Deals

Urban Airship nabs Tello for an early stake in Apple’s Passbook

After building a significant business around making push messages easier to use, Urban Airship is now aiming to do the same with Apple’s Passbook with the acquisition of Tello.

The small startup has developed PassTools, a visual editor for Apple’s Passbook that lets anyone create passes without dealing with complicated code. Think of it like those simple webpage creators that made it possible to create a site without the headache of HTML. For Urban Airship, it’s an early play on a potentially explosive new market of mobile publishers.

“Passbook allows companies to have a mobile presence without building an app and having consumers download it. … Now they can just build a pass,” said Urban Airship chief marketing officer Brent Heiggelke in an interview with VentureBeat. “We think this is very complementary [with push messaging].”

Terms of the deal haven’t been disclosed. Urban Airship will keep Tello’s Palo Alto offices, which will give it a Silicon Valley base in addition to its San Francisco office and Portland, Ore. headquarters. All of Tello’s employees will move over to Urban Airship’s new Digital Wallet group, which Tello chief executive Joe Beninato will head up.

urban airship telloAs Beninato tells it, Apple made it very difficult for publishers to create Passbook passes. The biggest issue? There was no way to see what your pass looked like while you were building it — instead you had to load it on an iPhone after you finished coding the pass. With PassTools, the company developed a visual editor to show what your pass would look like in real time, and it has also layered its own API on top of Apple’s Passbook API, allowing you to fully build a pass without using any JSON code.

Tello originally launched two years ago with a mobile feedback product, but it saw a bigger business opportunity when Apple announced Passbook in June and rushed to release PassTools alongside the release of iOS 6 on September 19.

“The plan wasn’t let’s build this thing and sell it off a couple months later,” Beninato said.

But he quickly realized how well Tello would fit alongside Urban Airship. Beninato said he’s known Urban Airship CEO Scott Kveton for several years and that the companies shared some investors, which made an acquisition fairly painless.

As for Urban Airship’s new Digital Wallet group, Beninato said it will be preparing for the launch of wallet services on other platforms (Android already has Google Wallet, though that’s still in its early stages). For now, the team will be working on integrating its tech with Urban Airship.

“We’re really excited about the idea of being able to work with companies outside of the need for having an app,” Heiggelke added.  “We think there are a lot of companies where a pass may end up being a better solution for them than an app. Being able to work with those companies and develop a really effective mobile program … is really significant for our business.”

Urban Airship, which has powered more than 30 billion push messages through its platform, added location capabilities to its push platform September. With Tello, the company is continuing to make the simple push message one of the most interesting features in smartphones.

Tello has raised $2.7 million from True Ventures, Bullpen Capital, 500 Startups, Felicis Ventures, and others. The company currently has five full-time employees and five part-time employees. Urban Airship has raised around $22 million so far from True Ventures, Foundry Group, Verizon, Salesforce, and others.