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Social networking has transformed the way many people keep in touch with old friends and family members, but has not replaced the intimacy of a physical meeting.
Connect, an app-based service co-founded by Saïd Business School MBA graduate Anima Sarah LaVoy, aims to bridge the virtual and real worlds by letting people see the current location of people in their address book.
LaVoy, who is Connect’s chief innovation officer, completed her MBA at the Oxford school in 2011, helped by a Skoll Scholarship, funded by Jeff Skoll, the first full-time employee and first president of eBay.
The app maps the user’s connections across phone and email contacts lists and those on their social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and LinkedIn, helping to facilitate meetings with contacts.
“We’re all surrounded by far more relationships, far more people, than our brains have evolved to understand,” LaVoy says. “With social media, it’s easy to get distracted and lose time getting caught up in feeds. We want people to look up from their phone screens and interact with those around them.”
While studying for her MBA, LaVoy built on “an already expansive” network to develop her start-up ideas with some A-list tech founders. In particular she recalls Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford, an annual event hosted by Saïd, where she met and discussed her plans with some of the technology industry’s big names, including Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, Kim Polese, who launched the Java programming language, and Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn.
LaVoy already had start-up experience, having founded a millennial voters organisation as an undergraduate psychology student in the US, and helped create Ideate, a tech and innovation camp, at Burning Man, the week-long festival held each year in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
The idea for Connect came out of the desire to do more than merely have connections through social media apps on a smartphone.
“It wasn’t how many people I knew that made me happy, or that I could use technology to stay in touch,” she says. “What made me happy was the same thing that has always made people happy, having strong, deep relationships, and I needed a way to stay truly connected with all the people I had come to know from around the world.”
After Oxford, LaVoy returned to the US, moving to the Bay Area of California.
“I began meeting influential entrepreneurs through my consulting work and through the San Francisco social scene, where personal and professional worlds collide,” she says. “Still, I was determined not to lose touch with my friends, peers, advisers and mentors that I had met at the school and who were spread all over the globe, often moving from one place to the next.”
It was here that the idea for Connect took root. She was struck by how much time it took to manage social networking contacts. “I spent a couple weeks adding my phone book contacts to Facebook and LinkedIn, and updating Gmail contacts with information shared from social networks.
“I realised that the first thing I needed to know, if I intended to see a particular person again, was where that person lived, and second was where they were at the moment. So I made sure I added home cities to each person’s contact information in Gmail contacts: a key element in my rudimentary custom solution to keeping track of my people.”
As LaVoy was building the code for a system, Ryan Allis, a social entrepreneur who had just moved from North Carolina, walked into her apartment with a friend. He had just sold his email marketing software start-up, iContact, to Vocus, a PR software business, for $169m, and was working on a new venture. The pair discovered they had both started work on the same problem.
“We sat at my coffee table, comparing ways of keeping track of friends. We had one straightforward desire: all our people on one map,” she says.
LaVoy oversaw all technology developed by her team from Connect’s headquarters in San Francisco. The app now has more than 2.2m unique users in more than 150 countries and is adding 10,000 a day, says LaVoy. In December, the founders secured $10.3m in their first major funding round.
A survey of almost 2,000 users in late November is helping Connect’s founders better understand how people use their mobile devices and networking sites. A second study, covering the impact of social and mobile technology on human relationships, is planned for February.
So far, the app has been available only on Apple devices, so the next stage is to develop a version for Android. There are also plans to add the capacity for group chats and offer more seamless calling and messaging functions.
LaVoy is also building her company’s connections. As well as hiring more people, she says she is busy deepening relationships with business partners in the UK and around the world.
Jargon buster: ‘white space’
Inventors can make great entrepreneurs, but this is not necessarily the case. For every James Dyson, turning a bagless vacuum cleaner into a multinational business, there is a Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneering 15th-century printer who changed the world of communication forever but died in poverty.
This does not stop angel investors and venture capitalist firms trawling the planet for original ideas. The venture capitalists of Silicon Valley have a phrase for this type of investment: “white space”. Backing completely new ideas may be risky, but the rewards are significantly greater, the VCs argue. Well, that is the theory.
Experience shows that the best investments are often made in copycats. Facebook did not invent social networking, Apple did not invent the smartphone, the PC or the tablet computer, and search engines were around a long time before Google. The trick these businesses pulled off was to do better something that was already available.
White space investments may be exciting, but it is better to back a business whose space is filled with paying customers. Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery, it is often the best way to create a business that will make money.