South by Southwest Interactive is always a launching ground for new digital products; when you put about a million or so of the world’s digital elite in the same two square miles, something is bound to get sexy real quick — and I don’t just mean that chick in the “I Heart Geeks” T-shirt after you down the eighth drink at the open bar.
Here are a few of the products that I noticed gaining big-time traction in Austin this year, a couple of which have Seattle roots:
. A group messaging app that was recently acquired by Facebook, Beluga allows you to add your friends to a “pod” and then send messages exclusively to that group. Anyone can create a pod and, once added, pod members can add or delete other members. While competitors GroupedIn and GroupMe made huge marketing pushes at SXSW, I never saw anyone using them. (Although I was downright disappointed to find that GropeMe.com was also taken, because I had an idea dammit
.) Meanwhile, my friends kept adding me to new Beluga pods — my friends from Seattle, my friends from Startup Weekend, and one just for my closest girlfriends and I — and it was a great way to keep tabs on different groups without broadcasting information more publicly with Twitter or Foursquare. (Interesting tidbit: I don’t recall seeing a single piece of Beluga marketing collateral at SXSW. I just saw everybody using it.)
I also have to give Beluga mad props for building in a “Mute til 8am” option on their notification settings. Although, at SXSW, we probably could have used “Mute until 9 hours after I have posted my last sexually suggestive update to everyone in my pod of coworkers. Then kill me.”
. This month-old hyperlocal ecommerce startup was funded to the tune of $1MM just three weeks after forming, with Ashton Kutcher as a lead investor. They opened in limited beta just for SXSW, and the buzz never stopped for a second. The mobile app allows you to anonymously post what you want and how much you’re willing to pay for it and then wait for people to indicate that they can provide it. In other words, you “just Zaarly it.”
They were born at a Startup Weekend in Los Angeles (for those of you who don’t know, Startup Weekend is a Seattle-based non-profit), and their COO is Seattle’s ubiquitous and dashing (but married!) legal eagle, Eric Koester. (Their CEO, the equally handsome Bo Fishback, is also married, and informed me that everyone other than his wife looks like Rosie O’Donnell to him. I do think I made some progress with their 21-year-old intern.)
I’d been wanting a Texas Longhorns hat, but didn’t have any time to go shopping for one. I posted on Zaarly that I’d be willing to pay $10 plus the cost of the hat for someone to deliver it to me, and five minutes later Zaarly initiated a phone call for me. The guy on the other end of the call lived in South Austin, asked for more specifics on the type of hat I wanted, and showed up on the street corner with it 45 minutes later. The hat was perfect. He produced his receipt, I paid him in cash, and it was over. “Thank you so much,” I said. “No, thankyou,” he said. “I really needed this extra cash. I’ll be doing this stuff for people on Zaarly all day.”
Other Zaarly use cases: People offering cash for VIP entrance to parties, for intros to venture capitalists and decision-makers at powerful companies, for someone to hold them a spot in a line, for someone to bring them a pack of cigarettes at their hotel, or for someone to bring them Advil for their hangover.
. Born at a Startup Weekend in Minneapolis, QONQR combines cooperative gaming with competitive gaming with hyperlocality in a very global way. (Duh.) Launched just days before SXSW, where they were an Accelerator finalist, the game divides players into one of three self-selected factions: The Swarm, The Faceless or The Legion. Then players can launch “bot” attacks to take over the “battle zone” (zip code) they’re currently in for their faction.
When I first got to SXSW and signed up for QONQR (The Swarm, baby!!!), I noticed the small user base fighting for control of the Austin Convention Center. By mid-week, tens of thousands of bots from The Swarm, The Faceless and The Legion were battling it out for places like Mexico City, Madrid, Chicago and Brooklyn. The first thing I did when I got home was launch a bunch of bots to take over my own neighborhood for The Swarm, then used some extra points to build a defense depot so The Legion and The Faceless would have a hard time stealing it back. (I can do that because I am Level 5, ‘natch.)
I’ve never been a gamer, and I’ve never before made an in-app purchase in a game, but I swear to you, if anyone threatens my neighborhood, I will pay whatever it takes to buy whatever weapons I need to reclaim it for The Swarm. I see a bright future for this app.
. Just like Beluga aims to tighten the scope of status updates among social networks, Path — from Napster’s Shawn Fanning and ex-Facebooker Dave Morin — aims to tighten up social photo sharing. It allows mobile photo and video sharing among very small networks. I thought it sounded silly until I tried it. The app is remarkably intuitive and elegant, and the tagging features (separated into tags for people, places and things) feel both natural and totally revolutionary. It’s one of those apps that you use and think “Gosh, why hasn’t anyone done it this way before?”
Path’s logos and set of ratings emoticons seemed to appear everywhere at SXSW, in the forms of stickers, buttons, T-shirts and banners. Their super exclusive party at Kenichi (featuring Cirque du Soleil-style performers and limitless Red Bull) was a who’s who of Silicon Valley — a friend of one of their C-level execs got me in, and I left soon after because I realized everyone there was way too important to talk to me. Normally, I’d be offended and refuse to use their app or plug it, but it’s really just too cool to pass up. The biggest problem with Path: Most of my friends aren’t using it yet. I have a feeling that’ll change in the coming year.