Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

The Next Web Frontier: Finding New Offline Friends

Can the Internet help us meet people offline? Not like a dating site that’s cordoned off from the rest of the Web, but in more of a good-conversation-at-a-dinner-party kind of way? That’s a premise that multiple start-ups are currently exploring.

One, called Yobongo, intended to launch tomorrow, offers a mobile app with proximity-based chat rooms (or, to use the hip start-up term of the moment, “group messaging”). Another, called Grubwithus, arranges family-style meals at restaurants.

Yobongo co-founders Caleb Elston and David Kasper, formerly of the Web video start-up Justin.tv, have built their iPhone app with serendipitous conversations in mind.

Only 12 or so people can join any one Yobongo room at the time; users are highly encouraged to share their real names; and there are no topics or room directory.

Each time users open the app, they are placed in a room containing people nearest to their physical location and, if possible, people they have talked to on Yobongo before.

The San Francisco-based company is hoping for quick growth at the geeky petri dish of SXSW. It does have one feature that seems perfectly tuned for the Austin party-hopping crowd–iPhone notifications for when a Yobongo conversation is heating up nearby.

Elston said he thinks the mobile, social, geo-located experience can give chat rooms a makeover the same way apps like Instagram are breathing new life into photo sharing.

“Often the best times are small, impromptu groups of people,” Elston said. “It’s the sitting-around-the-campfire type of experience.”

Meanwhile, Grubwithus is one of leading contenders from the latest Y Combinator start-up accelerator class, according to recommendations from its classmates. The company arranges family-style meals with restaurants and signs up participants to book and pay in advance, usually at a discounted price.

It’s kind of like an ad hoc Meetup with food. Or Groupon where a group of restaurant coupon buyers dines together.

As attendees commit to a certain dinner, their names and pictures show up on a dedicated Grubwithus meal page. Those who sign up early get a small discount for taking a bigger risk on who their dining companions will be.

Grubwithus co-founder Eddy Lu said that in San Francisco and Chicago, where the site is already operating, 75 percent of sign-ups come from individuals rather than couples or groups.

Some Grubwithus meals are posed around a topic or celebrity diner, while others are more random. Lu said like-minded people tend to flock to the same meals based on the price.

Grubwithus, obviously, takes a cut of each dinner fee, and also sees itself as a marketing channel for restaurants. It is testing a feature to help users set up their own dinner party invitations and menus, kind of like OpenTable for groups. Lu said the company intends to start fundraising later this month.


Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik