3-Horse Race For "Meet New People" Space; Highlight, Banjo, & LAL's Circle

For better or worse I look at myself as somewhat of an expert on the "Meet New People" space. Not because I meet a lot of new people, but because I spent most of 2010 and all of 2011 working on a product focused on winning it. This space sits at the intersection of social networking and location. When you combine those two elements you get something tremendously interesting. You get a dataset that has previously only been available in the movies. The opportunity to know when someone close to you is..actually close to you. The space has evolved into a three company race: Highlight, Banjo, and Discover Circle (formerly LAL).

I'm thrilled to have the CEOs of the top three startups (Banjo, Highlight, and LAL) in the "Meet New People" space coming to speak at our summit in the Bay Area in April to discuss this entire topic in much greater detail. Before I explain why it's these three companies, here is a bit of history.

"we make serendipity happen"


The whole market really kicked off when Loopt's CEO Sam Altman presented at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in 2008. The company which was founded in 2005 via Y Combinator was able to do carrier deals with everyone from Sprint, to Verizon, and even Boost mobile. Remember the "Where You At" commercials? They had a big partnership with Boost. But the problem with this company was that it's biggest strength was in its ability to cut through insane amounts of red tape and get carrier deals. In 2007 this was a massive hurdle to overcome for competition. After the iPhone opened up everything changed and the advantage these guys had built over the previous 2-3 years was gone.

That being said, Loopt was still given a massive head start. Not only were they featured at WWDC, but they were also featured in an iPhone TV commercial. While Loopt was focused on helping you see where your friends were, they quickly moved into the 'meet new people' space. Overall the problem with Loopt, and any of the other services like Whrrl or Brightkite which popped up at this time, was two fold:

1. The social graph was still relatively small. The average number of Facebook friends was around 150-200. Now it's closer to 450-500. That has created way more 'connection' opportunities.

2. iOS device adaption was still small compared to the overall population. iOS and Android market share has dramatically improved. At the time with the earliest adaptors on the device it wasn't enough critical mass for the early movers to dominate the space.

Loopt 1st party Apple commercial


location war gets heated


By 2009 location and proximity took a new meaning when FourSquare invaded SXSW. Targeted at the hardcore smart phone touting early adaptor, the app took off as competitor Gowalla tried to hang on in the most interesting social rivalry of the year. These two companies changed location from a general longitude and latitude coordinates to actually checking-in to a location. Loopt's friend find model got lost in the massive growth and press of these two apps. Loopt also pivoted repeatedly which seems was due to poor engagement, or the mounting investor pressure of becoming the social/mobile/location go to app which it clearly was not.

Lots of other apps launched during the next year or two including Double Dutch, Booyah, and others. Facebook Places also launched in the fall of 2010 and competed directly with FourSquare. The August 2010 chart below shows the state of the location war which had all but marginalized Loopt's 4-million user lead.

By the end of 2011 the location war had quieted down significantly. Booyah seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. Gowalla has folded, and Foursquare's growth has cooled. Apps like Sonar which launched with massive furry had a chance with the larger social graph, but it failed with poor design and by going with the tired check-in model instead of Loopt's Long/Lat model. Meanwhile Loopt has pivoted several times and now pushes you local deals based on your location. It's my humble belief that if Loopt had just continued to pivot on the original vision, and had the investors been patient enough for the market to evolve, that Loopt would have eventually figured it out. They were an incredibly smart team, with the best funding, and the biggest advantage.

2012's three horse race

In late 2011 several new apps started to get traction breaking open this market once again. LAL and Banjo in mid-2011, and Highlight with it's first private showing in December 2011. Some competitors won't like to hear this, but this market is a three company race and no one else has a chance. Here's a breakdown of the pluses and minuses of each of these:



This beautiful app is most closely in line with Loopt's original vision. It creates a grid-like view of people near you and pulls in location metadata from Instagram and Twitter. They announced a few months ago that they have over 500K downloads and that number should be closer to 700-800K. It has a Palo Alto based team with funding from mobile focused Blue Run Ventures (Paypal, Pogo). Their design has always been great and the team has created an increasingly beautiful version of their app as time has gone on. We don't know how much funding they have and by extension runway. Because of the image focused UI, this leads me to believe that the app's focus is more on dating/hookup market then networking. If they're going for that then cool, but if not they may be getting an audience that segments out the larger population including cool/hip/bald married people like me. To top everything off they were recently chosen as the Apple iPhone app of the week. SCORE! That's a massive seal of approval and downloads for Banjo.


