A Year After Its SXSW Moment, Highlight Keeps Working to Connect People Nearby

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highlightPaul Davison’s location-based startup Highlight has had a strange trajectory. It was the darling of South by Southwest in 2012, then soon lost its sheen for a variety of reasons, prompting a series of “What Happened to Highlight?” posts around the time of this year’s Austin event. The purpose of the passive location-tracking app is to connect people with others around them who have similar interests — to potentially facilitate in-person meetups.

Davison and the team had spent the past year innovating and improving, and recently launched version 1.5 of the app with plenty of new features. So far, response has been excellent.

Street Fight recently caught up with Davison to talk about retrenching, the definition of fun, and his very real belief that using Highlight can change the world around us.

What are the highlights of Highlight 1.5?
It’s a really big evolution of the product. In 1.5, we added photos and events, but that oversimplifies it because it’s not how you normally think about photos and events. When we started Highlight, it was about seeing profiles of people around you. You couldn’t message people or interact with them. We learned that people really wanted to interact with each other. Last summer, we added the ability to add updates. You could ask for a phone charger or something like that. You had never been able to do that before, but it felt pretty limited. We thought about how you could make it richer.

Now you can do interesting things like you can take a picture with your own phone and it will be on another person’s. It’s the same idea of connecting and sharing with people around you, but it’s a new way to do it. We are seeing fascinating use cases. People are using it almost as a means of communication because they are around each other. My friend walked by my office. He didn’t have time to stop, but he took a picture of the front door. It popped up on my phone. I ran over to the window and I saw him half a block away. I took a picture of his back. That showed up on his phone. We are seeing people who are having these visual conversations with each other in public.

Events were the other thing that we launched. When you think about hyperlocal, it’s all about gatherings of people. It always felt like events would be a good use case for Highlight. We wanted to keep ours extremely lightweight. We built something that’s almost like a hashtag. When I post something, I can tag it, but you can only create an event here and now. There’s no planning in advance, no people to invite. The people physically around you will get notification and they can be part of it. If you walk up to it, you will get a notification and be asked if you’re part of the event. If you say “yes,” you will get added and see all the people who are there.

Nothing affects our happiness more than the people around us, but the way that we learn about these people and the way that we bring new people into our lives is incredibly random and inefficient. If you could take a bird’s eye view of the world, take all these people, and put them next to each other, you’d make the world such a better place.

On the About page of your site, there’s a line that reads: “Highlight gives you a sixth sense about the world around you, showing you hidden connections and making your day more fun.” “Fun” is an interesting word choice. What do you mean by “fun?”
We want Highlight to be flexible. We’re not trying to build a dating service. We’re not trying to build a professional service. Twenty years ago, the web came out. It was an entirely new publishing space that had never existed before. We could talk to people on the other side of the world. It let us cut across space and time. It took us awhile to figure it out, but we did. And it has completely changed the world.

I think right now with ambient location-based stuff we are at this really special time in history. This second new publishing space is coming out. This time, we publish things into the air above our head. What happens when you walk into a room and you can look at someone 30 feet away or watch someone walk past you, and know all about them? It’s this entirely new dimension, this entirely new step that is going to emerge because we are all walking around with extremely powerful sensors in our pockets. It’s going to change everything in profound ways we can’t imagine.

You came from the VC world at Bain, and as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Benchmark Capital. Does that background help you focus on Highlight’s revenue model? What is the revenue model?
I came into Benchmark with five or 10 ideas that I thought were interesting. I kept coming back to this one space and I finally decided that I should probably be building something in it. I’ve been interested in it for five or 10 years, and I’ve always been fascinated by this notion that the people in our lives are the most important thing in the world.

Nothing affects our happiness more than the people around us, but the way that we learn about these people and the way that we bring new people into our lives is incredibly random and inefficient. If you could take a bird’s eye view of the world, take all these people, and put them next to each other, you’d make the world such a better place. You’d create friendships, marriages, and companies that would change the world. You would make life better. That was the problem I wanted to solve.

I do believe that if you can do that, you are adding so much value to the world that you can make a good business out of that. I don’t know what form that takes first, but I can think of a number of ways. How much money do people spend on recruiting? How much money do people spend on dating services or trying to bring the right people into their lives? If you wanted to get commercial, there are things you could do on the local side. But all of that is predicated on having a product that millions and millions of people love and use all the time. If you can get to critical mass, I think there are lots of ways to make a business out of that.

What is the single biggest challenge you face today?
It’s a very new technology and a new type of product with new social norms. We’ve always felt that the space that we’re in has the potential to transform the world in a massive, profound way, but it’s going to take a while. The technology is just getting there now. It’s good enough, but it has to get better. And the social norms haven’t been established yet.

Will this thing ever be used for commerce? I’m not going to put my credit card on the Internet. And how do we feel about publishing information about ourselves to the people around us? We’ve never been able to do this before. I deeply believe if we do this in the right way, we can build something that almost anyone in the world will want to use, but it takes a little getting used to. We saw that evolution with Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and with the web itself. I think we’re going to see it in this space as well.

Noah Davis is a senior editor at Street Fight. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.