Forget trying to pick the app of the year for 2012 – how about 2013? Because one which is already proving to be a viral hit is set to take the next 12 months by storm. Ding Dong is a mix between a private Foursquare and a text-free messaging service, and many of those in the know are tipping it for great things.
The service enables users to send each other ding dongs, messages which consist purely of a geolocation tag of where they are as well as an (optional) small photo. The three Dutch guys who created Ding Dong are fairly nomadic – but Silicon Allee caught with with one, Onno Faber, while he was in Berlin recently.
The app is free to download on iOS and you can also invite anyone to join by ding donging their email address. When you select someone to ding dong, their name and picture appear together with a doorbell. You press the doorbell to send a picture-less ding dong, or else touch it and drag your finger one of three ways – down to the left to take a picture of yourself, down to the right to take a normal picture or up to cancel. Touching the doorbell results in the ‘ding’ noise, and releasing it gives you the ‘dong.’
There may be plenty of choice when it comes to messaging and geolocation, but the Ding Dong team firmly believes that simplifying the process in this way will be a winner. “We put everything in one button,” said Onno, “so you pick a friend, you hit a button and you can send your location instantly to the other person. When he opens to respond, he sends his location back.” In doing so, you can send unwritten messages as what you want to say can be implied depending on the specific situation – ‘I’m late,’ ‘I’m in this cafe, do you want to join?’
A Private Invitation
“You can think of a friend; you’re in a bar and the friend knows that bar. So if he ding dongs you at 10 o’clock in the evening from there, it is kind of an invitation, but it is only for one person… it is easy to ignore it; it doesn’t really matter.”
Not only is Ding Dong a form of invitation, Onno adds, it is also a way to say hello and stay connected over long distances without getting drawn into an obligation to text and start long conversations because “you sometimes just don’t have time for it but you want to let someone know that you are thinking of them anyway.”
In fact, you can imply just about any message given the right combination of location and picture. That, perhaps, is why it is one of those platforms that spreads like wildfire – “are you not on Ding Dong yet?” – with different usecases emerging just as fast. They include, for example, ding donging someone in the same room as you with their own picture. Pointless, yet strangely amusing.
Wisely, the Ding Dong team has for the moment ruled out adding a text functionality to the app as it would remove the advantage of allowing people to avoid getting into conversations; it builds a barrier to starting the connection.
‘We Don’t Want to Create Another Messenger App’
“If you need a conversation there are hundreds of messaging apps that allow you to do that. It’s quite regular that you ding dong each other first and then you start texting in another app, which for us is fine. We just don’t want to create another messenger app. We think there is a way to communicate missing, and that’s what we are trying to solve.”
As for competition for Ding Dong, Onno believes that while it overlaps with many existing services, the mechanism is entirely new. For example, ding donging friends from a bar is comparable to checking in on Foursquare but it’s much more personal. It also overlaps with messaging services in cases like replacing the texts you send to say you’re late.
But the key is simplicity. The picture is fast because it is small – just a few kilobytes – as all the user needs to be able to do is recognise what is in it. “It’s not about sending a high quality eight megapixel photo,” Onno added, “it’s about just enough information for you to see what’s going on.”
They have been working on the project for around eight months with the first public version of the app released in June. They are unwilling to release user numbers but Onno did reveal that retention rates are very high. Users come mainly from the US, Europe and some parts of Asia; whenever the Ding Dong team travel somewhere, they see a spike in that place.
Adding Value to People’s Lives
Each of the three co-founders run other businesses, and so far they have been self-funding Ding Dong. They have had some ideas about eventually earning money through the platform, Onno says, but at the moment that is not important to them: “It’s not about making money now; it’s about adding value to people’s lives. And we believe that at some point we can make money with this as well.”
Ultimately, Ding Dong is a passion for its creators rather than simply another business opportunity.
“We are really all of us product guys, so we like to work on this project; the main thing is to make it better, [for it] to become a useful tool for people. It is a useful tool for ourselves – I think if you build something, you need to like it yourself as well. That’s extremely important.”
Onno and his co-founders move around a lot, spending in places like San Francisco, London and Vietnam as well as the Netherlands. Berlin, however, does seem to be a favourite. We met in a grungey cafe just off Oranienstrasse in Kreuzberg, the kind of place that tries very hard to convince you that it doesn’t care. Onno clearly loves it. “We got a warm welcome here. We talked to many other startups, and everybody is talking to each other, exchanging experiences, doing the same startup thing and that is very inspiring. You need other people around you that do that. To be honest, I never felt this in the Netherlands.”