What if there was a way to text anyone around you without needing their phone number — or even without WiFi or cell phone service?
That’s the goal of a new messaging app called Sochat, which relies on Bluetooth technology to connect you with other people nearby.
Sochat’s CEO Lukens Orthwein is no stranger to messaging apps; he worked for WeChat, the Chinese messaging giant, for a couple years, assisting with the four-year-old company’s international expansion.
Orthwein left WeChat just over a year ago to start Sochat in Hong Kong. He’s since relocated to San Francisco with his team.
Since launching several weeks ago, Sochat has been targeting college campuses and high schoolers. It’s a fairly simple service to use — you walk into a room and pull up the app, and you’re shown a bunch of pictures and the first names of other people in the room. Individuals must have Bluetooth enabled and must have the Sochat app downloaded in order to show up in the app.
In this way it seems similar to apps like Highlight, which launched a few years ago to a lot of fan fare and showed information about strangers who were nearby for networking purposes. But after raising millions of dollars, Highlight and its competitors lost traction.
Since Sochat runs on Bluetooth technology, you don’t even need WiFi or a cell signal to message other people. This lets you do things like send messages on aeroplanes, Orthwein tells Business Insider. Users’ phone numbers are kept hidden on Sochat.
Orthwein compares Sochat’s Bluetooth’s technology to beacons, the hardware that uses Bluetooth connections to transmit messages to smartphones, used by retailers and event organisers to communicate with people indoors. Sochat works to detect people around you within 100 feet indoors, or up to 250 feet in bigger spaces.
“A lot of kids in high schools don’t have a data connection or access to WiFi throughout the day,” Orthwein says. “There’s a really cool level of experience you get to when you can expect to pull out your phone and see who’s around you.”
For example, you could pull out your phone in a lecture hall and see who’s in your class, or open Sochat at a party to see who else is there. Orthwein says Sochat works best for group messages, or for a tight-knit community like a sports team.
This week, SoChat announced it has raised $US2 million in seed funding and its group of investors reads like a who’s who of Silicon Valley. The round was led by Eniac Ventures. WeChat’s creator Allen Zhang, New Enterprise Associates, Greylock Partners, Slow Ventures, Foundation Capital, Betaworks, Maiden Lane, and Steven Sinofsky of Andreessen Horowitz also participated in the round, which will be used to bolster the Sochat team.
Phone numbers are obsolete, Sochat’s argument goes. The app wants you to connect with people around you without exchanging numbers. Orthwein says Sochat’s biggest client currently is Harvard University. Sochat’s earliest adopters have grown 40% every week since the beginning of the semester 7 or 8 weeks ago.