Venture Corner: Distinc.tt Pivots to Create a Community of Communities

Distinc.tt IPhone App Screenshot

Distinc.tt IPhone App Screenshot

What industry are you in?

“Location social.”  Facebook paved the way for online social interaction and foursquare paved the way for location-based check-ins.  Recently the social location sphere has shown a lot of activity (e.g. Sonar, Highlight, Glancee), suggesting that the market is ready.  It’s a very exciting place to be right now.

How has Distinc.tt changed since the last Harbus update?

We’ve broadened Distinc.tt’s focus from simple GPS proximity to include venues and locations.  While the previous iteration showed people, places and things to do nearby as separate entities, the next update displays interesting places, activities, and people nearby.  For example, instead of just seeing a list of happenings in your area, you would see the 30 people at Tommy Doyle’s and the 24 at The Grotto.  The implicit assumption is that users are attracted to events based on the people attending as opposed to the structure of the event.

So what happens when you check-in?

Users join a mini social network happening inside the room.  This opens up a lot of interesting opportunities.  For example, we did a trial at Tommy Doyle’s last semester that allowed people to send drinks to each other (and buy for themselves) directly on their smartphone.  Beyond the utility of not needing to carry cash or card with you to a bar, sending a drink acted as an ice-breaker and starting a conversation on the app (with some skin in the game).  This could very quickly lead to a real encounter.  We’re also looking into enabling users to share photos and messages or tips with the room as a whole.  This provides users at home a meaningful glimpse into what’s happening in real time at the event.

Last spring Distinc.tt was targeted toward gay men – has that changed at all?

Yes and no.  The current live app is for urban gay men, a demographic which is notoriously underserved by the business community and has an extremely high need for social media.  Moreover, gay nightlife is tightly concentrated to a few packed venues. Two months after launch, with no publicity, the app has had several thousand downloads.  Meanwhile, people in other demographics (such as Asians in NYC, or grad students in Boston) approached us, asking about a similar option for their community.

So it’s now a “community of communities?”

Yes, exactly – instead of building separate apps for each community, create one app that enables people to connect with all of the communities that are meaningful to them.  The intersections of a user’s communities promise even greater benefit.  For example, I’ll push a button to show the entrepreneurs around me, then add in high-tech and Harvard students.  This approach further allows us to build critical mass within smaller communities at a faster pace than Highlight’s broad-based approach of displaying a somewhat eclectic assortment of Facebook friends nearby.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs trying to build their businesses?

First – trust your instinct.  For a good part of last year I abandoned the gay market and focused on buying drinks in bars.  It was a shift that was easier to talk about and had a more direct path to revenue.  However, we found that gay people valued the drink-sending feature more because there are fewer social norms within the gay community (i.e. who buys who a drink?).  Returning to the core idea that initially had me passionate about the business really helped move things along.

Second – launch quickly, fail fast, and be lean!  I held the product back many times because the business model kept evolving and I was nervous to release a product that wasn’t 100%.  I could have iterated much faster by releasing something basic quickly and then iterating from there on.

Looking back on the drink buying experiment, we took a very “fat” approach by physically integrating with the bar and accepting credit cards on the phone.  If I were to do it over, I’d just put a “buy a drink” button that said “coming soon” when users clicked.  Granted this would have been less satisfying for those initial users, but we would have learned almost as much from that trial.  I really believe that usage data trumps surveys and customer feedback.  It’s often hard for users to imagine how they would use the app in context.  Our new strategy and focus on quickly adapting to usage feedback gives me even greater confidence in Distinc.tt’s ability to deliver something that is really meaningful to users.

 

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