Two years ago Ryan Allis was traveling to Nairobi with the United Nations Foundation, and wanted to schedule time to visit with the people he knew living in that area, having been to East Africa about five times prior for a variety of work-related reasons. But first he had to remember all of their names, and then search through his list of contacts and online networks before sending individual messages out to confirm where they’re living, and determine whether an in-person meeting would be possible. The task felt unnecessarily laborious given technology advancements, sparking the idea for a living address book that allowed you to easily see where your existing connections were located around the globe, based on user-provided locations. He reached out to a Google engineer he was friends with to discuss the solution, and was told he had to meet a woman named Anima Sarah LaVoy.
LaVoy had just completed a fellowship with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University and, having previously worked on driving social change from within the political sector, had amassed a wealth of influential contacts with shared values, and no simple way to keep track of them all. She’d been talking to the same Google engineer. When LaVoy and Allis met they quickly began discussing their shared passion for finding a way to better manage existing relationships with an app that emphasized location, creating more opportunities for face-to-face quality time with the people they wanted to continue investing in, and getting to know more deeply than technology allows. Contrary to many location-based apps, however, they didn’t want to rely on GPS data, but instead aggregate information that users provide.
They decided to call it Connect and after spending two years in development they recently beat out 30 other startups to win the LAUNCH Festival in San Francisco, registering over 12,000 users at beta release, and approximately 3,000 new users everyday since. They’ve raised $2.5 million in seed funding and have grown their team to include eight people (Allis led his previous company iContact to 300 employees and exited for $170 million, which can’t hurt when it comes to securing investment and top talent). This past week they were at SXSW riding high on their current momentum, and spreading the word to accelerate continued user growth. They made it to the finals of the SXSW Accelerator competition, and were named one of the top three social companies (see their two minute presentation here).
Regardless of their current golden child status, when a mutual friend reached out suggesting I write a story about Connect, I was skeptical. In part because I rarely write stories that are pitched at me, and in part because I already feel too tethered to technology as it is. Esalen Institute in Big Sur California is my favorite place on the planet, and the fact my cell phone doesn’t work there is one reason why. Somewhat reluctantly, I said yes to an email intro and warned Allis and LaVoy that I was up for learning more, but would likely be a tough sell. I didn’t even download the app before our call for fear that it might broadcast my location to people I don’t want finding me.
LaVoy replied right away saying, “Fantastic, bring on the skeptic!” and followed up on my concern with technology dependence saying, “This is not a dopamine trap, this is not another social network, this is not intended to take your eyes and keep them glued to the screen. If we’re winning with Connect, we’re doing just the opposite — we’re getting you out there in the real world, which is why location is so important.” After an hour of thoughtfully answering my questions without so much as a hint of defensiveness, I was swayed, and decided to download the app so I could experience myself. Here’s why.
I identified with their personal stories, having been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit throughout my life, and collecting an inspiring rolodex of friends, mentors and professional contacts through a mixture of my own stalking, life experiences, and having grown up in Silicon Valley. Nurturing those connections takes time and effort though, and that responsibility often falls on me. So having an app that aggregates all of my contacts – pulling from Facebook, my iPhone, Google, Foursquare, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn – into one location that’s easy to search and send messages within, make phones calls from, and has photos associated with each person ensuring in-person follow-ups don’t feel like blind dates? Yes please. The traveling benefit also appealed, where if I’m going somewhere I can check to see who’s currently living there (without asking anyone), and reach out if I want to connect. The fact everything is opt-in, so none of my activity within the app is shared with anyone unless I first give permission, is key.
During the sign-up process I simply slid every notification option to “off,” allowing me to have a look around in private before deciding which activity settings I wanted to use. After researching the various options, I could see myself taking advantage of the “Out-of-town friends visit my area” feature, where you get notified when your friends from more than 100 miles away come to town – those kind of serendipitous hangouts can often be the most special. I’ve never been a big user of Foursquare, and found it creepy when Facebook went through a phase of notifying me when friends were nearby, so I most certainly don’t see myself taking advantage of being notified when “Friends post near my city” or “Anything happens. Ever,” where I’m notified when anyone within my network does anything. But like I warned Allis and LaVoy when we first spoke, I’m probably not their core target audience and instead hover somewhere on the periphery – I won’t use Connect habitually, but instead when a need arises.
The only technical issue I encountered was that one of my friends who lives in Santa Monica California showed up as living in Santa Monica Puerto Rico, so perhaps the AI can be further improved, or users can be prompted to confirm locations if someone’s information is incomplete, or looks questionable. For those of you freaked out about online privacy, no need to worry – Connect will never sell your data to third parties. And if you really don’t want people knowing what city you live in, what company you work for, or other basic data that you’ve already provided to existing social networks, you best remove that information from everywhere you’ve shared it right now, because Connect is about to make it a whole lot easier for people to keep in touch with you.