‘South-by’ Shoot-Out

Three-and-a-half weeks before South by Southwest Interactive, Hashable, a real-time
digital Rolodex service and entrant in this season’s social networking sweepstakes, is
gearing up for the attack.

“Basically, this is our formal launch,” chief marketing officer Emily Hickey, a seasoned tech promoter, explained in a meeting at the company’s New York offices. “Our goal is to come out of the show as one of the top two or three stories of the event.”

The stakes are high. The tech industry’s March 11-15 networking party and panel-fest in Austin, Texas, catapulted Twitter to stardom in 2007 and did the same for Foursquare in 2009. If Hashable can’t catch on among SXSW’s captive audience, it may have a hard time catching on at all.

Hickey was speaking to the “Hash Evangelists,” 15 dedicated Hashable users that the company is sending down on an all-expenses-paid trip to Austin to promote the product.

“That’s why you guys are all here,” she told them. “Our intention is very much to flood the zone, and to make no mistake that we’re on the scene. We want to come out as one of the top three stories of the show.”

Every year, techies swarm Austin to pass judgment on the latest applications. They come to an unofficial consensus about which ones are the coolest, then go home and spread the gospel. In addition to Hashable, this year’s “competitive crucible,” as Hickey puts it, belongs to GroupMe and Beluga, two group-messaging applications that have generated a lot of pre-festival buzz.

In a way, GroupMe has gotten out in front precisely because it is so unremarkable. Remember the private chat room? Now it’s on your phone, only with pictures. Beluga provides more or less the same thing, only with a few more features, such as the ability to share your location. In a contest where dumb simplicity is the key selling proposition, GroupMe proudly distinguishes itself by out-dumbing the competition, stressing what one co-founder referred to as “ the lowest common denominator experience.”

The concern for Hashable, which founder and CEO Michael Yavonditte described as “a networking application meant for white-collar professionals,” is that it may be too complicated for SXSW’s attention-deficit application adopters.

“Part of the reason that Twitter and Foursquare blew up at South-by is that they’re pretty easy,” Jonah Peretti, the co-founder of Huffington Post and BuzzFeed explained. “When you’re talking to people and running around from place to place, you don’t really have time to do something that takes longer than 10 seconds. So writing a text message—or checking in or posting a tweet—is good for someone who’s distracted and drinking and partying and networking.”

In fact, GroupMe was created precisely with festivals in mind: Co-founders Steve Martocci and Jared Hecht, committed concertgoers—Martocci boasts he’s been to at least 80 Phish shows—conceived the app to have a better way to communicate with friends in crowded and chaotic settings where Twitter and Foursquare can get bogged down.

Chilled out as they are, both GroupMe and Beluga are more laid back about SXSW than Hashable. “Obviously down the road, one of us will win out,” Lucy Zhang, Beluga’s president and co-founder, conceded. (She didn’t seem too concerned about Hashable.)

Hashable’s vibe, unfortunately, is more anxious achiever than relaxed Phish fan or ADD hipster.

“A lot of business happens at South-by,” said Peretti, “but even the more businessy people who are there to network want to be one of the cool kids, as opposed to being one of the businesspeople. So even the more business-minded people at South-by are trying to use the fun app so that they’re fun, not just about business.”