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Innovation Economy

Trouble managing your social life? Several local start-ups aim to help

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Columnist / March 28, 2010

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Where are you? What are you doing? How about Friday night? Who with?

A bevy of local start-ups is trying to insert themselves into your social life, helping answer those four crucial questions.

Many of these “social life management’’ companies are run by twentysomething entrepreneurs targeting their peers as the initial market, and many of them were in Austin, Texas, earlier this month at the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference, trying to generate some buzz among the 15,000 attendees.

As with opening a new nightclub or restaurant, the chicken-and-egg conundrum for each of the start-ups is to attract enough users to make it feel as if you are not the only one there when you arrive.

RiotVine and Sponty, based in Boston and Cambridge respectively, both invite users to build lists of upcoming events they are planning to attend, and try to get others to indicate that they are onboard — a good way to show what’s hot and what’s not. Both companies were at South by Southwest.

Sponty created a guide to parties and other happenings at the Austin conference that attracted 2,600 followers, and also helped spur downloads of the free Sponty application for the Apple iPhone. RiotVine managed to get Robert Scoble, an influential Silicon Valley blogger, to tout its service in a Twitter message.

But, says RiotVine cofounder Kabir Hemrajani, “building buzz has been pretty tough for us.’’ One thing that has worked so far has been giving free concert tickets to people who use the site to invite friends to join them at an upcoming show. And Hemrajani is hoping to get a boost from baseball fans when he adds all this season’s Red Sox games to the site. “We haven’t done sporting events before,’’ he says.

The big winner at this year’s South by Southwest conclave was Foursquare, a Manhattan start-up that makes an application for mobile phones. Among other things, the Foursquare app lets you “check in’’ to a restaurant or coffee shop, and share your current location with the rest of the world via Twitter messages. You can leave tips on the best things to order, or earn virtual badges for things like going out often on “school nights.’’ This month, Foursquare announced that it had surpassed 500,000 users, and at South by Southwest, the Foursquare check-in was de rigueur upon arriving at a new place.

Rally, launched last Monday, is a Cambridge-based site that I love for its simplicity. It analyzes all the messages posted to Twitter by the people you follow on that service for anything that mentions a specific day or date. Then, Rally organizes those messages on a timeline. When an acquaintance mentions a documentary film that is screening April 26 at the Independent Film Festival Boston, the message shows up under that day’s heading. (Rally does get confused by messages that say things like “I hate Mondays,’’ listing them on the timeline under the next Monday that rolls around.)

Another Cambridge-based company, Sparkcloud Inc., aims to help people get together around activities, which might include teaching an informal class on bread baking in your own kitchen, or “going to 12 bars and drinking 12 different beers,’’ says founder Nick Tommarello, who is planning a soft launch of the site this week.

An unanswered question for all of these social life start-ups is whether they can grow and succeed in Facebook’s shadow. Already, you can use Facebook to create an event whether it’s a backyard barbecue or a concert at the Middle East and have your friends indicate whether they are going to attend. But that’s one Facebook feature among dozens, and venture capitalist Bijan Sabet of Boston’s Spark Capital believes that “there will be companies that can do a better job than Facebook in that specific use case.’’

But Rebecca Xiong says that two challenges will be attracting enough users and creating a deep-enough database of diverse events to build a business (presumably one supported by advertising or e-commerce). “It’s very challenging,’’ says Xiong, a cofounder of the Boston start-up Going.com. Going.com raised $8.5 million from two local venture capital firms, but didn’t really achieve critical mass with users; it was sold to AOL Inc. last year for a sum that was reported as less than $10 million.

Since Going.com’s sale to AOL, none of the other locally based social life start-ups have managed to raise venture capital funding. And when the founder of Foursquare came to town last year to talk to prospective investors, New Atlantic Ventures didn’t exactly leap at the opportunity.

“We loved the way [Dennis Crowley] was combining gaming and the location capabilities of mobile phones,’’ says Scott Johnson of Cambridge-based New Atlantic. But a New York firm swooped in to do the deal, handing the company just over $1 million. “We didn’t pass, but maybe we acted too slowly.’’

One of the newest contenders, HappeningMap.com, won’t launch for another month or so. But it plans to display events that appeal to your interests, arrayed on a map all around your current location. In Harvard Square with a few hours to kill before dinner? HappeningMap might alert you to an author doing a reading at the Harvard Coop, a movie at the Brattle, or a lecture at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Of course, you will also be able to see how many people are planning to attend — and whether any of them are in your circle of friends.

“Seeing who’s going is a key factor in how people make decisions on where to go,’’ says Shabnam Emamian, the company’s director of business development.

If you are like me, and you crustily wonder who is going to spend so much time online managing his social life, the answer is simple: someone younger than you, someone more single than you, someone who has not yet spawned.

“Students and younger people who don’t yet have families and packed schedules are the ones who have the time,’’ says Emamian. “They want and need to find out what’s going on.’’ Like most of the entrepreneurs in this arena, she’s in the same age group as her potential users: 29, and planning to graduate from Babson College’s MBA program this year.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.