Jerry Skillett could have been forgiven if he had taken a lot of time off after selling the company he co-founded, Citizens Parking, in 2018 to another parking operator that got a huge capital infusion from the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank.
But instead, within a year Skillett co-founded Spaces USA in an effort to bring a digital revolution to the traditional parking-garage business where he’d made his first fortune. Now, his New York City-based startup has brought contact-less mobile payments for parking spots to 25 major cities, is working with every major parking-facility operator and is enjoying more than 20,000 users a day.
Covid became an ideal accelerant for Spaces USA’s highly sanitary payment method. Not only that, but the flexibility inherent in its technology has been a perfect antidote to the post-pandemic era in which parking facilities deal with new unpredictability brought by hybrid approaches to work and extremely tenuous attachments to workplaces that are now demanded by employees—and allowed by employers.
Skillett is happy to be back in the thick of things, spearheading yet another digital transformation of a traditional function of everyday American life. “I love parking,” Skillett told Chief Executive. “I’m very passionate about it. I saw some changes going on in the industry while I was the owner of Citizens, and now I’m acting on them.”
Skillett has more than 35 years as an industry executive. He built Citizens into the second-largest parking company in earnings in the United States, with $1 billion in revenues by 2017. Skillett also has started a handful of technology and product companies in between training for triathlons.
While growing and running Citizens, Skillett noticed how much time drivers were wasting to find parking spaces for their cars after their navigation systems or mobile devices had guided them to the right building. “People would navigate to their meeting address, but that wasn’t necessarily where their car was going to be,” he said. It would take them extra time to find parking associated with the building.”
So, Citizens funded a nine-month pilot with Google Maps and Waze, another GPS-navigation app owned by Google, to put a messaging system in 300 parking garages around the country that helped drivers navigate to a parking facility associated with their destination.
“The results were astounding,” he recalled. “We had 165,000 navigations that changed their [destinations] to parking garages. It saved a tremendous amount of driving time.”
Yet Skillett also garnered an insight that was the seed of his next venture. “When people arrived at the parking facility, they still had to pull a ticket and go through a physical mechanism to get in,” he said. “Being an idea person, I said, ‘Wouldn’t it make sense that if they navigated with a mobile device to a facility, they should be able to stay with that app to park, pay and exit?’”
Soon after he left Citizens in the wake of its acquisition, Skillett was sinking a couple million dollars into the idea that would become Spaces USA. The platform attaches a parking credential to someone’s mobile-phone number and creates a completely contact-less transaction for gated parking facilities that didn’t exist before.
“We made something that was complicated simpler, easier and more efficient,” he said.
The pandemic accelerated the relevance and the need for Spaces USA. For one thing, Skillett said, “all of us over the last year or so have had to change payment processes because a lot of people didn’t take cash anymore. Using mobile devices for payment has skyrocketed.”
At the same time, he said, “as tenants come back into urban core areas, their parking needs are different, and we have a flexible system that’s software-based. And software permutations are almost infinite at a very low cost.”
For instance, Skillett said, the typical workday for a white-collar commuter would involve parking somewhere for an entire workday and then paying the fee and driving home. “Now, transportation and the workday have completely changed,” Skillett said. “People are coming in at different times, staying fewer hours, and maybe not 10 or 12 but eight. Other people are coming in during the afternoon. Others are working evenings. The actual workday looks a lot different, more fluid.”
Spaces’ software-based system can accommodate this need for flexibility, he said, by “putting a specific rule around your telephone number and a specific rate or program that hasn’t been possible before.” The user pays a fee of $1 per “park,” while Spaces USA is free to the building owner and the parking operator.
As urban commuters return post-Covid, Skillett said, demand for Spaces USA is amplified by many Americans’ wariness of mass transit. “That will last into the fourth quarter, when I think commute times will become so difficult that a lot of people will be forced back into public transportation.”
But for those who drive to work and want a no-nonsense, touch-free way to get and pay for a parking spot, Spaces USA plans to do the dirty work.