Startup Social: Fortnighter @ Above Allen

Why doesn’t anyone launch a startup in a dive bar? Is every startup really best represented by a fancy hotel bar? Granted, Fortnighter — a place to order custom-written travel itineraries for $100 and up — is best represented by a fancy hotel bar. In this case, it’s Above Allen at the Thompson LES hotel. I double-checked whether it really cost a hundred dollars to get anything from this site. It does.

On Fortnighter, which soft-launched three weeks ago, you fill out a questionnaire with sliders, checklists, and open text boxes about the types of restaurants, hotels, and activities you want. Then the site picks a travel writer from their network to write you a custom itinerary. One of the co-founders, Justin Kalifowitz, claims they’d already gotten feedback from users saying they got so much for their hundred bucks or two, they felt like they should have paid much more.

I don’t understand this. I do not understand the concept of feeling you have underpaid for information. I didn’t understand it in college when I paid $200 per world-unlocking textbook, and I sure as hell don’t understand it this week, when I freaked the fuck out at a one-hour Wikipedia downtime. My free information was NOT AVAILABLE. I complained on Twitter.

But the real sign you’re smart is knowing how many people are richer and dumber. Or, hell, just richer and busier. At some point it must actually make sense to hire a writer to custom-assemble an itinerary, right?

I never much thought about the economics of this until a stint I did at Gridskipper (then edited by BlackBook’s current editor) around 2007. At the time, Gridskipper was Gawker Media’s travel blog, aimed at jetsetters and written by poor freelancers. The reviews were thus either unhelpful, lies, or revealed the writers’ poor financial habits. Most opinions were stolen from Yelp reviews.

What a perfect moment in the great media switch. At one point, it made sense to pay someone to go on a trip just so they could write about that trip for others. But now you can ask people who went on the trip anyway to write up the experience for free.

So why do it any other way? Why hire writers for custom projects? To make people feel special? That’s probably why you hold a party in a fancy hotel bar, right? Because the guests wouldn’t normally just head to a hotel roof and pay $12 a drink, but you’ve bought out the bar for the first two hours?

Only at some point the open bar ends, and you get to watch people decide whether they care enough about you and your company to pay the $12, or watch some BlackBook freelancer order a seltzer water and see if he blinks when he gets charged $5 (though you don’t have to watch to see if he bitches about the cost to your other guests, because that never doesn’t happen).

The party was friendly but ultimately like all other startup parties: serial startup consultants Rex Sorgatz and Rachel Sklar showed up, as did several members of the ad agency Barbarian Group — where Colin Nagy, one of Fortnighter’s founders, also works. All four founders — Nagy, Kalifowitz, Noah Brier and Alex Basek, who I want to make clear are lovely, smart, confident but self-effacing young men — are just moonlighting with this thing (though one hopes to turn it into a full-time job). Justin and Noah were surprised to find I’d just asked my way into the party; everyone else attending was a friend or a friend’s plus-one, which probably proves that the same ten people are doing everything in New York startup-land.

They handed out sample itineraries at the party. And, well, they read like typical guidebooks. The New York sample is broken down into destinations, which seems less helpful than the walking tours in a Lonely Planet. A sample paragraph:

Take a breather back at the hotel before contemplating your evening out, or relax at the smash-hit Eataly, the sprawling, many-splendored Italian food hall brought to the U.S. by Mario Batali and his partner Joe Bastianich. From reasonably-priced wines and great salumi downstairs to the fantastic new beer garden up top, you can’t really go wrong for a fun happy hour. Mind the locals wielding shopping baskets as weapons. (200 Fifth Ave.)

I’ll ignore the quality of the writing, because it’s a travel book, not a short story. But most of that info is in a free Zagat article from March, except for the beer garden and which floor the salumi’s on. Public travel sites, blogs, Wikitravel, and Yelp make most any paid travel guide ridiculous. My girlfriend planned an entire trip to Switzerland by asking questions of locals and previous travelers on TripAdvisor. Buy a $30 travel guide just to have an easy-to-browse physical anchor, but anything more seems unhelpful, until these custom guides actually get individual. Of course, that logic won’t kill this startup any more than the logic of free seltzer water.

Startup Social evaluates new tech and media startups based on their party-throwing prowess.

