How I Hacked Together An SMS Concierge Service In 1 Hour

Earlier this year I ran experiment where I created an SMS-based food/drink recommendation service called The Key.

Original logo for The Key
Original logo for The Key

The Key was a simple idea — text a phone number with certain parameters (neighborhood, price point, atmosphere) and get back 1–3 recommendations on where to go for a meal or a drink.

Why did I do this?

I’ve lived in New York City for 6 years now and in addition to having a passion for restaurants and cocktail bars, I have managed to eat and drink my way through a decent part of the city. Because of that, many friends text or call me and ask for recommendations for where to go on dates, with their parents, for a casual meal, etc.

I wanted to build something simple to manage this and thought a dedicated line would be a good solution. Basically like the batphone, except I chose to call it The Key (as in “the key to your city/your night/etc.”)

But I didn’t want to have to pay for much to set this up, and I didn’t want to do something that would require me to learn Twilio’s API (a tall task for a largely non-technical person). So, I figured out a way to hack something together in an hour, and since then have had many people ask how I did it.

It’s literally two steps.

Step 1: Get a Google Voice number — Instructions here.

I tinkered with many different area codes/number combos/word combos/etc. to settle on one that had the word “TheKey” in it (it partially drove why I called it The Key in the first place). Once I found an available number, I registered it.

One very important part about this. In settings, make sure that CALLS are set to not forward to your phone or anywhere. This is purely SMS-based concierge. I didn’t want to have to talk to people over the phone.


Step 2: Download the Google Voice app on your phone

Once all of your settings are done, you’ll have a great desktop setup to answer text messages that come in. It will look like this:

sms desktop

But like any good concierge, I also wanted to be able to help people out when I wasn’t at my computer, so I installed the app on my phone and was able to get text messages sent into the google voice app (separate from my normal messaging app as to avoid any confusion) and respond there.



So how did the experiment go?

I set up a landing page, had about 40 or so people opt in, of which maybe 20 messaged at least once, and I got to test my NYC knowledge. Every now and then I’d get a request for somewhere in midtown that I had no clue about, or on the Upper East Side where my knowledge was limited, but I always did my best to respond within 15 minutes with some options.

Today, the proverbial locks have been changed on The Key and the service is back to a smaller group of friends that text my normal cell phone number for recommendations. With better technology, there definitely was a pain point to be solved, however the further you get away from human curation, the closer you are to Foursquare, and thus I don’t believe this particular use-case makes sense.

If you’re looking for a replacement, the team over at The Infatuation came out with “Text Rex” a month or so after The Key. I’d recommend using them from now on.

If you use this post to setup your own SMS-based service, let me know on twitter or via email. I’d love to hear about it.

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