users could've taken forever.
The co-founders spent a year-and-a-half of struggling to stay afloat with 100 parking spots before landing a partnership with a parking garage, instantly adding 1,000 spots to their roster. They hadn't been thinking big enough, they realized.
By 2012, SpotHero was bringing in $100,000 per month in revenue and landing investments from startup accelerator TechStars and tech investment firm Battery Ventures, Lawrence says. A year later, SpotHero had a New York office and was operating in Milwaukee, Boston, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Expansion presented a challenge, says Lawrence: Many garage and parking lot owners had run their businesses non-digitally for decades. Some still only dealt in cash.
In response, Lawrence would visit the lots at different times of the day, taking pictures of empty spots and explaining how renting spaces on-demand could help with traffic fluctuations, he says.
The lot owners had insights for SpotHero, too. The company added options for monthly parking passes based on some of those conversations, Lawrence notes.
In a 'much better economy,' SpotHero may never have existed
So far, SpotHero has raised $118 million in total funding — and Lawrence says he wants to keep expanding the company's footprint, particularly throughout North America.
It's a more ambitious goal than it sounds: The continent's parking management industry is worth billions of dollars, and SpotHero estimates that only about 2% of that market is currently digitized.
"We are a small drop in the bucket, in terms of the greater parking dollars that are spent," Lawrence says.
The company has competitors, too — some of which predate SpotHero. Parkopedia, for example, was founded in 2009 and operates in more than 90 countries around the world. ParkMobile partners with city governments to allow drivers to pay for street parking digitally instead of digging through car cupholders for quarters.
But so much untapped market leaves plenty of room for SpotHero — and its competitors — to keep growing. "We'll be doing billions [annually]," Lawrence says. "That's where our focus is."
And to think, if not for an economic crisis, Lawrence might still be a banker. "If it was a much better economy, I probably would have been more excited by the path of staying on a 'stable' career path," he says.
Instead, he knows from experience that seemingly stable jobs can still disappear — which is why he recommends jumping at entrepreneurial ideas "that you get excited about."
"Try it," Lawrence says. "You don't need multi-million dollars of venture capital. You can start, one foot in front of the other. That's what we did."
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