Frustrated by how difficult it was to have spur of the moment get-togethers with friends, Stanford classmates Joseph Lau and Nikil Viswanathan spent a Friday afternoon in San Francisco’s SoMa district building what they called Down To Lunch.
“I want to emphasize how simple or silly it was,” said Lau. “We didn’t know who was free, and who was where, and who was able to hang out,” Viswanathan explained. “We literally made the simplest app we could think of — which was one button,” joked Lau, describing the app’s speedy development in early March.
While the initial version of the app resulted from a Friday afternoon of programming before a party, their app is attracting serious competition. Despite Down To Lunch’s humble origins, it looks set to outperform more formal competitors Hangster and Shortnotice, two apps also made by current Stanford students. Shortnotice was launched by Kush Nijhawan, a Stanford classmate of mine. While Hangster’s beta was expected to launch today, the team informed me that the release will be delayed until early next week.
Perhaps it is Down To Lunch’s straightforwardness that has allowed it to to grow so organically in the face of other full-time competitors like Free, which was co-founded by former Path employees. Unlike competing apps that require users to enter text or downselect into an activity type, Down To Lunch’s simplicity makes it a useful tool without adding extra work for users.
“We had close to a million contacts really quickly,” said Viswanathan, who declined to divulge specific user numbers. Despite this, he maintains that he and Lau only ever expected around 5 users. “48 hours later, people I hadn’t seen in years were using it,” he added.
Oscar Barillas, cofounder of Hangster and a former classmate of mine in Stanford’s Mechanical Engineering department, explained that his team came upon this problem in the same way. “For one of our co-founders, the biggest problem in life was finding out who was around and free to do something,” he joked. Following Down to Lunch’s lead, Hangster’s team decided early on to base their product on visual cues. “We realized that people didn’t really want to type statuses,” Barillas added. It’ll be a bit before we can say anything about Hangster’s user growth, but early versions of the app promise an enticing visual experience.
The value of visual cues is clear. Shortnotice, which was part of a Microsoft Ventures‘ accelerator program in the summer of 2014, hasn’t been able to grow past around 3,800 registered users. While Nijhawan assured me the app would get an update in September and that the team had planned an exciting marketing campaign featuring Memphis Grizzlies player and NCAA Champion Russ Smith, the app’s unwieldiness could make user retention and acquisition difficult. Shortnotice is centered on text-based input and a fatigued interface, and as Barillas’ team noted early on, an enticing user experience and visual interaction signage is critical.
Sitting in a café in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown quarter, for example, opening Down To Lunch brings users to a screen filled by a large red button. Currently saying ‘Down To Drinks’ on my iPhone, the app uses the local time to deliver an appropriate message. On Shortnotice, the same task – inviting friends for a quick drink – takes twice as long and can’t be done with one hand. By restricting the user’s input options to a type of meal determined by time of day, Down To Lunch eliminates what can only be described as the tedium of listing out what activities you’re interested gather friends for.
While Lau explained that the app’s simplicity was the result of its somewhat casual origins, the effect of simple design choices seems to have resonated with users.
The app grew so fast over the first few weeks, Lau explained, that they soon were encountering scaling issues because of the sheer number of users. “Again, emphasize just how primitive this product was. We were expecting just a few friends to use it.”
It’s possible that Hangster’s team will be able to match Down To Lunch’s growth with strong marketing strategy. Barillas said the team is about to launch their campus ambassador program at the University of California’s campuses at Berkeley and Merced.
Viswanathan pointed out that competition in the consumer social app space is not differentiated by technology. “You win because your product is good. It’s really about how you market it, how you get the word out,” he said. Despite the pair’s success, Viswanathan and Lau are working on another (undisclosed) product full-time. “Right now, it’s [Down To Lunch] still a side project,” he said, adding that he was open to other people solving the problem.
“It’s not to get attention, it’s to actually [go] do something,” said Shortnotice’s Nijhawan of his team’s goal to move communication back into the real world. With interpersonal communication increasingly dependent on devices and messaging, enabling face-to-face interactions will only become more important.
Disclosure: I am currently a student at Stanford University.