Good Life

Helping users find parking, Penn State grad and app founder keeps dreams in overdrive

Penn State alumnus Mike Black created the app ParkingBee to help people find parking in State College.
Penn State alumnus Mike Black created the app ParkingBee to help people find parking in State College.

Nine months before graduation, Michael Black received an offer that a college senior seemingly couldn’t refuse: a starting position with Merrill Lynch, the giant wealth management wing of Bank of America.

New York beckoned. But his future had other plans.

“That was pretty tough to decline,” he said. “It would have been a nice position, but at the end of the day, what am I actually doing with my life?”

Black, now 23, had done quite a lot, actually. He had co-founded a marketing software company while still in high school, withdrawn from Penn State after his first semester because of it and took successive 20-credit course loads to catch up once he returned. A summer internship with Merrill Lynch set him up for a corporate career.

But the finance major had by then founded his next project, a mobile and online platform for finding parking called ParkingBee, and wanted to see it take flight. The business — still more of an idea at that point — was barely 3 months old.

So that job offer? He chose his bee over the bull.

“There was something I was more passionate about,” he said. “I love building a team and actually building something together.”

The founder of ParkingBee, which connects parking space owners to those searching for a spot around town, sat down with the Centre Daily Times to talk about how he builds his team, disruption in the sharing economy and how to let your parents down easy after declining a job offer.

Q: You’ve described your company as the “Airbnb of parking.” Can you expand on that?

A: What we want people to do is find the best possible parking space for them. So if you’re leaving for the summer or a weekend, you can rent out your spot to someone who is coming in. What we learned is you can have people list their spaces, but they don’t know about the garage or street parking that may be available to them or the free parking. So now we’re listing all (of the above) and then we’re also allowing students to list their parking when they go home for the weekends.

Q: You incorporated in December and graduated in May. Now that you’re out of school, what’s it like focusing on your business full time?

A: We move much faster. Like, if I were in school right now and I said, “hey, we’re building this public mapping project and it will all be perfect in two weeks to a month,” that would be insane. That would take all year and it would be terrible. Now we just bang stuff out really quick. Because in the beginning it’s really tough: Your progress is (slow), but then it gets exponential as you start to get better at these things.

Q: Merrill Lynch, New York-based manager of more than $2 trillion worldwide, or ParkingBee, State College startup with a wing and a prayer. For a college senior studying finance, that’s a gutsy move to step through door No. 2. How did you come to the decision to stick with your company?

A: I see a lot of people struggling with this, too. It’s tough to decline something like that and explain to the company. They treated me super well. They gave me such an amazing opportunity with the internship and then to say, “sorry, this isn’t what I think I want to do with my life right now” is hard. And then it’s tough to figure that out for yourself and tell your parents, “yeah, I got offered a lot of money, but I’m not going to take it. I’m just going to do this.”

At the same time, (ParkingBee) didn’t even have any funding; we had only $2,000 from competitions. Merrill Lynch — it would be a nice secure job that pays really well, but I’d probably be miserable. I’d probably live for the weekends; it wouldn’t be fun. But that’s not what I want to do. I want to actually make a difference in people’s lives and with parking I think we can do that, especially for the students here. It’s not really the school’s fault or the local government’s fault; it’s just tough to do all this. We think we can solve it better than anyone else.

Q:Your company is positioned within the so-called sharing, or gig, economy. As a player in the game, where do you see it heading?

A: I (expletive) love the sharing economy. I think it’s awesome. I think it’s a shame governments are trying to regulate it. The reason Uber is banned in places like Austin, Texas, is because of corruption: Local government can’t collect money on medallions. So those kind of things are a disgrace; they just slow down technology. But when you do start having problems, that’s a good thing because that means you’re doing things right. You’re making a difference.

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy