Need personalized recommendations for a new restaurant suited to your taste? A cooking class from one of your favorite chefs, or a pop-up dinner that you’re likely to enjoy? Yes, we have to say it, there is an app for that. Sosh, a “concierge” service providing targeted suggestions for interesting things to do, launched in Seattle on Tuesday.
The app has a solid footing in restaurants and food activities, but also covers theater, art, outdoor entertainment, and most other variations on “What should we do today?” It was founded by former Google employees in San Francisco in 2011, gaining a mainstream following there that’s been described as “rabid,” with Sosh estimating that 1 in 6 adults aged 21-40 are using it. A New York City version went live last year. The goal, in essence, is to save users time filtering through information online so they can spend more time participating in life offline.
Sosh attempts to come up with engaging options and hidden gems partly by trawling through social media sites — seeing what people are tweeting about, for instance, or where Instagram pictures are being taken at a high clip, said company CEO Rishi Mandal. “We look at all those signals to help us isolate what’s really interesting right now in Seattle. Once we get that data…. we have a human who takes the data they’ve seen and uses our technology to curate the best activities.” In something like the Netflix model, the more a user interacts with the site — bookmarking items of interest, rejecting others, purchasing tickets to a third — the better, in theory, Sosh can target future guidance.
“Based on what you’re looking at, clicking on, browsing, (Sosh) gets a better idea of what parts of the city you like to spend time in, what days of the week you’re looking to go out on, how much money you’re often willing to spend… we try to take all of those signals in and, after time, tailor that content right back,” Mandal said. It’s a mix of “expressed interests” and what he called “some leaps” on potential new avenues.
As an example of what the site could provide, Mandal brought up the one-time dinner that Il Corvo Pasta chef Mike Easton cooked recently at “a little shop,” Juice Box on Capitol Hill. The Sicilian feast was an “incredibly opportunity, but so challenging to find if you’re not constantly plugged in and constantly monitoring,” he said.
San Francisco was an obvious place to launch Sosh, Mandal said, “because we were here” and because of its dense and tech-friendly population. New York was another challenge, with greater cultural diversity, a bigger population, and different habits, such as the estimated 77 percent of Manhattanites who take public transportation to work. Seattleites have their own dynamics to “challenge our technology and process,” such as the rush of interest in outdoor activities in the summer, and a “maker culture” that includes “so many pockets of things to do.”
An initial poke around the site did show a good variety of timely food and entertainment activities, from movies to music to paragliding. Descriptions were written in a snappy Zagat-like form, with some highlights pulled out from sources like Seattle Times reviews or Eater.com news, plus original “concierge” summaries that show a familiarity with the city. On its initial go-round Sosh suggested I try out the hideaway “Nameless Udon Stand” that Seattle Met tagged as “not the sort of udon you’d find in Japan or even in the U District at U:Don,” and that I check out a food photography class from Clare Barboza, as well as more standard ideas (table for two at Wild Ginger?)
The app is aimed at residents rather than visitors, and requires a Facebook account to use. It’s iPhone only for now, with an upcoming Android version.
Activities also come with an opt-in option to share plans with friends. From a data standpoint, those social connections aren’t as useful for targeting advice as it might seem, Mandal said. “In San Francisco and in New York City, the average Sosh user has two dozen friends on Sosh, using it in their city. You would think great, that gives us a super strong signal of things we should show you. But honestly, you don’t always care what co-workers do every weekend…” he said. A user might spend a lot of time eating out with a spouse, but go on hikes with a separate group of friends. The application learns over time which friends you might favor for what activities, and at what level, but “it is a really delicate thing to get right.”
How does Sosh make money? So far it doesn’t, beyond tiny revenue streams like a referral payment for Open Table restaurant reservations. It’s been backed by $15 million in venture capitol, with investors including Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger. Mandal said the eventual business goal, which they’re experimenting with on a small scale in San Francisco, is “to help make cities more interesting than they are,” connecting creative providers with people who are interested in what they do. “What we don’t want to do is corrupt the integrity of Sosh. There are no promoted spots, we don’t want to favor one activity over another,” he said.
If there’s one early result from Sosh in Seattle, said Mandal, it’s that he can’t wait to come back to the city himself. During the beta testing, “I saw a silent reading party on Sosh the other day. It was at a bar, and everyone brings a book,” he said. “That’s fascinating.”