As Florida Fuel Grew Scarce, GasBuddy App Change Filled Gap

Updated on
  • Ex-venture capitalist draws governor’s praise for driver data
  • Company raced to expand services to identify closed stations

Palm Beach a Ghost Town After Hurricane Irma

As Hurricane Irma rushed toward a Florida landfall, GasBuddy LLC, previously known only for helping drivers find the lowest fuel prices, raced to put into action a lesson learned from Harvey just a week earlier.

A run on gas at stations in South Texas after Harvey struck convinced Walt Doyle, the company’s chief executive officer and a former venture capitalist at Highland Capital Partners LP, that GasBuddy needed to quickly expand its offerings to help Florida as it readied for Irma. The goal: Re-engineer their mobile app in a single night to help drivers escaping the storm identify which stations had run out of fuel, or had lost their electricity.

"At a time of crisis, people go to their fuel stations," said Doyle, 50, who was named chief executive officer at GasBuddy at the start of last year. "It’s the tip of the spear. You never really think about it until things are really bad.”

Twenty web developers in Boston and Saskatchewan went to work, sustained by rounds of pizza. The result: Florida Governor Rick Scott, in a news conference just before Irma struck the state, praised the company for its usefulness in helping drivers evacuate.

It’s an addition with staying power for future disasters, according to Doyle. "Fuel is almost a currency,” he said in a telephone interview Monday.

Vehicles wait in line for fuel at a gas station in Miami on Sept. 6.

Photographer: Jayme Gershen/Bloomberg

According to GasBuddy, roughly 40 percent of fuel stations are still out of gas in Florida as millions evacuated days in advance of Hurricane Irma’s arrival this past weekend. The outages have been exasperated by ports closed around the Sunshine State, preventing new fuel shipments from getting into the market.

GasBuddy, which launched 17 years ago, relies on users to say what the price of gas is at stations across the country, handling about 2 million submissions a day, according to ts website. Headquartered in Boston, the company has offices in San Diego, Washington, as well as Canada and Australia.

Downloads of the app surged 71 percent during the hour that Gov. Scott mentioned GasBuddy on Sept. 7, compared with the the hour before his press conference, the company said. The app was downloaded a total of 1.8 million times between Aug. 26 and Sept. 11, it said.

When users started entering unusual prices such as $0.00 or $9.99 a gallon for gas stations in the Dallas area to signal that they had run out of gas, GasBuddy knew it needed to update its app, said Allison Mac, a company spokeswoman.

The first thing added was the ability to track gas-station outages on its website, but the team quickly realized it needed an all-night hackathon to develop code and test it out for its larger audience of users on the mobile phone app, Mac said by telephone.

The company was bought in 2013 by the Maryland-based private equity group UCG, which subsequently hired Doyle as its CEO. The self-described serial entrepreneur most recently worked as a venture partner at Highland Capital Partners, where he helped launch an identity-authentication business called Confirm.io.

Since the company’s been in existence, its app has been downloaded 70 million times, Doyle said.

Over the past couple weeks, GasBuddy was "basically chasing the storm,” said Mac, the company spokeswoman. “During natural disasters, gas is a lifeline."

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