Bars’ Rescue: Chapel Hill Startup WAVE Hopes To Bring Back Nightlife—Safely

WAVE CEO Willie Barron, right, and CMO Darius Irby. Not pictured is their third Co-Founder, CFO Justin McGuire.

Few industries have been hit as hard by the coronavirus pandemic as the bar and nightclub industry. WAVE, a Chapel Hill-based startup participating in the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator, is aiming to come to the industry’s aid by launching a social app that provides information on maximum capacities in local bars while helping these places gain business again.

Part of the idea for WAVE came when Co-Founder and former UNC student Willie Barron was Uber-driving people around to bars and clubs years ago. 

The same conversations would always come up among riders. How many people do you think will be there? Should we go somewhere else? Where are the other people we know heading tonight? With a variety of bars and nightclubs open in a pre-Covid 19 world, everyone wanted to find out where their friends would be and which places would have the best scene that night.

WAVE logo

Barron knew this struggle well from when he himself went out to bars and nightclubs. He’d mass-text a ton of different people trying to figure out the best place to go that night. Before he knew it, hours would go by and they hadn’t even left.

So in January of 2019, Barron and his two Co-Founders Darius Irby, Barron’s best friend from New Jersey, and Barron’s cousin Justin McGuire incorporated WAVE. The idea for WAVE had been haunting Barron since the summer of 2018.

WAVE originally aimed to solve all the problems Barron had experienced and observed about nightlife. By tapping into the phone locations of users, WAVE would track how many users were at each bar and who from your friends list was there. Users could also indicate which bars they were planning to go to later that night.

Bars and clubs would be able to use WAVE to promote special events, create their own pages for free as well as pay for advertisements.

WAVE was set to launch a few months ago, Barron said, with liquor sponsors and planned events all set to roll out right after spring break.

But just before it could, the coronavirus pandemic hit with a vengeance. Campus nearly completely shut down, and many UNC students didn’t return to Chapel Hill at all after spring break. Bars and nightclubs were ghostly scenes, completely closed as the state tried to get the spread of Covid-19 under control.

Barron said the WAVE team had to take a step back, delay the launch by a few months and focus on perfecting WAVE before it would finally make its mark on Chapel Hill nightlife. But even by the time the fall semester commenced, nightlife still was far from normal.

“As time went on we—probably over the past month or so—started to realize that things might not really fully open up for a long time, and you can’t just sit here and do nothing,” Barron said.

Time to pivot

After speaking with Scott Maitland, the owner of the popular Chapel Hill restaurant and brewery Top of the Hill and a Launch Chapel Hill entrepreneur-in-residence, Barron said they realized that the WAVE app could still help during the pandemic. Now, WAVE is set to launch a scaled-back version of the app that focuses on preventing the spread of coronavirus—and trying to help keep bars and nightclubs from shutting down again.

“We realized that we could use our technology to actually help prevent that, and I think that we could be a pivotal piece in preventing the spread of COVID from the bars around here,” Barron said. “So we’re kind of approaching it from the inverse of what it originally was before.”

Instead of helping people find the most crowded and happening bars and clubs, the newly pivoted WAVE app will help keep track of the number of people at any bar at any time—more to keep the numbers down, or at least better distributed, than to pack them in.

The bar owners Barron has talked to say this is helpful as they have to strictly monitor capacities based on coronavirus restrictions. This pivoted version of WAVE is set to launch the first day of UNC’s next semester in January, Barron said.

Despite being the creator of a social network app, Barron said he has never been a huge fan of social networking because he feels so many platforms do the exact opposite of building connections. Instead, Barron said, many apps just bring real life connections online but distract people who scroll on their phone when they’re out with friends so they aren’t actually engaging in real life. WAVE strives to be a different kind of social network app.

“What we’ve done—and one thing that I’m passionate about doing,” Barron said, “is kind of reversing that and making a social network that people can go on to really quickly make plans with their friends and actually have interpersonal connections, actually go out and do things and actually have some fun.”

Already quite a ride

Starting out, Barron said he had no knowledge of entrepreneurship beyond one class he took at UNC. Neither did his founding partners. After coming up with the idea, they sat there for several days, excited but soon hitting that point where they didn’t know what to do next.

“To see how we’ve really struggled for the past year and a half, two years to get to the point that we are now,” Barron said, “that we are pretty much going to investors for an idea that so many people believe in and have built up a brand that people really believe in, is just absolutely elating to me. And it’s just crazy to think that in two years that our entire lives are completely different now.”

Barron said he has been anxious to get the WAVE app out for so long, and Covid-19 just kept pushing its launch back until now. He hopes he and WAVE can be an example for other people starting ventures that you don’t need to have all the knowledge upfront and you can learn as you go.

“We’ve just kind of said, you know what, we’re not going to be bullied by Covid,” Barron said. “We’re going to pivot around it and we’re going to find a way to get it out there and we’re going to do what we need to do. I’m hoping that we can just help as many people as we possibly can.”

About Suzanne Blake 362 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. Before working at GrepBeat, Suzanne attended UNC Chapel Hill, obtaining a degree in journalism and political science. Previously, she wrote for CNBC, QSR Magazine, FSR Magazine and The Daily Tar Heel.