How Raya’s $8/month dating app turned exclusivity into trust

The swipe is where the similarity ends. Raya is less like Tinder and more like a secret society. You need a member’s recommendations or a lot of friends inside to join, and you have to apply with an essay question. It costs a flat $7.99 for everyone, women and celebrities included. You show yourself off with a video slideshow set to music of your choice. And it’s for professional networking as well as dating, with parallel profiles for each.

Launched in March 2015, Raya has purposefully flown under the radar. No interviews. Little info about the founders. Not even a profile on Crunchbase’s startup index. In fact, in late 2016 it quietly acquired video messaging startup Chime, led by early Facebooker Jared Morgenstern, without anyone noticing. He’d become Raya’s first investor a year earlier. But Chime was fizzling out after raising $1.2 million. “I learned that not everyone who leaves Facebook, their next thing turns to gold,” Morgenstern laughs. So he sold it to Raya for equity and brought four of his employees to build new experiences for the app.

Now the startup’s COO, Morgenstern has agreed to give TechCrunch the deepest look yet at Raya, where the pretty, popular and powerful meet each other.

Temptation via trust

Raya COO Jared Morgenstern

“Raya is a utility for introducing you to people who can change your life. Soho House uses physical space, we’re trying to use software,” says Morgenstern, referencing the global network of members-only venues.

We’re chatting in a coffee shop in San Francisco. It’s an odd place to discuss Raya, given the company has largely shunned Silicon Valley in favor of building a less nerdy community in LA, New York, London and Paris. The exclusivity might feel discriminatory for some, even if you’re chosen based on your connections rather than your wealth or race. Though people already self-segregate based on where they go to socialize. You could argue Raya just does the same digitally.

Morgenstern refuses to tell me how much Raya has raised, how it started or anything about its founding team beyond that they’re a “Humble, focused group that prefers not to be part of the story.” But he did reveal some of the core tenets that have reportedly attracted celebrities like DJs Diplo and Skrillex, actors Elijah Wood and Amy Schumer and musicians Demi Lovato and John Mayer, plus scores of Instagram models and tattooed creative directors.

Raya’s iOS-only app isn’t a swiping game for fun and personal validation. Its interface and curated community are designed to get you from discovering someone to texting if you’re both interested to actually meeting in person as soon as possible. Like at a top-tier university or night club, there’s supposed to be an in-group sense of camaraderie that makes people more open to each other.

Then there are the rules.

“This is an intimate community with zero-tolerance for disrespect or mean-spirited behavior. Be nice to each other. Say hello like adults,” says an interstitial screen that blocks use until you confirm you understand and agree every time you open the app. That means no sleazy pick-up lines or objectifying language. You’re also not allowed to screenshot, and you’ll be chastized with a numbered and filed warning if you do.

It all makes Raya feel consequential. You’re not swiping through infinite anybodies and sorting through reams of annoying messages. People act right because they don’t want to lose access. Raya recreates the feel of dating or networking in a small town, where your reputation follows you. And that sense of trust has opened a big opportunity where competitors like Tinder or LinkedIn can’t follow.

Self-expression to first impression

Until now, Raya showed you people in your city as well as around the world — which is a bit weird since it would be hard to ever run into each other. But to achieve its mission of getting you offline to meet people in-person, it’s now letting you see nearby people on a map when GPS says they’re at hot spots like bars, dance halls and cafes. The idea is that if you both swipe right, you could skip the texting and just walk up to each other.

“I’m not sure why Tinder and the other big meeting-people apps aren’t doing this,” says Morgenstern. But the answer seems obvious. It would be creepy on a big public dating app. Even other exclusive dating apps like The League that induct people due to their resume more than their personality might feel too unsavory for a map, since having gone to an Ivy League college doesn’t mean you’re not a jerk. Hell, it might make that more likely.

But this startup is betting that its vetted, interconnected, “cool” community will be excited to pick fellow Raya members out of the crowd to see if they have a spark or business synergy.

That brings Raya closer to the Holy Grail of networking apps where you can discover who you’re compatible with in the same room without risking the crash-and-burn failed come-ons. You can filter by age and gender when browsing social connections, or by “Entertainment & Culture,” “Art & Design,” and “Business & Tech” buckets for work. And through their bio and extended slideshows of photos set to their favorite song, you get a better understanding of someone than from just a few profile pics on other apps.

