Why Highlight Wasn’t A Breakout Success At SXSW

[Editor’s Note: Brenden Mulligan is an entrepreneur who created Onesheet, TipList, ArtistData, MorningPics, and PhotoPile. He’s a mentor for 500 Startups and several startups. You can find him on Twitter at @mulligan.]

Highlight is one of the most talked about apps out there. It was touted to be the breakout app at this year’s SXSW. But it wasn’t. In fact, almost everyone I’ve talked to who used it ended up turning it off or uninstalling it.

(The same probably goes for GlanceeSonar, etc.. but I only really tried and talked about Highlight.)

I’ve had many discussions about the app and most have been really polarizing. Either people love the idea, or absolutely hate the idea. I find myself trying to have a more balanced opinion. Although I uninstalled it the first day, I think the overall concept of Highlight is interesting and with enough adoption, could be compelling for the right user.

But SXSW was the wrong place for it to break. Here’s why.

Battery Drain Fear

Some people experienced this, some didn’t. I installed Highlight the week before SXSW and my battery drained faster than I remember prior, so I uninstalled it. There’s a very good chance that wasn’t Highlight’s fault, but my mind was set up to think it probably was. And for SXSW, battery life is a priority.

SXSW is a week when most people buy $50-100 battery extenders because everyone is out and using their phone to communicate for hours on end. The thought of installing an app that drains the battery at all is counter intuitive. I know a lot of people who didn’t even try the app just because they had heard it decreased battery life. Until there’s a Mophie for Mophie, this fear might have greatly reduced the chance of many people even giving it a try.


When you release an app, you want it to feel useful from the beginning. Lots of apps will do extensive alpha testing so when people can finally sign up at random, there is content/activity already visible. Some teams keep apps invitation only for a long time so when people are invited, there’s almost a guarantee a friend already uses it. These are parts of onboarding, and they are important. Pinterest is still invite only. That’s not because they’re lazy.

Once the user is in an app, it should continually feel useful. If I install an app, and never get any kind of value from it, I forget about it. So it makes sense that Highlight decided to set the bar very low when notifiying users about potential connections. That led to more notifications sent, which in theory results in more user happiness.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works for this kind of app and led to a lot of notifications with value at the level of: “You were nearby Sarah. You both like music. Connect?” Yawn.

On Instagram, the average user would rather get “10 random people liked your photo” than just “One good friend liked your photo” because it makes them feel special and gets them to create more content.

But on services like Highlight, most people would rather get one extremely relevant notification about a possible connection than ten somewhat loose connections. If I walk past someone on the street and Highlight tells me they also like Sigur Ros, that’s not going to make me stop everything and connect with them. But if they like Sigur Ros, and we have 10 very solid friends in common, and are from the same town, then I get interested.

Highlight just set the bar too low. They know this, and they’re working on it. But they should have just raised it before SXSW.

SXSW is already too noisy

At SXSW, there are already too many people to see. Regardless of one’s social/professional status, there are probably tons of friends and acquaintances to catch up with. Meetings are serendipitous, not manufactured. This is why SXSW is wonderful. And this is also why Highlight just isn’t the right app for that environment.

Sure, there are some people who go to SXSW to meet people and dont have full schedules. But Highlight isn’t the answer here. Those people will find their way into parties and make an effort in person to network with people they didn’t have access to before. This perseverance is exactly what people respect. If instead, there was some app that allowed the stranger to send a DM from his room at the La Quinta Inn by the airport, then the whole dynamic would be off.

Curiosity != Need

Most of the tech early adopters download apps because they’ve heard an app is cool and they’re curious about why. Then, in the case of apps like Instagram, they are pulled into a cool interaction that leads to a cool community that is already filled with their friends.

But again, Highlight is different. Super early adopters (the ones that end up tweeting about cool apps) rarely need more friends. They want cool experiences to share with their existing friends. So when these early adopters (and many people at SXSW fit this profile) download an app like this, the main value prop of the app isn’t something that’s appealing.

So, if Highlight fails at SXSW, then where will it succeed?

I think not breaking at SXSW is a good thing for Highlight, Glancee, etc… Because these apps have a broader appeal than a networking conference. Example:

Some guy moves to Boston after graduating college. He rents into an apartment in the South End and on his first night, sits down alone in his apartment, with nothing to do. It’s not because he’s not interesting, it’s because he’s new and doesn’t know anyone. He opens Highlight, which tells him within 2 blocks is a guy that’s about his age, who is close friends with some people he went to high school with. And that guy also likes the same basketball team. And there is a game on that night. I can totally see that guy direct messaging the stranger and saying hello. At that point, why not?

So it’s not that I think Highlight wont work. It’s that I don’t think it was ready for prime time, and I don’t think SXSW was the right venue for it to prove itself. I’m not a user, but I’m not ready to write it off. I just probably won’t use it until it provides more value and less battery drain. And even if I never use it again, I don’t think I’m the right target anyway.

Ultimately, I’m really interested when this app gets to people who legitimately say “I want to meet more people” instead of “What’s all this Highlight buzz about?” Then I think we’ll see the app in the hands of people who need it, instead of those who are just curious.

Appendix: Highlight Logo Rant

As someone who appreciates design, I just can’t get past the stupid-ass multi-color logo. the font choice is fine, and the logo looks fine when monotone, but I hate hate hate the multi-colored version. It looks like it was thrown together by someone who doesn’t give a shit if they should be taken seriously and just discovered the Layers tool in Photoshop. I know that’s harsh, but come on.