Cotter’s Key: The Geo-Fence That Has Malls Surrounded

Mr. Cunningham at the Javits Center.

Mr. Cunningham at the Javits Center.

More than 25,000 conventioneers rolled in for the 102nd “Big Show” at the Javits Center this weekend—the retailing industry’s increasingly desperate annual attempt to assure itself that it’s not dying. Attendees heard from Donna Karan and Jeff Bezos and pondered “How Duane Reade reinvented itself as the quintessential New York brand.” One struggling big-box store hit upon the idea of “stopping the trend of showrooming.” Good luck with that.

At 8:30 on Sunday morning, a sea of lanyard-wearing drones moped into the Special Events Hall, looking like they had stayed up until 4 a.m. trying to persuade themselves that the rather tall “dates” they’d met downtown hadn’t been unusually deep-voiced.

Then out stepped a tall guy with a long vision.

Cotter Cunningham is the founder and CEO of WhaleShark Media. He runs a collection of online coupon websites that includes America’s biggest (RetailMeNot.com), the U.K.’s biggest (VoucherCodes.co.uk) and a bunch of others. If that sounds pedestrian, consider this: Austin-based WhaleShark has raised over $300 million, is profitable and is sitting on over $90 million in cash. And it’s just getting started. Now it’s surrounding customers where they shop.

After the packed presentation, Mr. Cunningham fleshed out the concept. He whipped out his laptop, covered in bumper stickers and a Razorbacks logo. (Mr. Cunningham is a native of Arkansas, and he sounds it.) As more shoppers spend more time on their mobile devices—there are 320 million wireless connections for 311 million Americans—the ability to hit shoppers where they shop is huge. The success of Mr. Cunningham’s companies had the whole room hanging on his every twangy insight.

“RetailMeNot has installed a geo-fence around the 500 biggest malls in America,” Mr. Cunningham told the Transom, explaining that anyone who’s downloaded its app will automatically be alerted to sales within that very mall the instant he or she enters its perimeter. How well does it work? “On the first day, every single one of those 500 malls was visited by someone with the app. It was like that scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise is walking through the mall, and the logos of Lexus and Bulgari materialize before his eyes, because they know he’s there.”

Mr. Cunningham is the rarest thing in the world of startups, twice over. A humble guy who’s built a profitable company. And if he can save your daughter 40 percent at Justice, well, there’s that too.