March 24, 2011

Fast Society Says "No Magic" In Group Messaging Alone

To hear some people tell it, the hot new thing in 2011 is the battle for the hearts and minds of group texters everywhere. With the successful sale of Beluga to Facebook, news of Yobongo scoring more than a million in angel funding, and larger rounds by others including GroupMe and TextPlus, you can forgive people for skipping over the lean Fast Society, who has so far stayed away from VCs, gathering just over $200k in funding, and only counts four employees. But despite their being small, they talk a big game. I took a call with company cofounder Matthew Rosenberg earlier this week, and he, without so much as a filter, told me why he feels the industry is fragmented, how every other challenger is going at the problem wrong, and how greedy carriers (such as Sprint) are harming the entire industry.

Fast Society, from much of the coverage I've seen in other tech blogs, has often been characterized as being aimed at socialites, as much about the flashy lights and party-goers as the code - celebrating a good night out more than good syntax. Rosenberg certainly didn't disagree, not shying away from the label, explaining that the service at its foundation was aimed to "help people, when they are going out with their friends, to experience great things around fun events." For him, much of a shared event is not just the actual activity, but the buildup to the event, and the shared emotions associated with the location and experience.

"Everybody else is going for the dirty engineer feel," he said. "We are going for what everybody else wants. Fun and parties and nightlife. That's what normal people do. People don't sit around their computer blogging all night. We have tried to be focused on people who aren't necessarily early adopters who don't care about engineering."

Shrugging off the comment about nocturnal blogging being abnormal, which I obviously disagree with, I asked him how he thought so many different players could participate - and whether users were tired of seeing their social structures split, much like the early days of IM, where AOL users couldn't speak to those on ICQ, MSN or Yahoo!. Unsurprisingly, he had a response all queued up.

"At the end of the day, there's going to be a reckoning," he said. "The fact these things can't communicate hurts the industry. It's so fragmented. Nobody is going to own the communication layer. It's too crowded."

With the crowding comes a seemingly unending stream of news from one company or another. On the heels of SXSW, where many services, including Fast Society, stepped up their game in a war for visibility, Rosenberg said that particular aspect of the service was not groundbreaking. In fact, he practically dismissed it, calling it a "utility", adding there's "no magic behind it". Fast Society instead wants to offer not just group texting, but location sharing, instant conference calls, pictures and video - and unlike practically every other vendor, Fast Society does not use third party vendor Twilio as its back-end, saving the company significant charges on SMS, he explained.

In the group messaging space, TextPlus is both the pioneer and the alpha dog in the hunt, with practically every other service having sprung up in the last twelve months, some to more success than others. Fast Society was launched in September of 2009, focused on building the platform that would enable them to scale without drowning in a sea of red ink, Rosenberg said. "We're the only ones that I know of who don't pay per message," he explained. "We have a flat fee. What our competitors pay in half a day, we pay for a year's worth of messaging costs. It's a big competitive advantage for us".

In a build first make revenue second world, Fast Society seems odd in that they've actually executed real business, striking deals with MTV, and other small sponsorships - which Rosenberg attributed to delivering a compelling experience and providing value for a clearly-targeted audience of teens and 20-somethings out to have a good time. He railed against the industry's tradition of giving value away for free, and being drawn to in-stream advertising like a moth to flame. "It is not pleasant, and not something people want," he said.

The company's image of fast fashion party boys drinking and dancing the night away, augmented by the bright purple and sharp angles of the company's logo and product, may make it seem aloof or too focused on hipsters to be a real business. But Rosenberg almost claimed the opposite, saying "we have the most soul in this space," and railing against the relative dinosaur carriers, like Sprint, who is trying to charge for anybody sending SMS messages to their system, upward of a half cent more per message. "It's disturbing and harms the whole industry," he said. "It's just a nasty thing to do."

If there is a reckoning in the industry, with one or two names ending up winners, others pivoting and fading, Fast Society is going to make pushing to the finish line interesting. Maybe they're the black hat in the fight, or the white knight trying to save end users from a sea of boring apps. Rosenberg may have thought he caught me on a tired afternoon stuck in an airport terminal on the way to an event (which I was), but he still managed to make a good case for why Fast Society is in the game, and why their lean approach targeting real revenue could keep them ahead of others. You can find Fast Society on iOS or Android, and at The sign on the door says they're "Built to Party," so go have fun.