(Photo: Maya Baratz)

Startup Social: Socialisting @ Tribeca Grand

“I want it to be like Friendster,” declares Socialisting founder Lawrence Lewitinn, then quickly clarifies: “The early days.” We’re at Socialisting’s launch party. I found out about this party because I spotted it on Facebook and recognized some attendees. I found Lawrence at the party through Peter Gaston, a SPIN editor my girlfriend met through work. Friends of friends! Theme!

Socialisting is like Craigslist, only centered around your friends and friends-of-friends. You only see listings of people up to two degrees of friendship from you. This doesn’t make too much sense to me when it’s applied to yard sales and free couches, but it does make sense for roommates, job offers, and free kittens. These things are best handled through contacts, where the social trust breeds better fits and better behavior.

“Everyone has a hookup story from Friendster,” Lawrence says. There’s been a lot of Friendster nostalgia in the tech and media crowds now that the site is deleting people’s old photos and blogs. Many of the people in this crowd (and at this party) were Friendster’s first users back when social networks, and the kinds of interactions people had on them, were novelties. And one of those interactions was finding new friends on the network.

The early days of a new social network are always heady for the owners. The first thousand users are more exciting than the tenth million users. Every data point on the site, every user interaction, can be seen in real time. (In the first year of Twitter, one page showed everyone’s tweets in a live feed. Impossible now.) The site could become anything. Everything could still happen. And there are parties.

This party is in the large lobby bar of the Tribeca Grand Hotel. Unlike most New York hotel bars that host startup parties — the Hotel on Rivington, the Delancey, Le Bain at the Standard — you can actually tell you’re in a hotel. On a Saturday night. there are plenty of non-party patrons. The party is chiller, less crowded with bold names, than most. I do catch Barbarian Group founder Rick Webb and Kevin Kearney of Hard Candy Shell, and upon arriving I immediately recognize the first three clusters of people.

Lawrence acknowledges the party’s laid-back nature. “No velvet ropes,” he says. There actually is a velvet rope separating the party from the rest of the lobby, but, you know, not a douchey rope, and it disappears at midnight when the free rum drinks end. No one’s checking a list here.

Lawrence’s sister Sarah is DJing. She plays some NIN, some radio pop and “Black Hole Sun”. Sarah emerged a decade ago as Ultragrrrl, a DJ, producer, manager, and blogger. She has a Wikipedia page. When I met her last year, she didn’t mention any of that, though she did say she managed Heinz’s Facebook page. The last song I hear her play is Modest Mouse’s “Float On.”

We leave a bit after the open bar ends, because while there are many people left, we just don’t know them. This sounds like a stupid sentence unless you know that media startup parties in New York mainly attract the same core crowd, called “the 250” by a certain group of critics. Rex Sorgatz, the 250’s club president, is busy with a birthday party (which swaps guests with Socialisting throughout the night). Lawrence has made his party open and apparently hasn’t concentrated on luring big names. These are friends and friends-of-friends.

So what does the launch party say about the startup? First it shows us who’s gonna join first: Lawrence’s friends. Very different from Facebook, which started with the founder losing all his friends. It also shows us how the competitive market will shake out. Socialisting has to fight old-school competitors like Craigslist and any innovations from Facebook, as well as all the other classifieds startups. Third, I have no analogy for free rum drinks.

Socialisting grew out of Lawrence’s List, a Facebook group for people to exchange job and gig leads. There seem to be a lot of these lists online. Lawrence’s friend Anthony De Rosa, a Reuters employee and popular blogger, launched the spinoff “Soup’s List” for some media friends. This spring, former AOL exec Jonathan Dube started a LinkedIn group called “You’ve Got Talent” for everyone he’d had to fire before getting fired himself. (Facebook has a Marketplace app for these functions, but nobody uses that.) Craigslist famously grew out of Craig Newmark’s events list, then lost a lot of its friend-of-friend advantages. When a general structure like Facebook groups keeps inspiring a specific use like job lists, there’s usually an opportunity for someone to replace it with a better structure.

The description for Lawrence’s List asks members to concentrate on listing jobs they’re involved with. “This list is effective when it’s my friends or their friends meeting/hiring/moving in with my friends or their friends, not if it turns into another Craigslist where crazies/kooks/stalkers can find/meet/harass/kill/cook each other.”

Aren’t strangers the worst?

Startup Social evaluates new tech and media startups based on their party-throwing prowess.