Q&A with Paul Davison, Founder and CEO of Highlight

If you’ve been following the news about SXSW 2012, you’ve surely heard of Highlight, the location-based social network startup that’s all abuzz at the SXSW Interactive conference down in Austin, Texas. LAPTOP Magazine sat down with Paul Davison, CEO of Highlight, to get a walkthrough of the app’s features and the founder’s insights on the direction and uses of the app.

The premise of Highlight is straightforward: Essentially, it’s a location-based networking app. That’s nothing new. But what Highlight does differently — which hasn’t been popularized in a big way with apps that came before it — is it shares your location and profile in real-time, so you can see people you have things in common with while you’re simply walk around a city (or a big convention like SXSW).

It’s a step away from other location-based apps, which used to be focused on users actively checking in at places to let their friends know they’ve been there. In contrast, Highlight does what it says is “passive location monitoring” — that is, the app simply runs in your smartphone’s background and sends you push notifications when you’re within range of another user with whom you have strong Facebook connections. (The app integrates with your Facebook account before you can start using it.) Highlight will pull things from your profile like interests, life history and common friends, and ping you when you have multiple things in common with someone nearby. 

The idea, presumably, is to diminish instances of wasted social opportunities with people. But people need to be open to being discovered by others before Highlight can become beneficial. Is this a tenable goal? We asked Davison some questions about how he envisioned the app in real-world use.

Q: What’s the idea and philosophy behind Highlight?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by the dynamics of how people meet. It’s incredibly random and inefficient. Let’s say, for instance, you just moved to a new city by yourself—how do you even begin to make friends? We ride in buses, go to bars, drink at coffee shops—there are always people around. But it’s never like how we interact online. We live in a bizarre world where everyone we meet is a single photo from a Facebook profile. If there was a solution for this, life would just be better.

Given that there’s so much friction in the physical world, Highlight wants to do away with that. We want to dramatically reduce this friction so that we can share things with people in the real world the way we share things online. Nowadays, Facebook profiles and online identities are becoming ubiquitous, and I see apps like Highlight going in this direction. Soon we’ll be asking ourselves, “What did we do before this?” the way we ask ourselves what we did before we had cell phones. “How did we ever arrange meetings?” Something like that. It’s going to change the world in a crazy, crazy way, I think.

Q: What makes it different from other location-based networking apps?

A: Location-based apps can be really different from one another. You’ve got Latitude, which is essentially a moving dot on a map that reveals your location. Foursquare broadcasts your location publicly after you check in somewhere. I think there is no one better app compared to another, each is just different.

Highlight, on the other hand, isn’t actually about meeting new people—it’s conceivable how that can be weird and scary. Its goal is to surface information about the people around you. And one thing about the Highlight community is that everyone who’s a Highlight user is someone who wants to be a part of it. I think that if we build it the right way, we’ll be able to put people at ease over sharing some subset of information about themselves publicly.

We had a lot of debates about how we would structure the social network when we were building the app. One thing we repeatedly discussed was whether we were going to include a way for you to lock down the network so you can only see your own friends. Then ultimately, we decided against it. I had a conversation with a friend about this feature, and he told me, “Well yeah, that’s going to be useful—but social products aren’t about utility, they’re about emotion.” I agreed. Because we’ve decided to keep network public, new flows of social interaction can emerge. It can jumpstart new connections.

And I’ve been hearing great anecdotes about how Highlight has been changing how people interact. For instance, we share our space with two other companies in our office. In a setting like that, a coworker will often introduce himself the first you meet, then maybe you’ll forget the person’s name. And soon your only interaction is saying hi when you pass each other in the hall. At our office, after everyone installed Highlight, everyone suddenly became friends and knew each other, because they found out all these new things that kickstarted new connections.

I’ve heard tons of other great stories here at Southby, too. Two users sat next to each other on a plane coming over to Austin, and struck up a conversation because of Highlight. A woman told me that she wrote that it was her birthday in her Highlight blurb, and people suddenly started greeting her as she walked around. Two attendees arranged a pitch meeting through the app because they found themselves in close proximity to each other.

As humans, we all have the same fears in reaching out to each other. It’s risky; we don’t want to be rejected. Highlight helps unlock that potential, that locked desire to connect.

Q: Some folks have been saying how the app pulls and shares your information with strangers is creepy. What do you think of that opinion?

A: Well, as with other startups, I think what we first need to do is to earn people’s trust—that’s a huge priority for us. We started with the fact that everything in the app is opt-in. And it’s based on real identity and mutual friends. I’ve been checking up on our users, too, and asking them if they’re being annoyed by other Highlight users, and they tell me that no one really bothers them.

I think it just comes down to the fact that we’ve never been able to do this before, so now it looks new and weird to people. But ten years ago, putting profiles on the web was new and weird, too. Ultimately, I think that social norms evolve—and we will decide that the social benefits of apps like Highlight outweigh its risks.

That is the nature of social media, after all—for it to evolve, we need to keep pushing things a bit. That’s what we’re aiming to do.

Q: People have also been complaining about how Highlight taxes their battery. Have you already got any plans to fix that in the future?

A: Yes, we’ve heard that feedback. The thing is, we’re at a point where battery-wise, things are just now getting acceptable. Speaking to our users, I’ve heard back that the vast majority don’t get this problem. Although some do, and we are aware of it. With iOS 5.1, things got a little better, and the core tech will keep getting better. So it’s just a matter of waiting for that and on our side, us getting smarter about how we optimize it. 

Q: Speaking of iOS, do you have any plans to bring the app to other platforms?

A: Yes, we are looking into that. We do want to get Highlight into the hands of as many people as possible.

Q: Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge whether an app will be successful beyond SXSW Interactive. We’ve seen in the past how apps like GroupMe, Beluga and Gowalla — which has just been shut down — never really thrived outside of the early-adopter techie crowd at events like this. How will Highlight avoid this fate?

A: Well, I think it’ll depend on people having a good experience with the app here at SXSW, then having them go back to their own cities and seeing how well it works for them there. One thing I want to note is that I do think word of mouth is always more valuable than aggressive marketing, so we do want to grow by people having these great experiences using Highlight, then later share these stories with their friends—rather than forcing the app on them.

Will the world adopt this technology? I can’t say for sure. But I am absolutely convinced that this is how people will interact in the future, whether we’ve built the platform for it or not.  Because the way Highlight works taps people’s natural human instincts. Our desire to connect with others through sharing things about ourselves is embedded in being human: We wear t-shirts with pictures of our favorite bands. We wear caps emblazoned with logos of our favorite sports teams. And the amazing stories connected to Highlight are just beginning to emerge.

Q: What are your plans for the future of Highlight?

A: Well we launched the app two weeks ago, and things went really well. Next we focused on building the app for Southby, and thankfully we made it. We do have a huge list of things that we have planned for our upcoming versions, but one thing we don’t want is to add a ton of new features. We’re trying to focus on keeping it very simple for now. So while we are doing a bunch of tweaks, it’s only to streamline the experience. Ultimately, the goal to build that sixth sense about people and how to get to know information about them. Beyond that, we’d just like to keep Highlight simple, beautiful, and nail down that experience.

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