Connecting With Strangers - Connection Week


By Zach Schepis

The judges panel at Fortune magazine’s Brainstorm TECH Startup Idol contest at the Aspen Institute last year. Photo courtesy of Aspen Public Radio.

At one point or another everyone has been in the same nail-biting, anxiety-inducing situation: you’re walking through the park or hitching a ride on the subway, when out of nowhere an attractive stranger catches your eye. You’d like more than anything to approach the person, to spark some means of communication, but how? You want to relate to them, but have no idea where to begin.

Those days, thankfully, are over. ONE, the relatively new mobile app, makes it so you’ll never have to worry about missing such connections. ONE’s user-friendly interface has made it quite effective and popular amongst a younger crowd looking to branch outside the shallow boundaries of apps like Tinder.

It’s simple: download ONE from the iTunes store and then add your interests. When two people who share similar interests are in the same room, the phones will match. If there is no one present, the app will show people nearby.

Bada-bing, bada-boom. We have a connection.

The built in database for the app is quite extensive. Cory Levy co-founder of ONE, tells BTR that the app already provides a massive ontology which consists of pretty much everything: hobbies, sports, television shows, music, movies, books–you name it. Better yet, if you have an interest that’s not in the directory, there is the option to manually enter it. Doing so automatically adds the interest to the ontology, and keeps the app in a constant state of flux.

On average, each user ends up adding more than 100 interests. There are hundreds of thousands of people using the app, with matches happening every month, according to Levy.

Believe it or not, but ONE co-founder Cory Levy was only 19-years-old when the San Francisco start-up began. He is now one of the youngest entrepreneurial success stories, with over $1 million in the bank thanks to investors such as Charles River Ventures and General Catalyst.

“At first, the amount of attention was definitely surprising,” Levy tells BTR. “But it’s very cool that a young, small team can create tons of value for people. Humans are innately social and want to be connected to one another. We are excited to be building a product around this.”

According to Levy, the inspiration came about when Michael Callahan–the app’s other co-founder–was strolling along San Francisco’s Market Street. Callahan noticed a group of people nearby that seemed to him like long-lost friends–though he had never met them before. The group walked past him and they both did a double take, but ultimately continued walking.

Callahan stood in the intersection. Why did that just happen? he thought to himself. Moments later he realized that he could fix it.

“When we sat down and spoke about this experience, it made us think about the ways we have met the important people in our lives,” Levy tells BTR. “It’s all been through chance. At ONE, we think that’s crazy. We are turning serendipity into science.”

Levy knew that the idea would be a gold-mine, so decided to take the gamble. At the time, he was still a freshman studying computer science at the University of Illinois, where he was recruited for his entrepreneurial abilities “just like an athlete.” He decided it was high time to take his leave.

“At this point in my life, I’m on a different path,” says Levy. “Universities will always be here… opportunities, on the other hand, won’t.”

It’s no secret that a great commodity is only as good as its marketing strategy. Levy attributes Facebook as his source of inspiration for ONE. The world’s most popular social media outlet made its humble beginnings on college campuses–a strategy which clearly worked. Exclusivity can prove to be more effective than catapulting a new idea to the general masses, so Levy took his new app to educational institutions in major cities such as Boston and New York City.

“We have been focusing on colleges on the East Coast, which has proved to be very successful so far,” says Levy. “But now that schools are about to be out, we are testing with some high-schools and have seen amazing traction.”

Even with the mounting success, ONE is still very much in a state of evolution. Levy is hungry to discover more ways to bridge the gaps between strangers with his app, which will undergo further changes this year. He tells BTR that it’s necessary to constantly run tests (in beta) or growth will be impossible. The testing results were surprising at times, and the initial product is worlds different than the one users can download today.

Last year Fortune held their fifth-annual contest to determine which one of five selected entrepreneurs would win the title of Brainstorm TECH Startup Idol. While ONE didn’t take the cake (which went to tour guide platform AnyRoad), the fact that ONE was even nominated proves the potential behind Levy’s creation.

The attention keeps mounting. Recently, ONE toured with Childish Gambino along the East Coast. After one of the performances, Childish Gambino met with some of his matches using the app.

Keep your eyes peeled for ONE in 2014, as Levy hints there will be some big surprises in store, including expanding to more schools, holding some exciting marketing events, and improving the product as it moves along.