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Highlight, the people discovery app that could change the world

Q&A It may be a 2-person startup, but its people discovery app is poised to take the interactive world by storm. CEO Paul Davison spoke to CNET about Highlight's plans.

Highlight is a new people discovery app that is poised to break out at SXSW this week in Austin, Texas.

Every year at the South by Southwest Interactive conference, hundreds of apps vie to do what Twitter, Foursquare, Gowalla, Beluga, and Group.me have done over the years: Dominate the conversation and springboard to huge success.

Each of those apps became the talk of Austin, Texas, during SXSW because they were total game-changers when it came to how people communicated with each other. And because SXSW is the confluence of all the movers and shakers in the interactive community, there's no better place to have an app blow up. Succeed there, and the community will yell out your app's virtues from the digital mountaintops.

This year, one app that is poised to carry on this tradition is Highlight, a "people discovery" tool that automatically alerts users to the nearby presence of others with similar connections and interests.

Just days before SXSW begins in Austin, Highlight is getting ready for what could be a life-changing week for its two founders--who also happen to be the only people at the San Francisco startup.

Highlight CEO Paul Davison Highlight

Yet already, Highlight has people buzzing. Among its biggest fans is tech's uber-gadfly, Robert Scoble, who has written effusively about it. But it also has fans in the venture capital community, and earlier this week, the company announced it had just closed a round of funding led by the A-list shop, Benchmark Capital. Plus, the app, which until now had only worked in San Francisco, is now live worldwide.

As Highlight prepares for the surge of traffic that's sure to come during SXSW, it also is readying a new version of its iPhone only app (Android and Windows Phone versions are expected at some point in the future). Yesterday, 32-year-old CEO Paul Davison, who before starting Highlight was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Benchmark, spoke about the company's origins, plans, and challenges with CNET for a 45 Minutes on IM interview.

Q: Thank you very much for doing this. I appreciate it. Could you give a quick summary of Highlight for those that aren't familiar with the app?
Paul Davison: Highlight is a mobile app that helps you learn more about the people around you. If you are standing near me and you also have Highlight installed, your profile will show up on my phone. I can see your name, profile photo, all of the friends we have in common, and all of the other things we have in common--like if we went to the same school or are from the same hometown. I can also see a history of the times we have crossed paths before. If I am walking down the street and Highlight sees someone particularly interesting crossing my path, it will notify me.

Highlight shows users information about people they pass by that are also users of the service. Highlight

All of it is based on real identity and mutual friends, and there are privacy controls to limit who can see your profile. The idea is to surface hidden connections and give you a sixth sense about the world around you.

You say "someone particularly interesting." What do you mean by that? How does Hightlight make that determination?
Davison: Good question. Initially, it is based on simple things, like whether you have a lot of mutual friends or other things in common. But over time there is a lot of signal the app can use to get better at this. For example, it won't notify you multiple times about the same person in the same location, because that probably means they are a coworker or a roommate. If you and I both like the same band, it's a lot cooler to know that if it's an obscure band. If I'm in San Francisco right now, I don't really care to know that the person next to me is also from San Francisco. But if I'm in Zanzibar, that's very interesting. The app should understand these things and get smarter over time, so it delivers you the most surprising and relevant information without your having to think about it.

I'm assuming Highlight will be up and running at South by Southwest?
Davison: Yes, we're very excited for SXSW.

So here's the really important question. Robert Scoble and others have already been pumping up Highlight as the app that everyone's going to use to organize themselves and their friends at SXSW. Are you ready for the sudden onslaught of users and traffic?
Davison: We're working hard to make sure that we are. Given the density of users, SXSW will be a very unique environment, but if we do our jobs, we think Highlight can make Austin so much more fun for everyone. It will show what you have in common with the people you are meeting, let you browse others in the room, notify you when friends are at a party next door, and help you remember everyone long after you've left. It's such a great showcase for what the technology can do. It's going to be really exciting to see.

What are the challenges of preparing for that unique environment? And is it sort of a one-off scaling effort, since there's not likely to be that level of intensity anywhere else?
Davison: I think the bigger challenge is actually around design. When the number of users in an area goes up by a couple orders of magnitude, the optimal user interface probably changes. The way that people use the app in an environment like SXSW--where they are out all day, constantly meeting new people--is just different from the way they use it in a city, so the use cases you need to design for are different. It's like artificially fast forwarding to a state where Highlight is ubiquitous. But you need to do it in a way that doesn't compromise the core product. We're also doing a lot to optimize performance and battery life.

I saw a tweet that said the best way to meet a venture capitalist is to drive down [VC ground zero] Sand Hill Road [in Menlo Park, Calif.] with Highlight turned on. What's your take on that? And besides that, what are some unexpected ways you've seen people using the service?
Davison: This technology is very new and it is fascinating to see how people are using it. The ability to share a little bit of information with people around you, in this ambient way, is a really big deal, and it's going to have a profound impact on the way we socialize in the physical world. We are all still discovering what the use cases are and figuring out what the norms should be. The VC comment was an interesting example, and the other stories we're getting from users are just amazing. They are using Highlight to remember names of people they bump into. They're seeing friends of friends all around them when they travel. One user wrote us a really powerful email about how Highlight connected him with a woman a block away who knew the brother of a boy he used to tutor in Texas, who had recently passed away. These moments have always been around us, but we've just never had the technology to surface them.

People are also using the text field on the profile (which we call a "blurb") to passively broadcast things to the people around them and collect feedback as they go about their days. A lot of people are putting their Twitter handles on their profiles and collecting new followers, or asking questions to people like "what's a good book to read for my book club" or "has anyone around me been to cape town?" The other day, one of our users wrote on her profile that is was her birthday, and as she walked past people they would see her profile and send her birthday wishes.

When you allow people to passively publish like this, it dramatically reduces the friction to sharing in the real world. It makes people friendlier, and it just makes life more fun

You mentioned privacy earlier. How important is it to you to get privacy right, and how are you making sure you do so?
Davison: Privacy is absolutely critical. We think that if you design this product the right way, it can be something that everyone in the world uses. Everyone needs help remembering people's names, and if given the chance, most people would be willing to share some subset of information with some subset of people around them. We want Highlight to be something that is fun--but safe, and trusted, and built off real identity and mutual friends. We try to make all of our product decisions with this in mind and are working hard to earn people's trust. The challenge is that you need to do this while keeping the UI simple, and making sure that people understand what the product is all about.

What are some of the most important things you've learned from users' feedback?
Davison: We're learning a lot: What types of information they feel comfortable sharing, what sort of people they'd like to be notified about, when and where they do and don't want to use the app, etc. It's a really hard product to get right and these details matter a lot. It sounds kind of ridiculous to say, but we've also just been so excited to see how much people like the product. I think there is so much unlocked potential in the world to share with others around you and to be friendlier to the people you see. This technology reduces the friction to doing that.

Where did the idea for Highlight come from?
Davison: It's something I've been thinking about for years. I've always been fascinated with and frustrated by the people discovery problem. The other people in our lives are the most important thing in the world, but the way we learn about new people has always been so random and inefficient. The thing is, we've never had the technology to solve it until now. Things like smartphone ubiquity, online identity, background location, battery life, and accuracy of location services--They are all just now at the point where they are good enough, and they are only going to get better. It's going to change things in big, profound ways.

Last question, my standard last question for these interviews. I like IM interviews for lots of reasons: I get a perfect transcript, and my interviewee can be a little more thoughtful than otherwise. But also, it's because you can multi-task. So, be honest: What else were you doing while we've been doing this interview?
Davison: Ha ha. Not much else, but my phone does keep buzzing.