Users can always report people they’ve connected with if they act sketchy, though with the new map feature I was dismayed to learn they can’t yet report people they haven’t seen or rejected in the app. That could lower the consequences for finding someone you want to meet, learning a bit about them, but then approaching without prior consent. However, Morgenstern insists, “The real risk is the density challenge.”

Finding your tribe

Raya’s map doesn’t help much if there are no other members for 100 miles. The company doesn’t restrict the app to certain cities, or schools like Facebook originally did to beat the density problem. Instead, it relies on the fact that if you’re in the middle of nowhere you probably don’t have friends on it to pull you in. Still, that makes it tough for Raya to break into new locales.

But the beauty of the business is that since all users pay $7.99 per month, it doesn’t need that many to earn plenty of money. And at less than the price of a cocktail, the subscription deters trolls without being unaffordable. Morgenstern says, “The most common reason to stop your subscription: I found somebody.” That “success = churn” equation drags on most dating apps. Since Raya has professional networking as well, though, he says some people still continue the subscription even after they find their sweetheart.

“I’m happily in a relationship and I’m excited to use maps,” Morgenstern declares. In that sense, Raya wants to expand those moments in life when you’re eager and open to meet people, like the first days of college. “At Raya we don’t think that’s something that should only happen when you’re single or when you’re 20 or when you move to a new city.”

The bottomless pits of Tinder and LinkedIn can make meeting people online feel haphazard to the point of exhaustion. We’re tribal creatures who haven’t evolved ways to deal with the decision paralysis and the anxiety caused by the paradox of choice. When there’s infinite people to choose from, we freeze up, or always wonder if the next one would have been better than the one we picked. Maybe we need Raya-like apps for all sorts of different subcultures beyond the hipsters that dominate its community, as I wrote in my 2015 piece, “Rise Of The Micro-Tinders”. But if Raya’s price and exclusivity lets people be both vulnerable and accountable, it could forge a more civil way to make a connection.

Rainforest Connection enlists machine learning to listen for loggers and jaguars in the Amazon

The vastness that makes the Amazon rainforest so diverse and fertile also makes it extremely difficult to protect. Rainforest Connection is a project started back in 2014 that used solar-powered second-hand phones as listening stations that could alert authorities to sounds of illegal logging. And applying machine learning has supercharged the network’s capabilities.

The original idea is still in play: modern smartphones are powerful and versatile tools, and work well as wireless sound detectors. But as founder Topher White explained in an interview, the approach is limited to what you can get the phones to detect.

Originally, he said, the phones just listened for certain harmonics indicating, for example, a chainsaw. But bringing machine learning into the mix wrings much more out of the audio stream.

“Now we’re talking about detecting species, gunshots, voices, things that are more subtle,” he said. “And these models can improve over time. We can go back into years of recordings to figure out what patterns we can pull out of this. We’re turning this into a big data problem.”

White said he realized early on that the phones couldn’t do that kind of calculation, though — even if their efficiency-focused CPUs could do it, the effort would probably drain the battery. So he began working with Google’s TensorFlow platform to perform the training and integration of new data in the cloud.

Google also helped produce a nice little documentary about one situation where Guardians could help native populations deter loggers and poachers:

That’s in the Amazon, obviously, but Rainforest Connection has also set up stations in Cameroon and Sumatra, with others on the way.

Machine learning models are particularly good at finding patterns in noisy data that sound logical but defy easy identification through other means.

For instance, White said, “We should be able to detect animals that don’t make sounds. Jaguars might not always be vocalizing, but the animals around them are, birds and things.” The presence of a big cat then, might be easier to detect by listening for alarmed bird calls than for its near-silent movement through the forest.

The listening stations can be placed as far as 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) from the nearest cell tower. And because a device can detect chainsaws a kilometer away and some species half a kilometer away, it’s not like they need to be on every tree.

But, as you may know, the Amazon is rather a big forest. He wants more people to get involved, especially students. White partnered with Google to launch a pilot program where kids can build their own “Guardian,” as the augmented phone kits are called. When I talked with him it was moments before one such workshop in LA.

Topher White and students at one of the Guardian building workshops.

“We’ve already done three schools and I think a couple hundred students, plus three more in about half an hour,” he told me. “And all these devices will be deployed in the Amazon over the next three weeks. On Earth day they’ll be able to see them, and download the app to stream the sounds. It’s to show these kids that what they do can have an immediate effect.”

