From the 'Trunkanizer' to online maps of crime

  • Colin Drane, founder of SpotCrime.com, is the creator of a free web-based crime-mapping service that's now operating in nearly 400 cities and towns across the U.S.
Colin Drane, founder of SpotCrime.com, is the creator of a free… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
April 11, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes | gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Colin Drane is a serial entrepreneur. He pitches his latest venture, SpotCrime.com, as a way to meet the public's need for freely available crime statistics. His past, more prosaic enterprises include selling car trunk organizers, which he pitched as a way to keep groceries from being jostled and crushed.

Drane, a 39-year-old Baltimorean, also has invested in other inventions, such as the Invisilift strapless bra and Bendaroos, a popular toy. He got the idea for the Trunkanizer several years ago, patented it and then launched a moderately successful campaign to sell it through an infomercial.

A native of Britain and a University of Virginia graduate, Drane has plowed hundreds of thousands of dollars into starting up SpotCrime.com, which displays crime statistics on maps for nearly 400 cities and towns across the United States. He launched SpotCrime in late 2007 and endured lean times as he and a small team of employees worked to increase the number of communities their crime maps covered.

But business is starting to look up this year, as Drane has struck key deals with major television stations across the United States to deliver SpotCrime content to their Web sites. Another recent deal with the DirecTV satellite service is making SpotCrime maps available on television sets in millions of homes.

The Baltimore Sun touched base with Drane to talk invention and crime in Baltimore.

Question: Have you always had an entrepreneurial streak?

Answer: I've always been doing something entrepreneurial. In college, I ran a painting company and a moving company because I needed to pay for school. Then I went corporate and worked in the finance world, and decided it wasn't for me. I bought into a franchise company that sold shipping services for DHL. That was really successful. I got bought out of that company.

Q: Where did you get the idea for the Trunkanizer?

A: It was just something that was germinating in my head all the time. I was always ticked off coming home from the grocery store and my bread was crushed. You have to have that perception that you bring something unique to the marketplace, even if it's something as silly as a trunk organizer. ... The design was unique enough to get a patent. It was not super successful, but it didn't lose money.

Q: Had you reached a life goal in bringing the Trunkanizer to market?

A: It was a pretty amazing ride because in order to get it done, we needed to have some sophisticated investors. It was the only product I had brought to market. We were incredibly lucky. It was neat to see it go from idea to final product. I don't know if it was on the bucket list, but I'll check it off.

Q: How effective are infomercials for sales, in your experience?

A: A product has to be very narrow in terms of the manufacturing and shipping costs. One of the biggest factors with the Trunkanizer was that no matter how you folded it, it was still big and bulky.

Q: You also helped bring the Invisilift bra to market? How did you get into that opportunity?

A: I'm just an investor. I'm not the inventor. My partner and I, we were able to get involved in some projects, and the Invisilift happens to be one of them.

Q: How do you divide your time between your investing, your SpotCrime business and your family?

A: SpotCrime is taking up 99 percent of my time. I have three kids. If I'm not doing SpotCrime, I'm taking care of the kids.

Q: You went from trunk organizers and bras to a Web site dedicated to mapping crime all over the country and even the world. How did you get the idea for SpotCrime?

A: The influence was other folks doing similar efforts in other cities, such as Chicagocrime.org. ... I had a GPS stolen from my car when I was home for lunch one day [in 2006], and I was ticked. I was looking for something to get involved with, and I thought of mapping crime in Baltimore. Baltimore certainly has plenty of content.

Q: What's your biggest hurdle in trying to grow SpotCrime?

A: There's a major hurdle in terms of getting access to data, particularly when starting out as an unknown entity. Three years later, it's a much different environment than when we started, where giving data out is a lot more acceptable than it was back then. There are technological hurdles. Each police department has their own records management system - we have to figure out how to interface with them.

Q: How does SpotCrime make money, and is it profitable yet?

A: We're hoping to be profitable this year. We have an advertising model. Our partnerships through media companies have revenue attached to them that goes back to an advertising model. We're an Internet start-up - we're OK with it being crappy during the start-up years. But in fact, in the last couple weeks, things are definitely looking up for us. We reached two significant milestones last month: It was our first month with 1 million page views and 1 million email alerts within one month.

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