Photo: Boonsri Dickinson, Business Insider
Once the hype train starts rolling, it can be hard to stop it.Case in point Highlight, a location-based communications app that was the talk of South by Southwest leading up to the extravaganza. There was even talk that Highlight would “win” South by Southwest, much like group texting app GroupMe “won” it earlier.
And then Highlight experienced some growing pains. It would kill your battery, and people were up in arms over how “over-hyped” it was.
What’s it like becoming the talk of the town and then experiencing a crazy about-face? How do you survive the hype bubble?
What happened to Highlight?
We got in touch with Paul Davison, CEO of Highlight, to find out where it’s heading. Here’s what we found out:
- There were definitely some problems, but it’s because they had to scrape together an app for South by Southwest quickly. Highlight didn’t originally plan to be at the event, and had to scrape together a South by Southwest-calibre product in the next five weeks.
- After a brief vacation, the two-person team of Highlight is back to work. They’re looking to build out the team to “as many designers and engineers as they need.”
- Highlight got some interest from investors, but it isn’t raising money. It doesn’t need money right now, Davison said.
Here’s a full, lightly edited transcript of the interview:
BUSINESS INSIDER: How was South by Southwest? Was it successful for you guys?
Paul Davison: It was great, it was pretty funny. We launched the app January 24th, and had been working on it for a long time. We didn’t know what to expect. We launched it and it went well, so we said, “hm, we should probably be at South by Southwest.” We didn’t start thinking bout that until pretty late in the game, so we put our heads down to code and Photoshop for the next five weeks. We were heads down the whole time.
We submitted the update on Thursday of South by Southwest and then we hopped on the plane. It was fantastic, it was the first time we could come up for air, talk to our users and to people around the world. We don’t think about highlight as meeting people or matchmaking, the way we think about it is building this whole sort of layer of data that surfaces the information about people around you.
Highlight saved our lives at South by Southwest, even: my coworker was on a sensitive work call, and I saw on Highlight that there was a reporter sitting right next to him. So I told him not to say anything too sensitive while he was on the call. Another time, I was trying to close a business deal with someone in Los Angeles, and we’re in San Francisco. I saw he was at a Hilton hotel nearby and decided to just walk over and talk to him. We were on adrenaline, sleeping two hours each night. The clock would roll around and I would realise I hadn’t eaten anything.
BI: Now that it’s over, what’s coming next?
PD: We came back and said, OK, we know what to do. It was a great week, now it’s time to come back and really build out the company. It’s still just two people, we’ve just been so heads down building that we haven’t had a chance to do all that stuff.
We’re really focusing on building out a team, and there’s a first wave of stuff that we wanted to do to just sort of refine and polish that. The way we view what we’re doing in highlight, I know is that this app is going to evolve a lot. As you get more people on it and learn more about it, it’s going to change.
I mean, remember when we had to try and figure out what the web was when it came out. We called it cyberspace, the information super-highway. All of the sudden you could chat with someone on the other side of the world, that was crazy. You could put up a website and anyone could see it, your cousins in Germany could look at it. We had to figure out all this stuff — should we call it a website or a net site? Will it ever be used in commerce? Any time a new social technology comes up and allows you to share in a way that’s different, we have to think through that process and think about all the things we can do with it.
It’s gonna change and evolve. What we’re trying to do in the next couple weeks is be disciplined about not adding too many features. We want to focus on refining and polishing it. We want to focus on speed and battery life and relevance. We spent a lot to time since we came back on battery life, we issued a new update last week and we’re testing the numbers and we think it’s gonna make a really big impact. We haven’t even looked at and figured out what users like.
Our next step is building out the team and just refining and evolving and perfecting the core experience. We know we’re just sort of a small fraction of what we want Highlight to be and we have a ton of work to do.
BI: Highlight was a pretty hotly-anticipated app at South by Southwest. How do you guys think you handled the hype?
PD: I really don’t like hype and I think that hyping a product, it rarely leads to anything good. It’s so painful to release a product before you’ve done everything you want to do.
We put it into a private alpha build in November and it started going really wall. We kept hearing all these crazy stories. There’s something about that core interaction that was really resonating with people. So in January, we just said, “let’s open this up and take down the invite well. Let’s just get some people on it and start to learn and get it out there.”
We figured if we’re gonna do that we might as well tell a few tech blogs. Robert Scoble has been excited about it since the early days, and a couple other blogs got excited about it and started writing about it a bunch. We figured there was a good chance our space would be the space people were talking about at South by Southwest. It seems there’s a space people are talking about every year, people like there to be a competition and a winner and that sort of stuff. We want to be the company that people associate with this space and have a product that people really enjoy using.
When we said we were going to have a version ready for South by Southwest, it’s pretty much what we had in mind. There was a lot of buildup in the weeks leading up, and one Saturday and there was a story in CNET with a really nice headline about us. We were on CNN the next day, there was a tremendous amount of press that started happening. By the time we got to South by Southwest it was like, OK, this is happening, Let’s make sure that we don’t mess up, let’s make sure we keep the product going. We needed everyone to have a good enough experience with it and talk to their friends about it.
We know battery life was an issue at South by Southwest, so we made some tweaks to that. We thought South by Southwest would be noisier than usual because you have orders of magnitude more density. We wanted to make some additions to the app that would make it so you could use it in a dense environment like South by Southwest, but we didn’t want to build it specifically for that dense environment.
I think that South by Southwest was a bit of a whirlwind and we were really excited about it. I think we did get what we wanted to get out of it, we wanted to just have more people know about it and go back to their cities and tell more people about it.
BI: What kind of traction have you seen since then?
PD: We don’t have technical numbers yet, but it’s going really well. We always thought this was the type of product that grows through in-person word of mouth, it’s the kind of thing where you go out with your friends. Your phone vibrates and your friends look over your shoulder and say. “what are you doing.” The technology is interesting enough that you tell them and they install the app. The messages we get from people are just ridiculous, they’re amazing. It grows more organically through that sort of stuff than through some crazy online loop.
BI: What about additional funding? Has there been any interest?
PD: We’ve been getting a lot of attention, for sure. If you asked me if we were raising money, I’d say no. We don’t need money right now, we’re just looking at building out the team.
BI: What now, after you’ve gotten through the hype gauntlet?
PD: Really, we want to build something really big and meaningful. There are so many places I imagine this could go, but in the near-term, we just want to build out the team and refine and perfect the core product. We want to focus on the fundamental atomic unit of highlight: the person around you, the people around you.
Some people say, what about monetization, we’ll say that’s not what we’re thinking about. We’ve already made some changes that really help in this direction like new releases. They really help with the battery life. We want to continue to make those improvements. There’ll be things we’ll think about, like international expansion and making sure more people can use the product and just really defining and perfecting the core experience. There aren’t huge changes in store in the near term that we would really be talking about, we’re just focus on polishing and refining and build out the infrastructure. We’re mostly looking to build out the core team of engineers and designers. I don’t really know specifically how many that will be, but it’ll be as many people as we need.