“An important part is making it inclusive, proving these things can be built by anyone in the world, and showing how anyone can access the data and do something cool with it. You don’t need to be a data scientist to do it,” he continued.

Getting more people involved is the key to the project, and to that end Rainforest Connection is working on a few new tricks. One is an app you’ll be able to download this summer “where people can put their phone on their windowsill and get alerts when there’s a species in the back yard.”

The other is a more public API; currently only partners like companies and researchers can access it. But with a little help, all the streams from the many online Guardians will be available for anyone to listen to, monitor and analyze. But that’s all contingent on having money.

“If we want to keep this program going, we need to find some funding,” White said. “We’re looking at grants and at corporate sponsorship — it’s a great way to get kids involved too, in both technology and ecology.”

Donations help, but partnerships with hardware makers and local businesses are more valuable. Want to join up? You can get at Rainforest Connection here.

Dropbox and Box were never competitors

As Dropbox had its IPO moment this morning, more than 10 years after launching, we can finally put one myth to rest. Dropbox and Box were never targeting the same customers.

As Anshu Sharma, founder at Prekari, a stealth startup and former partner at Storm Venture tweeted earlier today:

Same goes for investors, analysts and journalists. If you don’t believe they’re different, consider that in Dropbox’s S-1 paperwork they filed with SEC, you will note they didn’t even list Box as a primary competitor: “We compete with Box on a more limited basis in the cloud storage market for deployments by large enterprises,” the company wrote.

They had something in common, of course, but Dropbox has always been about managing files in the cloud, while Box has been focused on enterprise content use case cases in the cloud — and that’s a very different approach.

As Shria Ovide pointed out in her analysis on Bloomberg after the filing, the S-1 also proved that Dropbox has always been a “a consumer software company with a side hustle.” That side hustle was the enterprise business. (She also pointed out on Twitter that they may be the first company to use a cupcake emoji in their S-1, which is actually kind of cool).

Consumer with a dash of enterprise

It turns out that vast majority of Dropbox’s combined business and consumer revenue of more than a $1 billion came from consumers.  Dropbox has always offered an attractive consumer storage tool. It’s well integrated into desktop OSs and it has a nice mobile tool.

I use it and for $10 a month I get a terabyte of storage. I can back up my life there and it incorporates neatly into Finder on my Mac. When I capture screens they go automatically to Dropbox. It provides a place to back up my photos from my phone. It’s convenient and easy and it works.

It seemed that such a tool would translate nicely to business, but Alan Pelz-Sharpe, founder and principal analyst at Deep Analysis, who has been following this space for years, says Dropbox has always primarily been confined to teams on the business side. “Dropbox is primarily a consumer company with 500 million users, [with] only about 300,000 teams using their business offering,” he told TechCrunch.

That’s not to say they aren’t trying to capture more of the enterprise. In the weeks prior to the IPO, they made a pair of announcements designed to increase their enterprise credibility including one with Google to store G Suite documents natively in Dropbox and one with Salesforce to embed Dropbox folders in Salesforce Sales and Marketing clouds.

For now though, even with this business push, Pelz-Sharpe points out that most of Dropbox’s business customers are small teams of 3 or more people with a dash of larger implementations. “Nor are people building much on top of Dropbox in the way of business applications – it remains primarily a very efficient file sharing system,” he explained.

Differences with Box

This in contrast to Box, which has been working primarily with large enterprise companies for years to solve much more complex problems around content. Aaron Levie from Box said he’s absolutely rooting for Dropbox, but they have always been going after different markets, since Box decide to go enterprise about two years into its existence.

“We are fundamentally building two very different companies. Both are large markets. While there is no limit to the scale they could become, we have built a very different business around how do you serve [large companies] and deal with unstructured company data — and it’s a very different product set [from Dropbox],” Levie told TechCrunch.

Dropbox was off to a great start today with stock soaring, up nearly 40 percent in early trading, but however Dropbox ends up doing in the days and months ahead, they will do it having made their mark mostly as a consumer company — and that’s fine. If they continue to build their enterprise business over time, it will be all the better for them, but it turns out up until now, the only thing Box and Dropbox had in common was both had “box” in their names.

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Have a look at Dropbox’s debut at the TechCrunch 50 (the precursor to TechCrunch Disrupt) in 2008: