When I wake up on March 24, my phone is buzzing at 6:30 a.m. I answer a call from a friend – “Did you see this new start-up Color? Their app is for instant proximity photo sharing – isn’t that just like LoKast? They just raised $41 million from Sequoia.” Opening up my inbox, I’m confronted by a barrage of e-mails – all linking to this article from TechCrunch (http://tcrn.ch/hJHNcl). Over next few days I internalize – while having a chance to get a better sense on Color’s strategy, market approach, and technology, especially from Bill’s interview with ReadWriteWeb (http://bit.ly/e0tmo1) – and can’t help myself but think: “the world is catching up to this notion of proximity Internet FAST”. So it’s time to talk and set the record straight.
Let’s start by covering what’s proximity Internet. It’s about our vast physical world and the interactions / experiences / networks that we have inside of it. Looking over statistics – the physical world accounts for over 90% of our commerce and over 50% of our user time. The most technologically advanced tools to support these settings until recently, have been in-store broadcast systems, digital projectors, and business card scanners – admittedly mechanical and roughly 10-50 year old technologies (dinosaurs in the mobile Internet world, which really just started in 2007). And now using smartphones and tablets, we can dramatically enhance this environment, to move beyond the 5 senses, to create a new “proximity Internet” – one that’s contestably 10x larger than the Internet we’ve known to date, just given the above dimensions. Proximity Internet stands to break-down hurdles of discovery and “initial contact” in physical settings, create opportunities for group leadership and inclusion of commentary like that brought by Twitter but in a much more exclusive and relevant fashion, enhance our interactions through rich media and actionable follow-ups, create experiences that are dramatically more engaging (video games have been at the fore-front of this for years now admittedly), create significantly more physical and digital commerce… and change how we start socially networking experiences, and maintain and grow them over time. All while we physically spend time in our physical world.
And of course it’s driven by some very important and completely unique essentials. First, proximity Internet is real-time and synchronous (unlike the Internet which is 99% asynchronous) – it supports a world where we inherently use our 5 senses to synchronize and react to each other (imagine talking to someone, and them only hearing you / listening to you 5 minutes later). Second, proximity Internet needs to be highly contextual – it’s used to support behavior that’s a combination of both a) us already zeroing in to our context by going to a certain physical place and deciding what to do there and with whom, and b) us being real-time in those settings, so there’s no time to search. And three, proximity Internet needs to be highly “disposable” (a term we coined in March 2010 – see VentureBeat (http://bit.ly/fqOb1q)) or “elastic” (one that Color is pushing 1 year later) – as we move from one physical setting to the next, these settings change dramatically (think of your social network in a coffee shop vs. your office vs. a restaurant / nightclub on any given Friday), significantly more so than our digital settings (where you update the same 500 Twitter followers and 1,000 FaceBook friends).
So with that being said – what’s the right approach and who’s is more differentiated? Technology is critical (just like in the world of search engine battles circa 1998). At NearVerse, from the very first day of us conceiving this company, we’ve been focused on creating core differentiated tech for proximity Internet – a) content delivery technology that could support truly proximity-grade real-time communications, and b) location ID and proximity context technology that would spring well beyond the improving but still highly inaccurate location ID tech accessible to mobile devices, all by leveraging the variety of additional network paths and context inputs available in proximity scenarios (ie. short-range wireless, physical context) – we think this allows us to uniquely support the proximity Internet market. Interestingly enough, best I can tell from Color’s description of their core proximity tech (http://bit.ly/e0tmo1) is that it is in fact absolutely critical – but also within the platform of patents and technology that we’ve been building for the last few years, so don’t see it differentiating them in the long run. Another differentiated technology is Bump, who have also done something truly unique, synchronizing “intent” with “location” irrespective of the tech platform, and that I think continues to give them an edge in proximity transactions. But most importantly, the tech differentiation is first about leveraging superior wireless tech first, and not inferior physical inputs like sound or sight, in the long-term (which are almost impossible to assure to be synchronous or precise) – think of what our world would have been if we relied on sound instead of 3G to carry data, or earth image recognition instead of GPS and WiFi to pinpoint people instantly (although we admittedly still haven’t solved this in indoor situations). This is exactly why companies like Qualcomm, with a focus on bringing AllJoyn, FlashLinq, and WiFi Direct technology to market and a dedication to short-range wireless device-to-device connections, are absolutely critical for enabling proximity, both for faster speeds and better location ID / proximity context – like 3G / 4G is for mobile Internet. We are fortunate to have access to platforms like theirs as we build LoKast (see VentureBeat (http://bit.ly/hO12ob)). Same with NFC – it’ll be critical to better enabling proximity transactions.
