Can Locai change the conversation around mobile social networking?

Locai expands geo-social networking beyond the check-in to enable richer, deeper interactions with the local businesses you visit and the people who patronize them. Locai users can launch the iOS and Android application to join conversations about a site, ask and answer questions, offer reviews and recommendations, post photos, play games and discover other nearby users with similar interests and tastes. In effect, it's a social networking app that encourages users to actually socialize with the people and places in their immediate physical radius, not just Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds.

Locai first launched on Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store--its recent entrance into Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android Market generated headlines when the storefront's auto-correct feature changed all searches from "Locai" to "Local," making it virtually impossible for consumers to find and download. (Google has since fixed the problem.) FierceDeveloper spoke with Locai's Dallas-based president and CEO Taylor Cavanah about the Android Market mishap, evolving the mobile social paradigm and the inevitability of mistakes.



Taylor Cavanah on Locai's origins: I'm a nanophysicist. I did nanotechnology for about 12 years. I'm obsessed with the future. I really wish I lived 400 years from now. [Science fiction novelist] William Gibson is one of my favorites. With smartphones coming around, I realized we could actually start doing so many of the things in his books. I got together with my best friend Ken Tsui, who's Locai's co-founder, and we started talking about what we could do in the mobile space.

Dallas is a great town for being young and stupid. Everyone here has a smartphone--when you go out, you see their phones sitting on the bar or on the table next to them, not in their pocket. Before foursquare came around, we all used to be very social, but foursquare trained everyone to bring their phone out at a place and interact with that place instead. But people want to be more entertained while they're out. Checking in is only one part of it. Once mobile social networking is less about checking in, it becomes more valuable to businesses and consumers.

discoverCavanah on Locai's business model: It became clear to us that Locai needed to include a business-to-consumer component and a business-to-business component. As a consumer, when you're out, you have questions, and they aren't the types of questions where you can get answers through searching. Yelp and Google can help you figure out where to go, but if you're somewhere and you want to know if the crowd is going to get better as the night goes on or if you should order a particular dish, you probably have someone in your social network who can answer that question. So we're focusing on asking questions to build up content about places. As other people roll in, they can see your conversations and learn more about wherever they are.

We're also working with businesses to provide more engagement. When you look at different places, every place in unique. Even a Chili's is different in one area than a Chili's in another area. So we're offering a community discussion board and polling mechanisms. Businesses can survey their customers, offer incentives if they want to and get feedback directly related to that place.

Now we're working with developers and people working in the local space to help them build out custom solutions on our platform. All developers and businesses that want to have a location-based app can do it on our platform.

Locai is free to users. We want to lower the barrier of entry. We're saying "Hey, businesses--we can solve problems for you. Ask your customers to go download our app, and you'll have an answer to your problem." We have to get past the point of every application needing 100 million users to become worth something. We have to solve problems with fewer users. There can only be one foursquare, but there can still be a ton of smaller companies making money by solving problems.

Cavanah on developing Locai for iOS: The coding of the app was relatively straightforward. We didn't struggle. Getting on the App Store was relatively straightforward, but you do have to do a lot of paperwork.

We put [Locai] on the store in December of last year, before we started doing anything. One of the nice things about the App Store being so crowded and noisy is that you can put your app up there and no one will find it. Nobody downloaded it during the first month.

We launched version 1.0 in March during South by Southwest. We're not doing tons of marketing. The hardest thing is to get noticed--either you have to have lots of money, have really good press contacts or solve some really hard problems for users or businesses. No matter what, you have to have a great, awesome product--that's the baseline. But trying to figure out how to get users and how to keep users is the hardest thing I've ever done.

conversationCavanah on the Android Market auto-correct bug: First off, I want to say it's not that we love Apple and hate Google. We love both. They're visionary companies. And we understand the problems in software--it's hard to think about everything when you're building stuff.

When we first realized what was going on, I talked to several different contacts at Google. We got a form response saying "Thank you for your feedback." So we sent more emails. We started asking ourselves "What else can we do? Should we change our name?" You can't just make Google do something.

Then the story started to come out, and the negative turned into a positive. Now, if you go to Android Market and put in "Locai," it doesn't auto-correct it at all. Google never sent us an email, but they could have been working on it along. It's completely fixed. We've breathed a huge sigh of relief.

We talked at length on whether we should let this story out. I would not counsel other startup developers to run to the press whenever they encounter a problem. But with something like an auto-correct issue, we decided there's enough humor in it--let's do this.

Cavanah's advice for aspiring mobile developers: We read all these blogs and they tell you all this stuff about how to build your app. We're smart guys, but we still did every single one of those things poorly. There are some things you just have to do. Unless you can figure out how to internalize the lessons and the recommendations, you're going to make all the mistakes.

Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile focuses on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offers their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live, Shortcovers, Pint Sized Mobile, GeodelicSpark of Blue SoftwareTarver GamesPeople Operating TechnologyBooyahBolt CreativeThwaprMonkeyland IndustriesRocket Racing LeagueVlingoAdvanced Mobile Protection, PapayaMobile, Taptu, GameHouse, Avatron, aisle411, Crowdstory, Outfit7 and ADP.