For SXSWi, Fast Society leaves no cork unpopped

Group-messaging underdog Fast Society has a lot of energy and a lot of heart--but at the biggest event of the year for the social-media world, will this be enough for the masses to notice?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
7 min read

Editor's Note: This is the second installment in a series about start-up Fast Society. Click here for the first part.

Fast Society produced a promotional video last Saturday at a bar in New York's East Village. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

NEW YORK--The nightlife-heavy East Village neighborhood can, in fact, be very quiet and unassuming in daylight.

On this Saturday afternoon, for example, you'd never know that there was anything going on at White Noise, a bar hidden behind blacked-out windows in the space above a discount liquor store. Inside, it's Gilded Age excess meets glam rock sleaze, with black chandeliers holding red light bulbs, black vinyl couches with fake gold trim, and floor-to-ceiling velvet drapes framing dark fleur-de-lis wallpaper. In other words, it's the perfect spot for Fast Society--the mobile messaging start-up that excitedly bills itself as "built to party"--to film a promotional video.

"So, remember!" the cameraman instructs three strikingly pretty young women who are sitting in a row on one of the vinyl couches, wearing sequined dresses, mile-high heels, and makeup for a night out. "Shots! Grab 'em, clink, drink!" The girls nod, and an extra gets into place with a tray of three shotglasses full of a pink liquid that looks faintly radioactive. A fog machine hums behind them, blurring a half dozen background extras into a haze of sparkles and stilettos.

"What are those shots?" asks producer David Young, a dark-haired 20-something in jeans and a gray hoodie. His day job is as a writer at comedy powerhouse CollegeHumor--whose president, Josh Abramson, is an adviser to Fast Society--but he says he's picked up this side project because, like most of the rest of the actors and crew that day, he's a personal friend of the three 20-something guys who built the app. That's the Fast Society theory of life--that everything, in the end, should boil down to some mischievous fun with your friends. Even their big showing at the social Web's biggest event of the year, the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi).

A member of the crew answers Young's question: "Gatorade."

Then it's all quiet on the set, and anyone who isn't cast or crew moves to the back of White Noise--which is a mess. Stools are still overturned on the bar from the previous night's cleanup effort, which wasn't enough to remove the distinct scent of stale beer and a bit of post-midnight vomit. A stout tower of empty pizza boxes sits on one table, while another is strewn with makeup tubes and brushes. Matthew Rosenberg, the CEO of Fast Society, grabs a can of Modelo Especial beer from a six-pack that's lying on its side. "This isn't an advertisement," he says, cracking open the beer. "This isn't a commercial. This is a statement of how we view our brand."

Fast Society's redesigned mobile apps feature new tools like location and photo sharing. Fast Society

They're pushing to have the video edited, polished, and complete to accompany the launch of Fast Society's revamped iPhone and Android apps--which, in turn, is timed to coincide with SXSWi, which kicks off Friday in Austin, Texas. The annual event transforms the city into a playground of barbecue, beers, and social media, which means that dozens of mobile and social start-ups will be jockeying for attention and loyalty. With just days to go, a combination of nervous energy and confident swagger has overtaken Rosenberg as he and his two co-founders grapple with the fact that they've done everything they can do, and it's up to the users to dictate whether the product succeeds or not.

"Everything was kind of on edge," Rosenberg says several days later in Fast Society's office, a row of sparse desks at start-up workspace Dogpatch Labs. "We were on edge. We had a million things going on, and I think it's all come together in such a powerful way. I think we're going to do something really amazing at SXSWi."

The new Fast Society app is impressive: It permits photo sharing and audio "shout outs" for the first time, lets users chat in the app without sending text messages, and offers location-sharing features so that members of a group (or "team") can broadcast either where they are or where they recommend meeting up. There's also a "guest list" feature to solicit new members of the "team" via Facebook or Twitter. Its black-and-purple interface is slick, clearly inviting Fast Society's preferred demographic of young, eager partygoers. "We're laser-focused on our demographic," Rosenberg says. "Teens. 20-somethings."