Proximity product is even more important. Looking back over the key essentials from above, on real-time and synchronous, Yobongo is a company that’s probably got that “rightest” so far for social networking, just because conversations are what we use and need 99% of the time to interact in proximity / real-time social settings. Bump on the other hand has proven that synchronizing people is absolutely critical to share “stuff” between two people as a result of a transaction – people are using their app to share LOTS of stuff (not as often per person as talking, but they have millions of users, so doing massive volume of contacts and photos). When we launched LoKast, to do instant media sharing with others immediately in proximity, it seemed like a great idea – but we learned that people want to first talk and then share media, when in real-time situations (and a lot of media sharing is transactional) – great lesson and central to our evolution. As far as Color, I think their focus on asynchronous photo sharing will remain niche – ie. sure I want to look at the photos of 20 randoms, that passed through a local coffee shop over the past 10 days, but I’ll do that for about 15-30 seconds and then get bored.
On proximity context, LoKast and Color are similarly oriented and I think those are the winning-est approaches (although also give credit to ShopKick which is squarely focused on this as well) – why proximity is so powerful is that we ALREADY DEEPLY care about that context, so putting a person digitally into that context is like doing a Google Search and being able to narrow the results to only 10 items that are 100% most relevant. However, to figure out the proximity context precisely most of the time (ie. person A wants to talk to person B, and then C, and then B again) is absurd, unless they are doing a transaction – we have to pretty much get into a person’s head (good luck). I think this focus on “perfectly predicted context” by Color and Yobongo will have them spend a lot of money and fall short. That’s why at the end, FourSquare’s and ShopKick’s approach to this are more on the right track (although they’ll need to continue to figure out better location ID and proximity tech) – you present the most relevant information in that physical setting and let the person choose. On “disposable social networking”, I think LoKast, Yobongo, Hashable, and Color are all focused on the right genre – that our physical / day-to-day networks are highly transient, and are inherently much much bigger than our “social networks” that we’ve come to know from the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn – it’s just a matter of harnessing them effectively for the consumer. LoKast’s, Yobongo’s, and Color’s ability to do that is inherent in how a consumer uses our apps – recording interactions with people in proximity (where most of our “transient” networking occurs) – I say let the best one win!
Last but not least is distribution – most important. Hotmail was a really cool product in webmail, but it’s claim to fame was “viral distribution”. Same with Groupon – the “impulse social deals” is a small portion of their current success in small business distribution acquisition. I’ll stay mum on the exact strategy as far as NearVerse and LoKast, but instead just posit some core rules of thumb. One is to limit any kind of horizontal marketing (ie. what’s the chance, that in any given physical space with 100 people, more than 5% of them are real-time (within 30 minutes) on Facebook (the most scaled product in market)) – seeing Color as #7 on the app store, actually is a competitive feel-good – know they are going to spend a lot of cycles on something that isn’t all that effective.. SCVNGR actually has an inverse distribution strategy as a company and merits a lot of attention – much more effective approach (even though you don’t see them nearly as high in the app store rankings). But the second is consumer education through “right first experience”, and “right second use” packaging – so consumer learns the app behavior and then can continue using the app and be an educator / viral spreader of the product. Bump definitely takes the cake on this to date – they have an incredible “second use” curve, and as I understand is mostly a viral marketing company. At NearVerse and with LoKast, we went out focusing on the Music industry in early 2010, for both of the reasons above, but have learned a lot and are now well positioned to nail these two key tenants much more effectively – more to come soon.
