Scoutmob DC launches today, promises not to screw local businesses

You know all about Groupon and LivingSocial, the two most successful daily-deal websites in the U.S., but you might not realize that there are, in fact, hundreds of such websites out there. The market is as saturated as a Sofia Coppola film, but that's not stopping new entrepreneurs — or Google and Facebook, for that matter — from launching similar sites. Hell, even the news industry, always desperate for some way to make money, wants a sliver of the pie: Gannett's got DealChicken, the Post has The Capitol Deal, and TBD's hitched its wagon to Huge Daily Deal.

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Coupons are almost as retro as handlebar mustaches.

At the risk of offending our advertiser — whom we deeply appreciate, trust me — there's little that distinguishes these sites. Once you sign up, you receive a daily email offering a steep discount on some product: laser hair removal, wine tours, massages, fitness club or museum memberships, car washes, tune-ups and oil changes, rafting trips, skydiving lessons, and, most commonly, meals at restaurants with middling Yelp ratings. Sometimes the writing is snarky, sometimes cutesy, but otherwise these sites are one and the same. It's not uncommon, even, to see certain businesses featured time and again. (Today's LivingSocial deal for Cafe Asia, for instance, is almost identical to a Groupon deal in January.)

So despite this glut of daily-deal sites, there's still room, perhaps, for a company with a little panache. Atlanta-based Scoutmob, which launched today in D.C., might be exactly that. Though not big enough yet to warrant a Wikipedia page — D.C. is its fourth city, not counting soft launches — the company has a strong following on Facebook, Twitter, and, perhaps most tellingly, Tumblr. It's one of many signs that Scoutmob is positioning itself as the hip (and socially conscious) alternative to Groupon and LivingSocial. Consider the name, for starters, which is a clever juxtaposition of the retro and the contemporary, succinctly encapsulating an editorial and aesthetic vision. The site is fond of anachronistic expressions ("Thank you, kind sir") and drawings (very McSweeney's, this), and its mascot — a bald man with a handlebar mustache — is simultaneously old school and cutting edge. (If you don't believe me, go take a stroll south of Houston Street in New York City.)

In some ways, the business model is anachronistic, too. Unlike the aforementioned sites, Scoutmob doesn't require you to buy anything in advance. Instead, you receive what's essentially a daily digital coupon, one that's good for a few weeks to a few months. Today, for instance, you can get half off a dine-in meal at Georgia Brown's, a soul food restaurant downtown, while another 11 other deals remain active. (The site soft-launched a while ago, with infrequent deals.) With a new deal added every day, there soon will be dozens of active deals at any given time. To use the coupon, open it in the Scoutmob app on your smartphone — or, if you like, log on to the website and have the coupon texted to you — then show it to your waiter, cashier, whoever. There's nothing to print out, which is nice, since no one uses printers anymore.

"Unlike the majority of deal sites out there, we're completely free to users, so you never have to put a credit card down," explains Scoutmob DC's editor, Marissa Payne. "You don't pay unless you go and actually use it."

Some of you might recognize her name. The 31-year-old Payne also runs The Anti DC, a blog that, since its launch in 2007, has taken many people and organizations to task in D.C., including TBD. "It started as cathartic way to release frustrations," she says, but points to this blog entry as proof that her outlook has "changed phenomenally." Some readers have even told Payne she's gone soft — that she obviously likes D.C. now, which, she insists, she does. "D.C.'s really becoming less of a transient place and more like an actual community, which is why I think it's primed for Scoutmob."

Steering the conversation back to her new employer? Payne's a natural at this! And she sells her company well. Unlike certain sites that keep 50 percent of a deal's sales, Scoutmob will take a much smaller percentage, she says — somewhere around $2-$4, depending on what's been negotiated. The phrase "sustainable and business friendly" came up, and then Payne took aim at her competitors' offerings: "They don't necessarily concentrate on businesses that people want to use." So don't expect deals for lawn re-sodding or teeth whitening on Scoutmob. "We would never do that," she says, "and we would never do anything with a national chain." Instead, Scoutmob will focus on locally owned businesses.

"I'm physically going into the business and meeting the owner," Payne says. "I'm writing a story — hopefully something interesting for people to read." And each day, that story will appear in your inbox. (She's got her work cut out for her; Groupon is staffed, after all, with aspiring poets.) In addition to the daily email, Scoutmob DC is "going to incorporate local bloggers and some other voices into the site." This, she adds, "is why it's fun for me to work here. Obviously, it's not going to be an extension of The Anti DC. It's not going to be about me at all."

Scoutmob's D.C. team is small — about a half-dozen employees, with no office. But already some 15,000 locals have signed up. No doubt Payne will be kept busy writing enthusiastic copy about local businesses, which made me wonder whether she'll have the time and energy to keep The Anti DC fresh.

"I think so, for sure," she says. "I'm sure I'll always have something to complain about."

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