Hang Local looks to bring the buddy list offline to facilitate better real-world relationships

By Michael Carney , written on May 2, 2014

From The News Desk

When AOL first launched its instant messaging service (AIM) in the mid-90’s, the platform had the feeling of a ghost town. According to former CEO Steve Case, it wasn't until the addition of the experience-redefining feature of the buddy list, which alerted users to which of their friends were available to chat, that AIM felt like a community full of people eager to interact.

In many ways, the offline world still feels like that ghost town, according to Allen Romero, a former Google engineer who affectionately describes himself as a “social mother-fucker.” For example, each time you find yourself sitting at home looking for something to do, there’s a good chance that one of your countless friends is doing the same, with neither of you the wiser to each other’s availability. Romero’s latest project, Hang Local, is a social platform aimed at fixing this very problem.

“I’m just shocked that it’s 2014 and no one has solved this problem yet,” Romero says.

Think of Hang Local as a platform for broadcasting your realtime – and same day – availability in the offline world. Looking to meet up after work for happy hour or have a few hours on the weekend to play ultimate frisbee? Well there’s a good chance that someone in your social network would be happy to join you, if only they knew your intentions. Hang Local makes it possible to share this information.

When users first sign up for Hang Local, a process that requires Facebook login, they’re prompted to sort through their social graph and select those friends they’d like to hang out with more often. It’s a process facilitated through Tinder-style, swipe left and right interaction. This can take some time, depending on the size of your Facebook network, but fortunately it only needs to be done once. Hang Local Buddies, as they’re called, can be further organized into favorite buddies and plain old vanilla buddies.

The app has some built-in vitality, as users who are not already on Hang Local are sent invites prompting them to join when added to a friend’s list of buddies (a fact that’s clearly communicated ahead of time within the app). It’s a necessary evil for a growing platform like Romero’s, and a strategy that plenty of other applications use quite effectively. But nonetheless, Hang Local runs the risk of flooding users with unwanted requests should it really take off. Look no further than LinkedIn competitor BranchOut for an example of a similar on boarding strategy gone badly.

Once signed up, each time users open the app they’re prompted to answer the question, “Are you free to hang out today?” If the answer is yes, the user will further specify the timeframe of their availability and the type of activity they’re interested in – drinks, coffee, lunch, run, etc. – and who they want to broadcast this message to – all buddies or favorite buddies. Users can also see which of their buddies have shared similar hang out requests.

It seems like a rather simple problem to solve, but to Romero’s point, it hasn’t been done effectively to date. Most social networks are like looking in the rear view mirror of life, only offering a window into the things that our contacts have already done. At best, some offer a real-time look at the things our contacts are doing currently. But, despite a number of efforts to this effect, none to date has succeeded in broadcasting future plans – or in this case, the desire to make such plans.

Romero doesn’t want Hang Local to be a calendar app, nor does he want to focus on discovering new places and events. For him, Hang Local is all about people and helping them deepen relationships.

“I’ve always believed that relationships of all kinds take work, they don’t grow out of thin air,” Romero says. “This means you need to be proactive about spending time with the people you want to build those relationships with, be they friendships, business relationships, or even romantic ones. That’s why we ask people, ‘who do you want to hang out with more?’”

This focus helps explain Romero's decision to limit Hang Local to a same-day service, rather than supporting more long-range planning. That and the fact that schedules change and Romero is not big on backing out of commitments or making plans you don’t intend to keep, he tells me.

“I operate with a 'get things done' mentality,” he says. Hang Local allows user to take a similar approach, by making plans only in the here and now.

One objection Hang Local elicits from time to time is that it can feel “uncool” to announce to the world that you’re sitting around with nothing to do. It’s a genuine concern, but one that Romero feels should evaporate once people use the platform and see their friends doing the same. It all goes back to his theory on relationships taking work.

“We all just need to be willing to put ourselves out there a little more,” he says. The end result of deeper relationships and better experiences should be worth the effort, he hopes

Hang Local is still early in its development and has barely shaken off that new platform smell. The users who have taken to the app are extremely engaged, Romero says, but the numbers aren’t yet huge. He declined to reveal specifics. A good reason for Hang Local’s nascency is that Romero has been working on the project solo and hasn’t raised a dime of outside funding, which means he’s hasn’t spent much marketing or customer acquisition. He’s hoping to change both facts as quickly as possible.

It’s for this same reason that Hang Local is available only as a mobile-optimized Web product today, although a native iOS app is weeks away from launching. The initial goal was to gauge the product's appeal with a Web Minimum Viable Product that could be used on any platform. When he launched a bare bones version following a 2013 hackathon, the product got more than 1,000 signups in its first 24 hours. Romero has been a believer ever since.

Romero first rolled out Hang Local while living in Los Angeles, which is where the app’s greatest density of users still resides. But he has since moved up to the Bay Area in search of talent and capita and seeing the network of users grow in that region as well.

This isn’t Romero’s first attempt at a social network. In 1998 at age 22, he moved from the east coast to San Francisco with his two older brothers to build, one of the earliest social networks that predated but shared a similar vision. The Romero brothers were a few years early to the social networking party and FamilyBeat never took off, but the experience has shaped much of Romero’s subsequent thinking around social networks, he says.

Hang Local isn’t looking to displace Facebook atop the social network heap. It simply wants to help users use technology to spend more time building relationships offline. With the exception of Foursquare, which is already pivoting away from the check-in, it’s a challenge that the social giants have all but ignored to date. The only other real challengers are fellow early-stage platforms like WeOtta, GonnaBe, and Superb. In other words, this market remains fairly wide open.

It’s a compelling idea that continues to beg for a solution. That said, it’s unclear how effectively Hang Local can monetize this experience should it catch on. Local advertising is one option, given the real-time intent data that’s created when two users make plans to grab a drink, coffee, a meal, etc. Commerce is another option, as Hang Local could offer local deals and experiences a la Groupon or Urban Daddy. But none of these options jive completely with Romero’s desire to focus on connecting people, rather than on promoting places, activities, and events. Further, each requires meaningful scale before becoming interesting, something that is far from a sure thing.

That said, should Hang Local get to a point where it has millions of users making plans to hang, figuring out how to monetize that activity is a high class problem to have.

So unless you’ve got a social calendar like a Hollywood socialite, Hang Local seems like an app that all of us could use. All Romero needs to do now is to get the word out and trust that the hanging will follow.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]