So with that being said, how do we feel about NearVerse and LoKast, and about the competition from upstarts like Color. Quick backdrop on my point of view – at my last gig, I helped build the 6th national wireless operator, LightSquared, from the ground up, raising $1.5 billion in the process essentially on the back of a mature product – wireless spectrum. Admittedly, NearVerse has taken a reasonable share of bumps and licks as we’ve come to market as a result – when I started I thought we needed millions and millions of dollars just to prove the value of our product, and that it would take off just because of the inherent value of our technology. But a year or two later, in 2011, we are a brand new company in our philosophical approach. The lean start-up approach is ingrained in every business action we take. Market product fit is our paramount focus, one right step at a time. And although we’ve remained 100% committed to the same mission since pretty much day 1 – to power the proximity Internet – we’ve pivoted (yes that word) quite a bit on exactly how we attack the market. My daily guide to this of late has been Built to Last, by James Collins and Jerry Porras, where they profess that the best companies can maintain their long term differentiated values, but quickly and continuously adapt in how they achieve them. At the end, we look at the competitive space and the market opportunity and see a more attractive timing to pursue proximity Internet now, than ever before – we are 3 years ahead of the market on proximity tech, 12 months on “disposable social networking”, and the future is prime for our upcoming product releases.
To sum up, when I first signed-up for Twitter, I added my slogan: “start small, dream big, finish intergalactic”. That’s been exactly the way I’ve lived my whole life, and the way we’ve built NearVerse pretty much since day 1 – even though we’ve only raised a bit over $1 million, and had to navigate to nail the “right” product market fit since we were early to the market, we’ve continued to think ahead to map out the future while taking one step at a time with our go-to-market – same story every day we wake up. So when I finally digested all the news about Color, about their tech, and about their money, over this past weekend, here’s where I finish up. “We’ve been dreaming and building proximity Internet for a few years more, and we are almost $40 million leaner – ‘gg’ Color on raising the money and launching your product, and I welcome you to the NearVerse.”
IT’S ONLY JUST BEGUN!
Earlier this year at SXSW, we launched LoKast to much fanfare. Check out the great coverage on TechCrunch (http://bit.ly/bBC7sf), PCWorld (http://bit.ly/9deHcW), Billboard (http://bit.ly/bWuog), ZDNet (http://bit.ly/bj1lF9), Wired (http://bit.ly/b86ALC), VentureBeat (http://bit.ly/drZNCo), The Next Web (http://bit.ly/bZYpPw), and MediaPost (http://bit.ly/bPLfOh).
Now, we want to take a bit of time to describe the story firsthand:
In a nutshell, LoKast is a ‘disposable social network’, making it easy to set up your smartphone as a “local server”, set up your profile and populate it with media and content that defines you for that specific event, for that time, for that location, and automatically share your portal with others nearby. Others discover you through LoKast and then find you in person, or vice versa – in either case, they have a rich profile of you at that moment in time, and can interact with you side-by-side with kicking “physical” game. LoKast also allows you to access featured music artists so you can enjoy LoKast even if no one is around you. We thought we’d blog about answers to some FAQs, and we welcome your thoughts on any others.
What is LoKast?
LoKast is an iPhone app that enables users, music bands, businesses, and anyone else to share rich content when nearby others (300 feet). Users create portals by adding photos, videos, music, contacts and links they want to publicly share. LoKast automatically discovers other users in proximity and allows users to interact, discover and exchange media with each other. Entire photo albums, videos, music collections can be shared on LoKast.
How do I use LoKast?
Download the app for your iPhone/iPod Touch at http://bit.ly/GetLoKast. To use LoKast, ensure you are nearby other users also on LoKast – if not, then tell your friends to get LoKast installed, and spread the word to others. The more the merrier – just check it out with 5 others at same time. It’s a real-time virtual venue.
Fire up the app, immediately see others nearby, and set up your profile and add your content right there. Then or instead, go into the LoKasts of others nearby, explore through their portals, and get the content they are sharing. At same time, other users can find you and your media, and can view your LoKasted media collections in real-time.
Or just add additional media content that you take live or are talking about with others around you, and they can instantly view it on their phones from your LoKast.
Why did NearVerse build LoKast?
On the one hand, we are a technology networking company at our core, with a platform that enables high-speed mobile interactions when nearby others. At the same time, we are 100% behind the proximity Internet, the market we identified in 2008 as a great next opportunity, and LoKast is the platform that we are using to bring that world to you, all powered by our networking engine. Our fundamental belief is that the world of physical interactions needs a rich interactive Internet medium delivered via mobile devices. We coined the term proximity in 2008 along with some very smart other folks in the telco (yes telco believe it or not – many a visionary still live in that market) and the VC markets, and went on a voyage to enable easy ways to discover other people, and share rich media, with those nearby, to go hand-in-hand with physical interactions with them, in real-time:
- Physical interactions are real-time – we built LoKast to support those working at very fast data rates.
