Tuesday, May 21, 2024
Mahmoud Arram says the point of Sponty, the online social calendar he co-founded, is not get people spending time on the computer, but to get them to schedule where they'll meet face to face. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Mahmoud Arram says the point of Sponty, the online social calendar he co-founded, is not get people spending time on the computer, but to get them to schedule where they'll meet face to face. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Anyone with a busy social life and far-flung network of friends will appreciate the idea of Sponty, in which users post where they’ll be and when — so people they know can join up — then check out friends’ calendars to join their public events. Personal calendars can take pretty much any kind of listing. You can go out dancing or schedule time in front of the television.

“There are a lot of services that make you feel as though you’re connected, but you’re not. People would rather write on your Wall than knock on your door,” said Mahmoud Arram, a co-founder of the Cambridge startup, alluding to the Facebook social networking site. “We want to get people off the Wall and onto the streets.”

The problem: Plenty of people have never heard of Sponty and are already scheduling events on Facebook, Google or some 20-plus other online social calendars.

But Arram and his co-founder know what they need to do to overcome that. It starts with their new iPhone app; an evolution that features calendar event offerings of “tastemakers” instead of just users’ immediate friends; and an increased focus on connecting people through Facebook and Twitter. “The eyeballs are on Facebook and Twitter,” Arram said. “It would be hubris and foolishness to ignore them.”

Caroline Dangson, an analyst at technology research firm IDC, agrees. Facebook has 350 million users  — not just people who have signed up for an account, but who largely come back daily or multiple times a day to use that account — and Sponty isn’t the only stand-alone application that’s started to “play well together” with social networks.

“That’s critical for them,” Dangson said. “Integrating with Facebook and Twitter and working with the iPhone is a really important step.”

Dangson hasn’t studied online social calendars or Sponty specifically. Its founders say Sponty has seen slow and steady growth since launch around late August 2008 and in March should hit the user numbers they need before seeking investor or venture capital funding to take the site to the next level. “User growth has been slow by design. If you google Sponty, you’ll see little media coverage, because we wanted to learn,” Arram said, declining to give figures. “We’re absolutely convinced Sponty works — with a couple of tweaks.”

They have time to refine. “The burn rate is very low,” Arram said recently from the site’s one-room office in Kendall Square. It’s equipped with cheap desks, a couple of Dell desktops and plenty of bottles of Vitamin Water, but dominated by much-used dual whiteboards, spray-cleaner bottles and paper towel. Arram and his co-founder — who met at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 1999 and found each other again in Boston in 2006 while working for a medical- and computer-device manufacturers, respectively — work full-time jobs to cover Sponty’s expenses.

They knew they wanted to do a startup together, but for a while weren’t sure what kind. The breakthrough was seeing a friend post on Facebook to find people who wanted to rent a truck and go to Ikea, then realizing the suggestion failed when it was quickly buried under other status updates.

A different path

The founders have a pretty jaundiced take on Facebook, which they consider a problem for humankind even as it becomes a solution for Sponty. (In some ways, the social networking site is also a guidebook. Sponty is found at a somewhat nonintuitive Web address, thesponty.com, because a squatter owns sponty.com. But Arram is quick to note that Facebook was thefacebook.com for its early years.)

Arram is also dubious about other sites some use for Sponty-style meetups, such as the business-oriented Google Calendar, in part because the new focus on tastemakers’ topical feeds of events allow users to “discover other cool things going on — Sponty tells me where those are, Google doesn’t. It isn’t really a go-to place.” And he has harsh words for event sites promoting only upscale, hip events for an aspirational, niche audience.

He wants separate streams of offerings, soon to be rated by users, that range from fashion blasts to Harvard lectures, but not a flood of event listings that overwhelm users.

“Sifting through three shows each day at the Middle East is an arduous task. I rely on mavens who know what all the great shows are,” Arram said. “You choose your tastemakers. You follow personalities, people who fill a niche. My tastemaker is my roommate. My roommate knows all the good shows.”

Either use of Sponty — looking at the calendar of a friend or a tastemaker — positions the site well for where the Web is heading, said Dangson of IDC. “One-to-many is very popular and a huge trend, whether you look at calendar or messages,” she said, alluding to services such as Twitter. “People will still send e-mail, but one-to-one isn’t really efficient.”

Arram  has no problem with efficiency. But his conversation tends not to technical or business models, but to the notion of civic engagement that he cites as the origin and foundation of Sponty.

“Going to Facebook and Twitter is good for us to do,” he said. “But our overall mission is to get people to hang out in the streets, to have face time with friends.”