How Pokemon Go did what these 3 hype-heavy startups couldn’t

Pokemon Go has been continuing its global rollout fairly slowly, with a launch in Canada just this past Sunday, and even without an official debut in some key markets like Japan, it already dominates. In the course of winning so winningly, Pokemon Go has also achieved – almost as a side-effect – the kind of success some celebrated (but ultimately shuttered) startups have pursued in the past.

1. Highlight

My most indelible memory about Highlight was its logo – a precursor to the trend of 80s MTV-ish fluorescent looks, this one was actually hard to look at for long periods of time. But the app enjoyed a lot of early love, since it looked to be one of those apps that might ‘finally’ crack the tough nut that is location-based networking. Others, including Sonar (which I’ll talk about more below) had pioneered the space, but there was no ‘Facebook’-style smash hit of location-based social networking.

Highlight’s whole goal was to use your Facebook social graph to prompt passive discovery of contacts around you, notifying you when they’re nearby and hopefully setting you up to meet up and chat. It provided a history to give you a look at who you’re wandering near during the course of your day, and a list of common interests, as a sort of micro-light CRM system for being a better friend.

In very early coverage of Highlight, founder Paul Davison talked about what users were getting out of using Highlight, and though Pokemon Go doesn’t have a Facebook layer to let you know when you’re connecting with friends, there’s a lot of crossover in the list of positive outcomes.

For instance, Pokemon Go is connecting old friends who haven’t seen each other in years. It’s also bringing co-workers together for deeper connections. It’s also sparking romantic connections, which was clearly one of the reasons users were looking to connect in person via Highlight.

2. Color

This photo sharing startup had some of the biggest early-stage funding numbers anyone had seen back when it launched in 2011, with $41 million led by some heavyweight Valley VCs. The iPhone app used location as they ingredient that tied together shared photo-streams, meaning users in the immediate vicinity could participate in sharing pics, which was seen as being perfect for events, parties, etc. Color photos were viewable to the public, meaning you could see whatever was being shared around you.

While Pokemon Go doesn’t have any in-game photo board (there’s a free one for your roadmap, Niantic/Nintendo), it does feature an in-game camera tool, and players are very fond of the tried-and-trusted screenshot method. In fact, there are plenty of slideshow articles, Reddit threads and even Tumblrs devoted to the “perfect” Pokemon Go screens. These aren’t necessarily location-based, but they often feature identifying monuments that yoke them together.

But that’s only one side of the coin – players also end up in common locations like Central Park in NYC (often due to a confluence of Lures on PokeStops, as pictured below). Those types of real-world nodes result in exactly the kind of live streaming/Instagramming/Snapchatting frenzies you’d expect. It’s not a network-limited synchronous photo sharing experience like Color envisioned, but it’s an explosion of visual media timed around a single, localized event.

3. Sonar

This early bright star in the location-based networking game spanned networks, letting users connect via Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter, and laughed at TechCrunch Disrupt New York in 2011. Sonar would show you who was in your immediate vicinity based on their public profile data, and the monetization plan was to share said info with small and medium-sized businesses to help them better target their real-world customers for timely offers designed to result in a conversion.

Pokemon Go again doesn’t use social media account tie-ins, but it almost inverts the Sonar model, since its players frequently take to those networks to broadcast out their own Pokeplans. The location component comes first, and then strangers who meet serendipitously in person as a result of playing the game are connecting on social media afterwards as a result. Instead of using your social connections to drive more in-person interaction, Go is using in-person interaction to drive more social connections.

But where Go is even more similar to Sonar is in the monetization options it presents. Niantic confirmed last week that it will work with businesses to monetize the placement of in-game locations to drive foot traffic. And already, businesses are seeing upside to Pokemon Go player popularity, even without a data-sharing component – so it looks like they’ll be happy to pay.

None of the three examples above prove a perfect analog to Pokemon Go, but the common thread – significant network effect via an app that drives spontaneous, location-based real-world interaction – is there. And this is a very early game, which has the potential to become much more beyond just a game.

Nintendo and Niantic started with the real-world piece of the puzzle, which each of the above sought and never found; Pokemon Go has plenty of potential to work backwards from their, tying in social networks and adding other networking layers, should it really want to evolve into the location-based networking platform of the future.