The Next Web Frontier: Finding New Offline Friends

Published on March 2, 2011
by Liz Gannes

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, 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.

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