If you’ve grabbed a meal downtown or off a food truck and didn’t pay with cash or a card, there’s a good chance Seth Priebatsch had a hand in that purchase. Seth’s invention, LevelUp, has changed the way we pay for things. I asked him how it all works and the future of paying for stuff with our phones.

What’s LevelUp and how does it work?

Four Questions with Seth Priebatsch, Creator of LevelUpLevelUp is the easiest way to pay with your phone at your favorite local businesses and save. Basically you just download the free LevelUp app for iPhone, Android or Windows and link your favorite credit or debit card. Then you can head to any of the 14,000 locations that accept LevelUp and instead of pulling out cash or a credit card, simply scan your phone to pay. It’s super-fast and convenient, but even better, you’ll tap into merchant reward programs that will save you money as you visit your favorite places.

Since this is a way to pay for things using your phone, how do you overcome concerns about privacy and security?

LevelUp prides itself on actually being more secure than paying with a credit card. We do this in a couple of ways. First, the QR code that you scan to pay isn’t your credit card information; it’s a random token that changes over time. Think of it like if your credit card numbers jumbled around after each transaction. Second, every time you pay with LevelUp, you get an instant push notification and email receipt. From those, you can de-authenticate your LevelUp code and devices immediately. And, finally, we’re tracking far more signals to detect unusual behavior than a traditional credit card company—things like the location of your phone when you pay and its proximity to the merchant. All of this makes LevelUp the most convenient and safest way to pay.

You gave a TED Talk where you discussed building a “social layer” on top of the real world. Can you explain what you meant by that and how LevelUp fits into that theory?

Well, the social layer is actually the one that Facebook built. What I mainly talk about is the “game layer,” which is basically all of the motivations that exist in our lives driven by game mechanics, both in virtual (“World of Warcraft,” “Farmville”) and physical (Amex points, loyalty programs, career ladders) worlds.

Four Questions with Seth Priebatsch, Creator of LevelUpThis ties into LevelUp in the rewards you receive from merchants. They’re not just savings, but genuine rewards that you earn in exchange for specific behavior that benefits both the business and you. For example, the “progression mechanic” that governs most loyalty programs—spend $100, get $10—is great for you, but also great for the business because it motivates repeat visitation. We use the “appointment mechanic” a lot also: Next time it rains, you might get a special incentive from nearby merchants to head over. Why? Because their sales are slow that day and they want to trigger in your mind the “appointment” to come visit them that day. It’s great for the merchant and great for you. Game mechanics exist everywhere in the real world. LevelUp helps businesses use them wisely to foster a deeper relationship with their customers.

I hear you wear a lot of orange. What’s the story behind that?

Ha! When I was just getting started, I was pitching LevelUp to the Princeton Business Plan competition. It’s a pretty serious competition open to anyone, including undergrads, grads and alums, and I was just a freshman without a product or anything. I didn’t even have a logo! So I doused my slides in orange, Princeton’s color, and wore all orange, and figured the judges would be chromatically linked to me and that it would subtly motivate them to vote for me. I won the competition, and having assumed that it worked once, figured it would probably work again. So bit by bit my wardrobe just turned orange!

Four Questions with Seth Priebatsch, Creator of LevelUpFour Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!

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