It has wind at its sails. Everyone in the Silicon Valley blogoblogosphere is talking about this app. I've been using it the last week or so and been prompted to meet people like the design founder at 500 startups, Robert Scoble (we chatted briefly), Jeff Clavier, founder of Gumroad, and a bunch of other VCs. It worked particularly well in San Francisco on Friday when I was driving around all day and was given 4-5 GREAT recommendations. They're launching at the perfect time with SXSW this coming week. If the servers can hold up it may be one of the coolest new things that people are using everyday in Austin. They just got a bunch of funding so they're on their way. On the negative side the battery is still bad. They say it's almost fixed it but I have a brand new 4s and the battery only lasts a few hours with it on and without heavy phone usage. I also agree with Alexia's concerns expressed tonight about the service scaling. There are also some small things like same neighbors keep showing up as suggested users to meet every single day and I haven't been able to get a lot of responses from people in the app. Maintaining the quality bar and frequent product updates are their biggest concern. Great problems to have.

Discover Circle - by LAL

Y-Combinator funded LAL, originally launched as a web-based way to discover people on your college campus. It received much fanfare. They also raised $5MM from the hottest Venture Capital firm on the planet. The talented Palo Alto team launched an iPhone app in August 2011 that helped you find people nearby. Their latest product (which is not out but I got some hands on last week) focuses on connecting you with the people in your most important groups - your circles like where you went to school or things important to you. The app is called Discover Circle and it's launching in a few weeks. You can watch a video and see some interactions from their upcoming release - the app is beautiful and smooth. This team's challenge will be to catch up to any momentum that Highlight will get from SXSW or Banjo from being on the market so long. They'll also need to convince users that circles are a better way to find interesting people. If you have millions on the platform it just might be. Either way they're going to release a very interesting product and we'll see how they compete very soon.


The best of the rest.......

Glancee - Launched February 9th, its biggest strength is that they're available on Android as well as iOS. There also seems to be more people on Glancee - probably because of the cross platforms and its feature that serves up everyone close by regardless of commonality. More is not necessarily better. The quality of user is lower. With the focus on pictures, it feels like it could decend into a dating app. That's fine for some, but not for the general networking crowd. No major funding makes it hard to compete long term. Maybe they get some after SXSW. The CEO just emailed me (5-mins ago) about some big release that's imminent. I will update once I see it.

Sonar - These guys had a real chance to win this by taking second place at TC Disrupt in May 2011. They bet the farm and built on top of Foursquare and the check-in model. The app has had very few quality updates since launching. I heard rumors of them trying to raise about 6-months ago but there was never an announcement. They said they spent $250k to get the initial prototype which was very high. I honestly liked this product, they just haven't been able to move fast enough and it looks like their window has closed.

UPDATE: Sonar drops a solid right hook this morning with an app update that addresses the biggest concern which was the check-in functionality. From a testing and PR standpoint this should have been out a month ago - but they probably worked weekends for the last two months so can't hate too much. Now they have Android which is huge. Glancee and Sonar are the only ones with Android offerings and that could prove to be a big opportunity.


Everyone else.......

Commonred - Web based professional networking. Should have gone mobile.

UnSocial - The first professional networking mobile app build on LinkedIn dataset. Chicken and egg problem.

Wellknown.as - Product team disbanded shortly after launch.

Mingle - Well designed product focused around events. No funding + chicken and egg problem.

Onguria - Most 'interesting' name in the bunch, Utah-based company that never fully launched.

LinkOut, MeetingWaveStreetSpark - Ghost towns.

LetsLunch - Good launch. Matching results were never great.