But Fast Society will roll into SXSWi a serious underdog, something that has only become more evident as the festival's start date has grown closer. One of its close competitors, Beluga, sold to Facebook. Another one, GroupMe, unveiled a revamped application last week--also with location- and photo-sharing--and announced a full month ago that it's already handles 1 million text messages per day. GroupMe also has millions of dollars in venture funding from firms like First Round Capital, Khosla Ventures, and Betaworks that have undoubtedly afforded it dozens of connections among the tech elite. Still another messaging start-up, Kik, expanded from one-to-one to group messaging in a new version released Monday, and simultaneously announced funding from equally impressive backers like Union Square Ventures and RRE Ventures.

As for Fast Society, Rosenberg shrugged off the horse-race talk. "The people that are responding to us are going to respond to us," he says, a little nervously. "Someone that wants boring, or someone that wants a 'platform,' if that's what appeals to them, if someone wants to use a product because they have the right VCs? That's not a user for us. Our users are going to be passionate about us because it's an awesome brand, an awesome experience, a beautiful product."

And their "built to party" slogan is all over their SXSWi plans. On Friday, as conference-goers land at Austin's airport, Fast Society will be offering free shuttle rides downtown to anyone who downloads their iPhone or Android app on the spot. They're heavily promoting the company's "house party," taking over an indoor-outdoor rental property on Sunday night. "We want to throw the most rocking party ever, and in my life the best parties I've ever been to have been house parties," Rosenberg said of the co-founders' decision to give the party the theme of a semi-grassroots backyard rager, a concept that drums up the image of the infamous "We're going streaking!" scene in the 2003 comedy "Old School." "We have an amazing DJ. We have a crazy lighting setup, we have fog machines, we have a tequila milkshake bar sponsored by Patron."

In the back of Dogpatch Labs, Rosenberg's two co-founders, Andy Thompson and Michael Constantiner, are unrolling bubble wrap from something that the guys are very proud of--a three-foot-long neon sign in the shape of the purple Fast Society logo. Of course, it's going to Austin with them. They're just not sure how it's going to get there. "Andy's going to strap it on his back. Andy's not bringing any clothes, just literally that's going to be it," Rosenberg jokes and pauses for a moment. "The neon sign? We'll figure it out. We'll make it work. We built a product that has taken other companies 15 people and millions of dollars to do. Getting a neon sign to Austin, that seems so easy."

But when the neon sign has been unplugged and the fog machines turned off, Rosenberg and his team are more ambiguous about what they hope to take back to New York. Most start-ups hoping to make a splash at SXSWi would want to be able to wave around some graphs of a big spike in usage--Fast Society declines to talk about numbers--or to secretly pocket the business cards of potential investors or partners. Getting on the radar of the tech community or potential marketing partners, in a strategic sense, doesn't seem to be tops for Fast Society's co-founders. Being based in New York is central enough for that, Rosenberg claims.

"We live in New York, and we've been really lucky," he says. "Everybody we want to meet is a phone call away--and I mean that in the nicest way, I mean, this is New York City. Brands want to meet start-ups doing cool things. For us, [SXSWi] is about getting down with the people."

Like the hypothetical users whom they hope to attract to their party-friendly mobile app, they want an "experience." It's a goal that's either reckless, if you're one of the many start-ups trying diligently to use SXSWi as a springboard to launch a ubiquitous new "platform" the way Twitter's co-founders did way back in 2007, or spot-on. The liquor-soaked bacchanalia of SXSWi has reached such a level that a given attendee might be far more likely to remember a tequila milkshake rather than a sign outside the Austin Convention Center.

"At the end of the day, we're just three guys who were inspired by SXSWi," Rosenberg says. "We watched Foursquare launch one year. We've been going there for three years. For us, this is all about passion, and to get to be a part of the narrative of SXSWi is such an awesome opportunity and we're so grateful for it that this is our way of thanking people."

Rosenberg is giddy. "If it all ends tomorrow, this is enough, because we got people to care," he says, flipping through messages on the newly revamped Fast Society, which co-founder Constantiner has been demonstrating by messaging him photos of teen idol Justin Bieber. "I really feel like this is our year. Everything leading up to this, everywhere we've been--I really think that we're in line to do something special."

A correction was made at 9:10 a.m. PT: David Young was the producer, not the director of the Fast Society video shoot.