What if there were a way to text anyone around you without needing a person’s phone number – or even without Wi-Fi or cell-phone service?
That’s the goal of a new messaging app called Sochat, which relies on Bluetooth technology to connect you with other people nearby.
Sochat CEO Lukens Orthwein is no stranger to messaging apps; he worked for WeChat, the Chinese messaging giant, for a couple of years, assisting with the four-year-old company’s international expansion.
Orthwein left WeChat just over a year ago to start Sochat in Hong Kong. He has since relocated to San Francisco with his team.
Since launching several weeks ago, Sochat has been targeting college campuses and high schools. It is a fairly simple service to use – you walk into a room and pull up the app, and you’re shown a bunch of pictures and the first names of other people in the room. Individuals must have Bluetooth enabled and must have the Sochat app downloaded to show up in the app.
In this way it seems similar to apps like Highlight, which launched a few years ago to a lot of fanfare and showed information about strangers who were nearby for networking purposes. But after raising millions of dollars, Highlight and its competitors lost traction.
Since Sochat runs on Bluetooth technology, you don’t even need Wi-Fi or a cell signal to message other people. This lets you do things like send messages on airplanes, Orthwein tells Business Insider. Users’ phone numbers are kept hidden on Sochat.
Orthwein compares Sochat’s Bluetooth technology to beacons, the hardware that uses Bluetooth connections to transmit messages to smartphones and is used by retailers and event organizers to communicate with people indoors. Sochat works to detect people around you within 100 feet indoors or up to 250 feet in bigger spaces.
“A lot of kids in high schools don’t have a data connection or access to Wi-Fi throughout the day,” Orthwein says. “There’s a really cool level of experience you get to when you can expect to pull out your phone and see who’s around you.”
For example, you could pull out your phone in a lecture hall and see who is in your class, or open Sochat at a party to see who else is there. Orthwein says Sochat works best for group messages or for a tight-knit community like a sports team.
This week Sochat announced it had raised $2 million in seed funding, and its group of investors reads like a who’s who of Silicon Valley. The round was led by Eniac Ventures. WeChat creator Allen Zhang, New Enterprise Associates, Greylock Partners, Slow Ventures, Foundation Capital, Betaworks, Maiden Lane, and Steven Sinofsky of Andreessen Horowitz also participated in the round, which will be used to bolster the Sochat team.
Phone numbers are obsolete, Sochat’s argument goes. The app wants you to connect with people around you without exchanging numbers. Orthwein says Sochat’s biggest client is Harvard University. Sochat’s pool of early adopters has grown 40% every week since the beginning of the semester about two months ago.