• 03.22.12

Highlight CEO Paul Davison Launches Elastic Network Of A Different Color

Remember Color? Bill Nguyen’s massively funded app might have slipped into obscurity (again), but a slightly different network for connecting nearby strangers still wowed ’em at SXSW. Here’s why.

Highlight CEO Paul Davison Launches Elastic Network Of A Different Color
[Photo: Flickr user Kate Ter Haar]

Quick quiz. Who’s this: “How cool would it be if, anytime you’re near somebody, you could just look through their camera roll?”


It’s not Bill Nguyen, the serial entrepreneur behind location-based photo-sharing app Color, who raised $41 million before his startup spiraled into obscurity (and the inevitable pivot). But it sounds like him.

Actually, it’s Paul Davison, CEO of this year’s SXSW-darling Highlight, the service that lets you connect with nearby users without the hassle of talking to them in person. The app runs in the background on your iPhone, and notifies you when “interesting” people are in your vicinity (based on similar interests, shared friends, and so forth). It’s yet another addition to the string of location-based “elastic” networks–meaning social networks that constantly update based on your proximity to others–to hit the market, from Banjo to Glancee to Sonar. If Color was such a flop, why are so many startups following in its footsteps?

Certainly, Bill Nguyen’s psyche played a big role in Color’s stumbles, but according to Davison, Color was a fundamentally flawed product. “I thought the concept was super interesting, but I think it’s all in the details,” he says. “My sense is the big detail that mattered to Color was that it had a big cold-start problem.” Because Color didn’t take advantage of Facebook’s social graph, when users opened up the service, there was little to do unless you were sharing photos already and happened to stumble upon someone at the right time.

“That’s just a deal killer,” Davison says. “Most people will install it; they’ll try it once; and no one will be on it. They might try it a second time; no one will be on it again; and they’ll say, ‘This sucks,’ and never use it again.”

Indeed, that’s exactly what happened to Color users, most of whom landed into a virtual ghost town. To avoid suffering a similar fate, Davison took advantage of Facebook’s network, and seeded Highlight out before its big launch at SXSW, helping to generate buzz and build a strong and immediate community for its official release.

But the real difference between Highlight and Color, explains Davison, is that Highlight runs in the background. “We tried to be really explicit about not positioning this [app] as something where you could walk into a place, open it, and expect that people would be on it,” he says. “You install it, and we say, ‘Thanks. It’s active now, and running in the background. Close the app, and go away. We’ll let you know when there’s something interesting.'”

Highlight is now working toward improving the interest level of its push notifications. Color never addressed this issue of relevancy: The rare times I happened by a user on Color’s network, I’d feel awkward about looking at this random stranger’s photos. Highlight plans to mine shared data to produce more serendipitous social interactions.


“If you and I both like Neutral Milk Hotel, that’s a lot more interesting than if we both like Coldplay; if you and I went to the same high school, that’s a lot more interesting if that high school were 4,000 miles away; and if you and I both live in New York City, and we’re three miles apart, that’s not very interesting. But if we’re both in Kansas, and we happen to be three miles apart, yet didn’t travel there together, that’s super interesting,” Davison says.

Ironically, the two-person company is also now considering Color-like features for Highlight, such as sharing photos and other types of media. While trying to address concerns over privacy and battery life, Davison envisions loads of sharing possibilities beyond simple profile data. “If people want to share other stuff in their profile that would be awesome,” he says. “What if you were sitting on the bus or subway, with headphones in, and I could see what you’re listening to? I could say, ‘That song is dope,’ and you’d get notified.”

“That would be so cool!” Davison beams.

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.