The pregame is the party: Silicon Valley’s war for your night out

Tech in nightlife isn’t a new phenomenon — from Ticketmaster to Tablelist — we’ve used technology to make our night out better ever since the dawn of the internet. This previously analog industry has done a great job of digitizing, with sophisticated point-of-sale, ticketing and logistics solutions widely available to venues. But even as mobile reshapes vertical after vertical, we continue to see a lot of the same good(!) ideas around what should be next in nightlife tech — on-demand bottle reservations, exclusive deals, location-based social networking — without the kind of explosive growth & mainstream tech brand that we’ve seen elsewhere.

The technical capabilities are absolutely there, and from a culture standpoint, Tinder has successfuly introduced the concept of using an app to plan your night out (even if that night is just date night for now). So why aren’t our great techie ideas for going out catching on? I think the absence of an Uber or even Tinder-caliber success in the vertical betrays this simple fact: nobody has really addressed the keystone job-to-be-done, nobody has solved the right problem.

That’s because getting together is what matters. It’s the apartment rager, the drunk brunch, the Wednesday night dinner and the Sunday evening Thrones watchfest that truly define our friendships. It’s all of the stuff in-between Coachella or a crazy night out in NYC’s meatpacking district that make our lives really worth living. Most of the nightlife apps completely forget this, and skip right to selling you a bottle of Grey Goose. Being presented an awesome nearby concert or a hot nightclub is little use when you’re not sure who you’d bring. The true opportunity here is to help friends coordinate and get together when they otherwise might not have, to connect people that want to go out but don’t have specific plans yet. The app I’m describing will simply help you meet up with friends in the first place. When everyone’s together, the question changes from “what do I do tonight?” and becomes “where to?” In a way, the pregame is the party.

Much of the nightlife tech space is distracted by selling expensive stuff like bottle service & concert tickets, but there are some companies that are on the right track. Danny Trinh’s “Free” app — a twist on Yo’s one-bit communication model — is a very cool attempt at attacking this problem space. Inspired by the AIM away messages of a bygone era, Free lets you set a very simple availability status for yourself, see which friends are also free, & chat with them to coordinate something to do. Through design (Going out, flexible, busy options are somehow less intimidating than a blank News Feed post), Free is looking to reduce the stigma around putting yourself out there when you’re interested in going out but have no plans.

But it’s an app called Wigo, founded in 2014 at Holy Cross, that I think has come closest to the holy grail by starting with the question: who’s going out? The app lets students post “events” that are coming up (along with details) and people can RSVP, view attendees, and post photos related to the event. While it sounds an awful lot like an unbundled version of Facebook events, Wigo has been on a tear over the past year at college campuses. Students are using it to plan their weekends, connect with their campus, and branch out from their core friend group. Many of the same high-minded ideas like a news feed of upcoming events that have been unsuccessfully bouncing around the space are finally coming to fruition, and it’s working because the guest lists are actually filled to the brim with your real friends. Wigo has even managed to get kids from campuses around the country to pre-register for the app and beg the company on Twitter to unlock it at their school. With the classic college takeover strategy and a seasonal experiment (Wigo Summer) with non-affiliated local events, Wigo seems like it really has a shot at making itself a regular habit in the lives of our generation.

Ultimately, the solution to this problem will involve, and yet not revolve around, shiny, concierge nightlife experiences at upscale venues like you can find on Tablelist. The winning app may eventually be able to tell you what parties & venues are “hot” around you, but the primary value proposition will not be such a heat map. You’ll be able to meet new people as a byproduct of this service, but it won’t be explicitly about making new friends. The app will likely direct you to relevant deals on nearby events (like Flux) & will help you and your friends split the bar tab (like Flowtab & Wingman) but the category-defining app will not start out as a tool to do any of that. The technology-enabled nightlife experience of the future won’t be what we all thought it would be, but it will rhyme.

Bringing people together is the hard part. Figuring out exactly which model (events vs. status based? both?), design language & product positioning will both bring people out of their shells & protect their egos is a very tall order (Tinder, anyone?). But once this nut has been cracked, the awesome ideas in nightlife tech that I mentioned earlier — bottle service, drink specials, event tickets, heat maps — all of this stuff will be set in motion. The coordination of people is the point of leverage here, putting the winner in a position to monetize via building or partnering to solve these other complimentary problems. In fact, Wigo CEO Ben Kaplan, when asked about Wigo’s monetization strategy in an interview, said that they’d be looking into partnering with nearby venues in the future where their users can take the party. Likewise, it’s not hard to imagine a button to order a 30-pack of beer (courtesy of the Drizly API) inside the Free app. If an app like this really lives up to its potential, it will expand the market for these nightlife related purchases, not simply capture and monetize them. Less nights of FOMO and Netflix -> more nights out. It’s simply more natural for an app that is frequently used to coordinate hanging out to add one or more of these commerce options (booze, tickets, etc) than it is for one of those commerce apps to add an “invite your friends” button at the end of the checkout flow. This directionality is important. It hints at the fact that we have the spokes, but are missing the hub.

The inventions in mobile nightlife tech that have been popping up over the past few years are poised to take off, just not in a vacuum & not by themselves. There will be some dominant experience around which these other components will orbit, and through becoming the default online means by which people get together offline, this app will secure its place in the center of the nightlife solar system.

Originally published on Medium

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