Discovering new people and new ideas

A friend forwarded me an article in TechCrunch announcing that Grip, a startup focused on AI-powered networking for virtual events, just raised $13 million in a Series A round. As an event organizer, I’ve played with networking-enhancer apps and platforms for more than a decade. Most recently I experienced the networking function built in to HopIn, the popular new virtual event hosting startup.

I have always cringed at it all. Networking events, apps, and services have rarely given me much in the way of real relationships or discovery of new people and new ideas that have any lasting impact for me. This is one of the reasons we are so thoroughly opposed to “networking” at Dent — instead, we think of it as a relationship-first community where people are generous with their curiosity.

Most of the time, I discover new people and new ideas by getting on a plane and flying to places where I can be in person with people, getting to know them and opening the door to chance: an unexpected meeting, a surprise conversation, an introduction I never expected. I think that by the fall of this year, if not sooner, I’ll be able to get back to most of these old habits, and that in-person conferences and events will be back in a big way.

But I also think our habits of discovery have permanently changed. I am now meeting people for the first time on Zoom and building relationships with them through regular conversations mediated by video. Video chat introductions and “chat-roulette” sessions as part of a virtual conference are just baby-steps towards facilitating new-idea and new-people discovery through the internet.

Clubhouse is another app that is serving people with discovery right now. What will discovery look like when more “high-bandwidth” forms of seeing and interacting with other people are commonly available? I hate to say virtual reality because it’s so cliché, but this is basically the “killer app” use case for VR as a technology.

As for startups like Grip, I do not think that AI is ready for the challenge of human discovery. We’ll probably get there eventually, but for the next decade I think we’re going to continue to see AI matching outperformed by human-driven behaviors, introductions, and natural rambling exploration.

I don’t know what’s coming next, but I think there’s a lot more that will be tried in the next couple of years as lots of creative entrepreneurs try different ways of tackling the problem of discovery in a virtual context. It’ll be interesting, because it’s a very big need that currently happens very “inefficiently.” The trouble is that unlike advertising it’s really hard to know what part of the offline inefficiency is waste and can be tossed out.