5 Questions With… Offline CEO David Shaner

An NC State grad introduces the next iteration of a brand built around disconnecting from screens and enjoying our city.
As told to Ayn-Monique Klahre | Photography by Jamie Robbins

When David Shaner was a senior at NC State studying chemical engineering he got concerned about how much time he and his friends were spending on their phones, computers and tablets. That, paired with a course on entrepreneurship, sparked the seed of an idea that became Offline. Here’s how the company has evolved, and why it’s heading in a slightly new direction.

What’s the Offline origin story?

I graduated from NC State in 2012. I actually turned down a job with Proctor & Gamble and went to an incubator called The Startup Factory in Durham. Through that, I was able to raise some money, and the company started with a platform that was similar to Meetup—we wanted to be a platform that connected the people who create events to the people who attend events.

Well, that idea didn’t work. So in 2015 we decided to be a media company. It seemed like, people don’t need a platform to create events, they just want to know what the coolest thing is. So our app was supposed to be like the savvy friend in your pocket, we’re curating the options and making them digestible. And we did it, we created the largest social app for millennials. 

What was the next evolution?

In 2018 we decided to experiment with a subscription model and launched Offline Premium and decided to pivot again. I should be clear that this was not about the failure of the media side, but about the dramatic success of the subscription side. The subscriptions grew so explosively, and it’s a much better match for our mission of getting people outside and away from their screens. So as of today we’re moving forward with just the subscription end. Now, Offline is a subscription that helps you experience something new in Raleigh every month. 

Think of in like a concierge service: We learn what people are interested and find local partners—mostly restaurants—that subscribers will love, and then every month we introduce them to one or two of these curated businesses, plus give them the insider’s dining guide and a voucher for the place, usually between $25 to $45. People pay a little over $10 a month for the subscription, so you’re getting some of your money back and then some, plus you feel invested in trying something new—we find that 66% of our subscribers are actually trying something new each month. And studies have shown that if you’re trying new things, you’re quantitatively more likely to love your city. People have the itch, they want to explore more, but they need the nudge and it helps to simplify the choice.

I can see that! So what makes it work?

I think it’s the fact that people have already paid, paying in advance is the fundamental hack. It’s like, now I have 30 days to go out and do this, and I don’t have to choose from 50 things. It’s more like, there’s a friend calling you and saying hey, I’m going to Wilson’s, come with me, and by the way I’ll give you $10.

But everyone doesn’t get the same recommendations, right?

No, we have a growing network of partners that are active at any given time, and we have technology that acts like a traffic controllers, so they only go to some subscribers at a time. And, by the way, no cash changes hands between us and the restaurants—we choose them because we really believe we’re sending our subscribers to the best places in Raleigh. We truly want this to be more like a concierge service, not, if you pay a certain amount of money per month, you can just get in front of people. And now we have all this data, too, so when we walk in the door we can tell a restaurant how much they should offer based on their average check size so it can be profitable for them right out of the date.

Do you use it yourself?

Yes! My wife and I have two kids, a two and a half-year-old and a nine-month-old, and we just don’t have time to make decisions like this any more. But with this, every month we have our little adventure—it expires, but we already paid for it, so it’s nice for the app to say, hey, you are your wife are going to La Santa this month, it’s already planned, just enjoy. Plus, I grew up in Burlington but I’ve been in Raleigh for coming up on 13 years, so it’s great to still be able to experience something new in the city.