Why Wander isn't launching at SXSW, even though it would make perfect sense

By Erin Griffith , written on March 6, 2013

From The News Desk

The expectations for TechStars NY darling Wander are high. Very high. It's been almost a year since the company graduated from the accelerator program, having raised what VC's have characterized as a "very hot" $1.2 million seed round.

Wander's mission wasn't ever entirely clear to me, as evidence by my muddled description of the company here and my warning to the yet-to-launch company in this story on social travel startups.

I knew it had something to do travel, and something to do with a new form of the hashtag called the place tag which uses asterisks to let users view user generated photos of places. It was about inspiration, and curation, and good design. Oh, and there was that damn landing page, which infuriatingly asked users to accumulate points on a leaderboard for clicking a picture of a cow. And inexplicably 10,000 of them did, despite having no idea what the point of it was.

Well, I finally saw private beta app; Wander has nothing to do with those things. It's not about travel any more -- it's about your day-to-day wandering. The place tags are gone. And it's mobile-first.

Founder Jeremy Fisher says he'd rather have an app that's used every day than on those rare twice-a-year vacations. Beyond that, curated content was less interesting, both to users, and to him, than user-generated content. So the company iterated and iterated and iterated until Wander's beta testers were finally creating something meaningful and unique using the app.

Wander did this all behind closed doors, breaking an important rule from the lean startup bible. Where Lean Startup philosophy dictates that you launch a minimally viable product and iterate like hell based on what your users respond to, Wander has kept all that experimentation private, until it basically iterated its way into an entirely new product.

In some ways I admire it, because it acknowledges that the bar for social media apps is a bit higher than it used to be. Sure, we'll try something once, but if it isn't all that special, we're not coming back. So why waste that crucial first impression on a shitty product?

It reminds me of Foursquare. The current version of the social-mobile-local app is far more useful (not to mention, better looking, and less buggy) than it was in 2010. But 2010 was when my friends decided they were tired of Foursquare, and they haven't returned since. If they tried it for the first time today, they'd probably be surprised by much they liked it. But that's not likely. Turning around a dead consumer web brand is basically impossible.

The other side of that argument is that Wander waited so long to launch that it missed the boat. In the time it's taken Wander to launch, photosharing apps like Albumatic have sprung up, and expectations for Wander have risen sky-high. (Of course, they can't be higher than expectations for Boston-based Hopper, a five-year-old company with $22 million in venture backing and no product to speak of.)

Wander is ready to launch. It will happen in the next month, Fisher says. I've promised not to give away too many details of the app except to say would be perfect for SXSW. Over the last month I've heard from many companies with apps that will be "perfect" for SXSW. Regardless of the long odds, the explosion Twitter, Foursquare and Groupme at past SXSW festivals has encouraged any founder with a remotely SXSW-friendly app to copy that formula.

That SXSW magic seemed to have faded last year. Highlight was expected to join Twitter, Foursquare and Groupme in the line of SXSW winners, but instead turned into a joke once it didn't live up to its hype. The app matched strangers with very little in common and drained everyone's phone batteries. What's worse, once everyone returned from the five-day, 20,000-person tech festival, the app didn't seem to have much of a use case.

That "product tourism" is precisely what Wander is trying to avoid. "We want to be an everyday app, versus having people use Wander for the first time when they're in a once-a-year environment," Fisher says. It's just like those brightly colored promotional wayfarers everyone hands out at parties. Fun to wear during the party, but go straight into the drawer when you get home. After a year in beta, Fisher is determined not to let Wander become that.

[Image via the Wander Blog]