Aug 27, 2019

Startups' new frontier: Optimizing your friendships

Illustration of a Rolodex with tabs indicating various social media apps.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

CRM ("customer relationship management") software is how salespeople keep track of their targets. Now "personal CRM," which applies the same techniques to personal relationships, has become one of the hottest app categories in Silicon Valley, with three companies pursuing it in accelerator program Y Combinator’s most recent class.

Why it matters: Techies are drawn to optimizing and managing all aspects of their lives, from finances to health, so it’s no surprise they’re looking to do the same with their relationships with other people.

Mostly, people are looking to keep track of work-related acquaintances and other so-called “loose ties,” like friends-of-friends.

  • Many are using apps like Airtable or Notion they're already using at work to create spreadsheets for this purpose.
  • There's also a number of web and mobile apps for this, including Dex, one of the companies that just finished Y Combinator’s program, which bills itself as a tool to "turn acquaintances into allies." It lets users keeps records of acquaintances and get reminders to contact them.
  • "People are having broader and broader networks that are more professional connections," Dex founder Kevin Sun told Axios. "Loose ties are increasingly important as well," he added, noting he's not intending Dex to be used for someone's family and friends.
  • In networking-heavy industries like tech and venture capital, social encounters often overlap with professional relationships — that friend of your friend could be your next investor or employee.

The other side: The founders of Irish startup Monaru, a recent graduate of Y Combinator whose service is for managing users’ relationships with loved ones, say using such apps is a sign of deep care for these relationships.

  • Monaru focuses on the user's closest 10 to 15 relationships, like family and best friends, and provides suggestions like gifts and restaurant selections based on those loved ones' tastes.
  • Making the effort to keep track of friends and family's preferences and important dates via an app shows that someone cares enough to not want to miss anything and get reminders to plan ahead so gifts and activities are thoughtful, Monaru's founders (and Twitter users) told me.

The big picture: Each of these apps is doing, in part, some of the things that Facebook was originally intended for. Now that so many people use Facebook for everything from reading and sharing the news to arguing about politics — and others have lost trust in it thanks to its privacy problems — entrepreneurs see an opportunity to rethink its core mission of connecting people.

My thought bubble: There's something deeply unsettling about the idea that a friend is reaching out only because an app reminded them to — it's hard to believe they truly care about you.

  • But perhaps it's not so bad if you feel secure in that relationship — and at least this way your friends will always be armed with appropriate restaurant recommendations.
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