By GREGORY ZELLER //
The art of conversation isn’t dead yet, if science has anything to say about it.
But face-to-face linguistic communication between two human beings, no screens involved, is on the ropes. So say CEO Brett Hayden Cohen and CTO Christopher Migliorini, cofounders of ObviPop LLC, a mobile app-maker aiming to get folks talking, out loud, in person.
It’s their part in the “online to offline revolution,” according to Cohen, referencing not the e-commerce term establishing a link between online discovery and offline commercial transactions but a growing movement of people tired of experiencing the world in exclusively digital terms.
“No one younger than us has the ability to communicate anymore,” Cohen said of himself and his partner, both Millennials. “They’re texting and Facebook messaging, constantly looking at their screens, so we wanted to do something on their screens that would make them start talking to people again.”
In spring 2015, the cofounders incorporated Plainview-based ObviPop LLC and got to work on their “paperless networking” app. The idea was to create a gateway of sorts to other people’s digital domains, with a critical hook: You can’t access the other person’s contact and social media information until you offer a real-world howdy-do.
“With this app, you have to go out in public and actually, physically talk to people, before you can connect with them through the app and get access to everything else,” Cohen told Innovate LI.
The CEO, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at SUNY Albany and is a U.S. Postal Service employee, thought it up and took the idea to Migliorini, who earned an MBA at Stony Brook University and in 2013 founded the digital-development startup Pronova Designs.
After determining the primary mission for their app, creating a features list and “storyboarding how we wanted it to work,” according to Cohen, the partners combed through available app-making kits and out-of-the-box geolocation solutions. They ultimately chose to customize a state-of-the-art “geosense technology” that can detect other ObviPop users within 100 feet – the “user bubble,” Cohen noted.
When another user is within the bubble, his or her face pops up on the user’s mobile device, indicating that registered phone numbers, email addresses, social media accounts and other digital connectivity options are available to be transferred through a “virtual handshake.”
But users can’t get past the handshake, the cofounders noted, until they introduce themselves to that hot guy at the bar or that CEO holding court at her networking event.
“We’re big on privacy,” Cohen noted. “In real life, you see a person’s face when they’re standing in front of you. We wanted to mirror that digitally. So until you connect in person, there’s no name, no contact information, just their face.”
Once introductions are made, user-approved ObviPop links instantly share the contact information, send Facebook and Instagram friend requests and otherwise connect the two users.
The entrepreneurs have refined their app several times. Cohen acknowledged that “at first, we were trying to reinvent the wheel,” but the innovators soon realized that it was better to go with the mobile-technology flow.
“You don’t want to rebuild something that’s already been done,” Cohen added. “You want to advance it.”
The iOS and Android versions now available for download represent both the “core app” and an extended beta, according to Migliorini. The partners have also worked hard to give ObviPop a running start on social media, including an instructional YouTube video that shows it in action.
After about 18 months of honing their vision, Cohen and Migliorini believe their creation is now ready for its close-up. They’re planning to introduce a new build-out that incorporates months of user feedback, likely in June, but they’re already predicting multiple potential verticals – including a host of potentially profitable commercial angles.
For example: Retailers providing app-specific coupons and other incentives when registered ObviPop users come calling. Also planned is a heavy focus on analytics, with the app providing a live stream of customer traffic and “customer attention analysis reports” available daily, weekly or however else retailers and other commercial customers might like them.
With the build-out looming, the entrepreneurs are getting super-serious about fundraising. To date, the company has raised about $20,000 through friends-and-family investments, in addition to the $3,000 Cohen staked to incorporate, purchase some hardware and start the app-development process. Now, they’re hunting bigger game: a $500,000 to $3 million investment round that will fund further development and kick off a major-league marketing campaign.
“We’re also planning some other platforms that are going to increase the value of the core app,” Cohen noted. “For instance, we’re going to develop a business-to-business platform that will connect us directly with other businesses and really allow us to monetize.”
To get there, the partners are “developing our business plan and finalizing our pitch decks,” Migliorini noted, while forming as many business connections as possible, including an alliance with the Long Island Software & Technology Network. This month, ObviPop became a resident of the Digital Ballpark, LISTnet’s Plainview-based co-working facility.
When the upgraded core app debuts, the entrepreneurs will be counting on a bump from Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, a professional prizefighter for whom they created a promotional website. But their success in “resolving the digital divide” – the ObviPop slogan, Cohen noted – will rely most on their forthcoming fundraising efforts.
“This next phase of venture capital is really going to determine our disposition,” Migliorini said. “At this point, our big goal is to get the VC funding and build a very, very large user base. About 18 months after we get the VC funding, we’ll re-evaluate.”
That re-evaluation could lead to further in-house development or a deal with an outside entity. The mission now, according to Cohen, is to give ObviPop its strongest possible start.
“We’ve already developed our online presence and we have a pretty good database of beta users,” Cohen said. “We have all the digital marketing components ready to go. It’s just a matter of pumping some money into them.”
What’s It? A people-finder app that promotes old-school conversation
Brought To You By: Socially active digital developers Brett Hayden Cohen and Christopher Migliorini
All In: $3,000, out of Cohen’s pocket, for hardware and incorporation costs
Status: “Core app” available now for Android and iOs, build-out coming