Developer Workshop: Meet Now Live

Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile will focus on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offer their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. The profiles will also explore the developer's creative philosophy--why they chose to write for mobile devices, how they hope their applications will impact the lives of consumers and their advice for aspiring developers. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia and Viigo.

This week FierceDeveloper profiles Meet Now Live. The company's mobile social networking application offers a location-based nightlife guide spotlighting bars in New York City and Los Angeles.

Most social networking services define user relationships in an exclusively virtual context, limiting personal interactions to text messages, wall posts and tweets. What sets apart Meet Now Live is that it employs the familiar elements of mobile social networking--i.e., status updates, location services and personal contacts--to connect friends where they belong: In the real world, catching up face-to-face over a few drinks.

The device-agnostic Meet Now Live is equal parts city guide, friend finder and micro-blogging service: Users tag their real-time whereabouts by "broadcasting" their status to fellow barflies and club-hoppers within the MNL mobile network, complete with comments and reviews on the venue's crowd, menu and atmosphere. The end result is an up-to-the-minute pulse check on urban nightlife spanning the New York City and Los Angeles regions, offering users a wide-angle overview of where their friends are, what they're drinking and who they're drinking with.

Co-founders Mike Davis and Joshua Nolan established Meet Now Live in April 2008, although the service first attracted widespread attention last summer with the introduction of Free Beer Fridays, a promotion promising a drink on-the-house to users who registered for the service, visited that week's selected bar of choice during the designated time and broadcasted their location. Earlier this month, Meet Now Live added Twitter integration, automatically updating a user's nightlife activities to their Twitter account. The revamped service also includes photo uploading and geo-tagging, new activity feeds documenting user behaviors in real time, and a new Top 10 bars feature that offers a running tally of the hottest nightspots based on where the most broadcasts originate.

FierceDeveloper spoke with Davis about social networking, micro-blogging and how the iPhone revolutionized online communication.

Mike Davis on Meet Now Live's origins: One night [co-founder] Joshua Nolan and I were out at one of our favorite bars. It was kind of empty, and every five minutes or so, someone's head would pop in the door to look at the scene, and then they went on their way to look for a place they wanted to be. We asked ourselves ‘What if we created something where those people could pop their heads into every bar in the area to check the scene out, without walking across the entire city?' We set out to create something that gave users real-time information, that would show them who's inside or which bars are empty. We wanted to make their nightlife decisions easier and more efficient.

On developing location-based applications: At first, we were bouncing stuff off the walls--we said ‘We've got to have GPS, and we've got to have location awareness.' But GPS was not as accurate as we wanted it to be--especially in Manhattan, where the area is saturated with bars, GPS wasn't strong enough to pinpoint specific locations. So we decided to skip GPS and work on something more manual, where users would log in to the service and broadcast information themselves. Users can broadcast who else is there and give a brief shout-out of what the scene is like--it's almost a real-time review.

We also knew we had to develop something that recognizes all of the different devices and different OSs, and offers users the same experience regardless. We want to allow everyone to use [Meet Now Live]--we didn't want to create an iPhone application only.

On the iPhone: The iPhone has given people reasons to do things on their cell phone. In terms of social networking, the Internet is a place where you go online to hang out. On the flipside, you can take social networking off the desktop and put it on a mobile device, but the phone is not a place where you hang out. The iPhone has given people the ability to hang out on social networks, thanks to its ease of use, the user interface and how quickly content downloads. It makes social networking fun.

When we first launched Meet Now Live, we saw a roughly 50/50 split between smartphone users on BlackBerries and users on iPhones, with the majority of younger users on iPhones. Over the past year, as we've been keeping track of users and which devices they're using, it seems like everyone is switching to iPhones. They went right from flip phones to iPhones.

On Twitter: Integrating with Twitter is a big deal for us. When we launched in April of 2008, that was around the time Twitter hit the mainstream, and we never really considered the micro-blogging aspect of Meet Now Live until Twitter and Facebook status updates became popular. We weren't developing for that mindset--we just wanted to show who's where, and what they're doing. But Twitter is a huge advantage for adoption, because people are now more familiar with quick status updates.

At first, Josh didn't get [Twitter]--he didn't see the service taking off, because who cares who's drinking a coffee with two sugars in it? But people do care. It's more of a sociological experiment than anything else.

On mobile advertising: We tested it out for a while, but we kept getting stuck with non-relevant ads. That seems to be a problem that's inherent in a lot of ad networks out there. We wanted to deliver Heineken ads or movie theater ads--subjects relevant to our users. But instead it was ringtone ads and dating service ads and things we didn't want to push to users. So we took the ad networks off and decided to sell direct to local bars, restaurants and retailers. That's much more valuable to our users. You have to give them something of value. That way, they're not only using the service because it's fun, but because they're getting great deals.

When we did Free Beer Fridays, we offered users a free beer if they were broadcasting from specific bars. We told the bar owners ‘We'll bring in the people, and if you give them free beers they will buy shots and food, and they'll bring in their buddies and everyone will have a good time.' We know we do a far greater service to our users and get much higher CPM when we sell directly to local advertisers. We can deliver a highly relevant ad and we bring a higher value than just click-throughs for our clients. We actually bring someone into the bar. For the bar to spend 50 cents--the cost of a beer--on bringing a customer in the door, as opposed to $1 to $3 per click, makes much more sense to us. For us, the user has to broadcast their location from the bar, so we get the user activity, and the bar knows the customer is there, so they get the customer.

On advice for aspiring developers: Be prepared to go at it alone. There's a lack of funding out there, so be prepared to have some revenue coming in. We haven't gone after funding and we're generating revenue. Also, stay current on different codes and devices--you have to be able to move quickly. We're always catching up on new codes and devices. If someone accesses the site from a different device, we have to be ready to offer them a user experience comparable to what you get on other phones.