(Photo courtesy of Surf Labs)
We’ve all been frustrated by the notion of networking. You walk into a meetup full of people you don’t know, but you do know something about them. Say, for example, it’s a meetup of developers. You know that lots of people there are devs, but what kind? And just because it’s an Android devs meetup, for example, that doesn’t mean that’s what they all actually do. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t a bunch of other people circulating who are simply trying to network but aren’t actually developers.
The best you can do is start walking up to people and asking — but often your pick is a miss. If you have an objective when you go networking, how can you improve your chances of finding the people you want to find? One startup that’s working on a solution is Surf Labs. The new, two-person company, cofounded by Amazon and Fab.com alums, has released two iOS products that could make it more likely that you will find the person you are looking for.
“You are surrounded by so many kinds of professionals and you ask yourself, ‘Who should I meet here and are they relevant to my background?'” said Vince Koh, a cofounder of the company, articulating the problem behind its new app.
Koh and Karan Bhatia founded the company after seeing the potential of iBeacon technology for more interesting applications than store coupons. (We recently highlighted the Brooklyn Museum experimenting with iBeacon, which had a similar idea.)
Surf Labs’ first product is called LiNK. It’s a free LinkedIn-connected iOS app that draws the public information off of people’s profiles and shares it with other LiNK users nearby. The service is optimized to work with iBeacon technology, to locate people precisely in places too small for GPS.
The second product is LiNK Spaces, which is geared for spaces that have permanent iBeacons set up. In particular, the founders see applications here with coworking spaces, accelerators and incubators. Places where people are meant to interact and collaborate, but there’s a hurdle to knowing what questions to ask which people.
It also helps operators of those spaces know who is in there when, improving metrics and analytics and upping their ability to serve participants as connectors.
"We definitely need a higher density and we are seeing that in the incubator and enterprise space."
It sounds great but of course the big problem is adoption.
LiNK Spaces can only count users of LiNK. LiNK can only help you find other LiNK users. Like any tool for making connections, it’s only as good as the people on it. Again, illustrating how place still matters in technology, the team, understanding that, is working not just on numbers but on density. Millions of users evenly spread around the world might have less use than several thousand concentrated in one professional community in one city. That’s why Surf Labs is really focusing on spreading the word in New York right now.
“We definitely need a higher density and we are seeing that in the incubator and enterprise space,” Koh said.
Large companies are interested in LiNK because it could be a tool for breaking down silos. Koh said Surf Labs is in conversation with a major bank now that wants to try it out for that reason.
Meetup organizers can use LiNK spaces to do easier check-ins and capturing people’s information more efficiently. Interestingly, Bhatia explained that an actual iBeacon isn’t necessary for that kind of more informal application. A bit of software on an iPad or an iTouch can cover what a meetup might need.
The team also sees conferences as a strong venue for their technology, but that space tends to be dominated by conference-app makers. However, that delivers less value to users over time, they argue, since lots of conference apps get deleted once the event is over.
Interestingly, so far, as far as the Surf Labs team knows, neither Meetup nor LinkedIn is building any sort of iBeacon-based functionality into their apps. Also, strangely, neither Apple nor Google have built a native way to quickly share contact info between mobiles, using NFC or Bluetooth LE (which is just weird, right?).
The Surf Labs cofounders are bootstrapping the company now but plan to pursue VC backing later. They are currently working out of the Made in NY Media Center in Dumbo, which has recently installed iBeacons and is experimenting with LiNK Spaces.
Up next, an Android version. Bhatia said they are in the final testing phase for the Android version now and hope to see it out in the next couple weeks. Android KitKat, Bhatia explained, wasn’t fully ready for Bluetooth 4.0. However, Lollipop is.