WhosHere evolves social discovery app with video chat feature

When Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) launched its App Store in July 2008, WhosHere was there. The location-based social discovery application offers a mobile-optimized alternative to conventional online dating and social networking services, enabling users to create a personal profile, then identify like-minded individuals in their immediate geographic vicinity. All WhosHere profile fields are optional, giving users complete control over how much (or how little) personal information they share, and the app makes matches based solely on mutual compatibility, guaranteeing users only see and connect to profiles with similar interests. 

WhosHere co-founder/CEO Bryant Harris and co-founder/COO Stephen Smith built the app with an obsessive focus on privacy and security. WhosHere does not disclose any personal information or mobile phone numbers; the platform instead allows users to get to know matches at their own pace via free in-app communication tools like anonymous text messages, photo sharing and VoIP calls. This month, WhosHere added video chat features, allowing users to interact face-to-face before they agree to meet in person.

harris smith

Stephen Smith (left) and Bryant Harris.

WhosHere's five million users now send more than 400 million messages a month, with eight billion messages delivered since the app launched. Harris is living proof that the process works: He met his fiancée using WhosHere, and the couple recently gave birth to their first child. FierceDeveloper contributor Jason Ankeny spoke to Harris and Smith about WhosHere's approach to social discovery, how video chat expands the app's parameters and the importance of staying lean.

Bryant Harris on the origins of WhosHere: I first got an iPhone in 2007--I fell in love with the device right away, and I knew it was a game-changer. I'm geeky by nature, so I started tinkering with writing apps in the jailbreak community. In January 2008, when the App Store was first announced, I immediately appreciated the opportunity it offered. I knew it was a big deal.

So I started looking at the device, thinking about how it was different from the PC, and I keyed in on location and the fact that your phone is with you all the time. It's very personal. Your phone belongs to you--you're the only one who uses it.

With those things in mind, one night I was sitting in bar--I was single at the time--and I started thinking it would be cool if I could point my phone at the people there and find out if they're worth getting to know. It all came together from there.

Social discovery is different from online dating. Real-time, location-based experiences can be creepy. We're committed to not having a creepy experience.

Stephen Smith: We were the very first location-based social discovery app in the App Store when we launched in July 2008. WhosHere is about connecting you with like-minded users around you. It's similar to how you interact with people in the real world--you're not going to blast out everything about yourself when you're first beginning to get to know someone. You're going to give out more information about yourself as you get more comfortable.

You can use WhosHere without disclosing any personal information--every field is optional. All communication with other users is done over the IP network, so no personal information is shared. Everything you want to share is on your profile, and no phone number or ID of any kind is displayed.

We really take pride in the way the app allows you to take control of your own information and share it at the pace you want to. You not only put in who you're looking for, but you also control who sees you. If you don't mutually match with someone, you never see those people in the app. You also can set a maximum distance to ensure you have a local experience.

Bryant's dad invented a jerk filter. When you have five million users, you're going to have a few people that don't behave like you want. We can observe how they act in aggregate, and based off patterns of behavior, we can make determinations on your jerkiness. Users can turn on the jerk filter to eliminate those people from their matches.

Smith on the introduction of WhosHere's video chat feature: When you use online dating services, you're taking a real leap of faith. You go on a lot of first dates, and you realize that with a lot of people, the picture in their profile is not what they really look like in everyday life. Video chat is a way to verify that people are representing themselves accurately. You can learn so much about someone when you see their facial expressions as they're talking. Or maybe you're a neat freak and when you're video chatting with someone, you see there's a pile of dirty laundry behind them, and you know it isn't going to work out.

Harris: WhosHere is designed to help people meet in a non-creepy way. We've found that if somebody gets burned, they're turned off to the experience. So we asked ourselves "How can we let users verify the people they're contacting? How do let people meet each other in an elegant way?"


Users can specify their visibility by a variety of factors.

Video chat solves the biggest problem with anonymity online. Anonymity is important, but people also get a lot bolder when no one knows who they are. It's all but impossible to fake a video conversation. There's a real comfort level in that.

No one else is doing this. There's Skype and there's [Apple's] Facetime, but those are not social applications. This is social, it's cross-platform and it works over Wi-Fi and 3G.

Smith on WhosHere's userbase and revenue model: Most of our users are in the 20-year-old range, although we also have big contingents in the 30s and teens. It's like a bar--it's male-oriented. Our best density is in large metropolitan areas: Los Angeles is our No. 1 market, and New York City is No. 2. Ninety percent of our users sign up through word of mouth.

We generate revenue on advertising and in-app purchases. This is a learning process for us, and we learned about a year in that we did not want to be dependent on third-party ad networks. We needed to close deals with our own customers.

Our first in-app purchase was virtual plane tickets. As the app has gotten bigger and more people have signed up, if you're in a major city, you won't get to see profiles outside of your area. But some people missed seeing new people outside of their market--they missed seeing users in Beijing, for example. Now you can buy a plane ticket and relocate your profile to Beijing for 24 hours.

We also offer virtual gifts. Just like in the real world, attractive people on WhosHere get a lot of attention and a lot of messages. If you send someone a virtual rose, you go to the top of her inbox by virtue of sending a gift. Because Bryant is smarter than me, he might buy her a dozen roses, and then he'll go to No. 1 above me.

Whoshere video chat

WhosHere offers cross-platform video chatting and it works over Wi-Fi and 3G.

We also enable users to upgrade to a premium account. Premium accounts are ad-free and cost $5.00. It's a one-time purchase. It probably won't last much longer at that price.  

Smith on expanding the WhosHere experience: The list of features we want to add is close to infinite. It's long, and it's deep. We'll have another announcement coming June 5.

Every operating system is on our radar. But it all comes down to the user base. Windows Phone is a cool OS, but the reach isn't out there. With BlackBerry, there are a ton of handsets and a huge user base, but the demographics are wrong for us.

Smith's advice for aspiring app developers: Don't run out of money. Do whatever it takes. Be very frugal in your life--that's one way. Make sure you can deploy your app on a very lean budget. Keep the operating costs down.

We recognized that July 2008 was a unique moment in time--Apple was building a giant shopping mall and aggregating eyeballs. But people don't surf app stores anymore. The challenges for getting noticed are higher.

Harris: Quality really matters, so don't put out junk. Users will rip you apart if you put out something that isn't good.

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