In the spring of 2010, Darien Brown and a team of software, political science and business students grabbed the $25,000 grand prize in the UW Business Plan Competition with YongoPal, a web service that connected university students in Korea with their American counterparts for on-line conversation to practice their English. On the heels of that win, the team received seed money from super angel Dave McClure’s 500 Startups and relocated to Silicon Valley to participate in its inaugural accelerator class. Then dark clouds rolled in from the West.
Disappointing reports from Korea showed that YongoPal was proving hard to use and not gaining the expected traction with students. After an intense UX workshop, one fact emerged. The program had huge potential but needed a complete redesign. So just before the make-or-break Demo Day, CEO Brown raced back to Korea and learned that the appeal of the service had nothing to do with learning English: students were actually only interested in its social value as a way to meet foreigners. With no time to create a prototype, and with money running out, the team pitched a new concept and scraped together enough seed money to build it. A better service and a new name were born.
YongoPal became Wander, a free iPhone app that pairs a user daily with a “local guide.” To jumpstart the new relationships, the app suggests daily “photo missions” to help users share their lives. For the armchair traveler, even the mundane is exotic: the street outside the house or the local food market. People can get to know somebody halfway around the world, “visit” places they’ve wanted to experience or study a language. Users find Wander to be simple and engaging, but its potential is even more exciting.
Brown says that, though Wander is something he feels they stumbled into, he believes they have an opportunity to define a new product category. “We are giving people in digital isolation the ability to reach outside of what they know,” he says. “China is a great example. We’re seeing users in that part of the world use our app to meet foreigners for the first time in their lives. And the fact that we let people interact through machine translation means that they can do it free of language barriers.”
Online marketing guru Dave Schappell of TeachStreet agrees. “I believe that the true power of the Internet to connect like-minded people is largely untapped. The first generation of social applications focused on connecting people who already know each other. Wander makes new connections a reality by matching individuals around the world so they can learn about one another.”
By any measure, Wander is making new friends around the world, serving users in more than 80 countries at a rate that doubles monthly and adding new meaning to the saying “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”