- Physical interactions are also dynamic – you meet new people, interact with them, and then you leave to go and meet others. LoKast matches that by providing you with an ad-hoc social network, that always matches the one you are physically surrounded by, and that’s quickly and easily “disposable” – no need to join another social network and then figure out how to find the people that are nearby just to match your physical interactions with them.
- Physical interactions are also certain – they rely only on your five senses which are always available (at least for most of us and some subset for others). So we built our networking platform, to ensure you can connect irrespective of whether 3G, WiFi, or Bluetooth networks are available or not.
So, LoKast exploits the power of the NearVerse platform to support truly real-time proximity interactions that match your physically proximate experiences.
Where do you see LoKast being used the most?
LoKast is a natural fit for events both social and professional. Concert goers can use LoKast to get exclusive music, music videos, and other featured content from the band while the band is performing – content that’s only made available to the concert goers. College students can use LoKast to socialize by instantly sharing a bunch of photos / videos taken at a recent party or trip or by recommending their favorite music to each other. Friends can make social events more engaging, by taking group photos and instantly sharing them with the others around them. Singles in a bar can use LoKast to wear a “digital outfit” and check out what goes hand-in-hand with the physical personas. Networking event and conference attendees can use LoKast to share demo videos and exchange contact information for not just themselves, but those of their relevant social networks – the future of corporate networking. Weddings, bars, at home, at work, at large events or at small private get-togethers – LoKast can literally help make any physically social event or occurrence into a rich, beyond five senses, experience.
What about Privacy?
In version 1.1.1, LoKast users only add content they want to make publicly available so likely will be used in trusted environments. Privacy will be turned on in our next release, allowing private LoKasts to be created.
What’s this music thing all about?
We wanted to build the most engaging app for our users and live music venues happen to offer just that. We have partnered with bands and music distribution companies to bring you featured artists that go “digital stage” with their fans when they perform live. There’s no better medium to get featured music, music videos, and other content from your favorite band while at a live show. And in order to ensure that you are never quite “alone” when using LoKast, we bring those same featured artists directly to you on a weekly basis in LoKast, irrespective of their proximity to you. You can download entire, exclusive tracks of these “rising stars” and share those tracks with other users, even once the band is no longer featured. It’s a great way to engage with the bands and the others all around you, around music, what keeps us together in every situation, through every life moment!
How is this different than other file sharing apps?
We have great respect for the work the other apps have done in allowing you to share stuff with others. We differ from other file sharing apps in several ways:
- We enable group interactions. While other apps focus on 1-1 experiences, LoKast enables discovery and media exchanges with many users nearby, with multiple media items, at the same time.
- We enable pull experiences. While other apps focus on 1-1 push transactions, LoKast enables user to interact with others nearby on their own time, exploring their way through and getting the content they like.
- LoKast uses the NearVerse networking platform, so you always have the absolutely highest-speed and non-3G-dependent experience. You can use LoKast in the subway or in a basement!
- LoKast is all about rich media. While other apps focus on transfer of 1 contact and 1 photo, our core tech platform is built to share collections of larger rich media files like music, videos, photos, in addition to contacts and web links.
At the same time, try sharing contacts through LoKast – a cinch to share as much of your address book as you have in common with those around and for these contacts to appear in real-time in your LoKast, and it’s a one-click experience for the others to grab each contact from you, when and as they want to.
So check out LoKast at http://bit.ly/GetLoKast and please chime in with your feedback and suggestions, and we’ll make sure to build LoKast to suit your tastes. Get LoKast today and help us lead the next mobile revolution, the next transformation in social media – real-time, digitally powered, proximity interactions!
Boris and Vic
Welcome to the NearVerse blog! We are a new mobile technology company led by Boris Bogatin and Vic Singh. We’re changing the way the mobile internet works and look forward to hearing from you. You can follow us here, twitter or facebook to keep up to date as we gear up for launch!
Boris and Vic