Charlotte startup launches social network for ‘real life’ fun

Charlotte startup founder Joshua Lineberger had a beef with social media websites: They simply weren’t social enough, he said.

On Tuesday, he unveiled his solution: Socialtopias, a mobile app and social networking site that helps users plan a night out with friends, chat with people in real time and claim deals from restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

Lineberger, 28, said the site, which launches in Charlotte on Wednesday, encourages social interaction between people instead of widening the digital barrier.

“Social media is more of a facade kind of masking as social,” he said. “The digital world was created to eventually better enhance … our lives. Right now, it’s existing and acting as a world itself. You feel that you’re more connected to everybody, but you couldn’t be more disconnected.”

That’s the theme of the Socialtopias pitch.

“We often introduce the issue by saying, ‘I’ve got 2,000 friends on social media but nothing to do tonight,’ ” said Martin Miller, Socialtopias’ director of operations. “You may have all these digital acquaintances, but what are you doing in real life?”

The Socialtopias app is the first product developed by Lineberger’s startup, which bears the same name. Lineberger said he launched it after securing $4.5 million from an angel investor, whom he didn’t identify. He patented his idea in 2011, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

It’s a free download for Apple, Android and desktop users, and employs a “recommendation engine” that catalogs each user’s nightlife habits and suggests similar destinations when they log in again.

“One night, you might want to go out for a laid-back drink, one night you might want to go out for a bachelor party,” Lineberger said. “The user experience is … going to be very intuitive.”

Socialtopias will eventually charge businesses that put their deals on the site if they want to extend their reach beyond their immediate market, Miller said. Those plans are still in the works, as are efforts to reach out to sponsors.

A partnership with ride-sharing company Uber will allow users to catch a ride home or to another bar or club, said David Salsone, Uber’s Charlotte manager.

“They’re going to plan their night with Socialtopias and get there with Uber,” he said.

Lineberger got the idea for the app about six years ago while tending bar at Suite, a nightclub at the EpiCentre uptown. One day, he said he saw a “vision” of the entertainment complex glowing in red – a sign of how it was a “hot” nighttime destination.

Then he had a thought: What if he created a social networking site that helped him and his friends find the best places to hang out on a given night, enjoy deals and coordinate meet-up spots? A friend told him: “ ‘I would use that.’ ”

Lineberger went door to door with a projector in his hand, pitching his idea to relatives and investors, before he raised an initial $360,000 to get started. The seed funding phase was tough, he said, but eventually a three-hour conversation with an angel investor turned into the $4.5 million investment that helped take the app from an idea to the marketplace.

For that idea to be successful, Socialtopias needs to reach critical mass with its audience, said Brandon Uttley, a veteran Charlotte marketing and social media consultant who now heads Go For Launch, a web company that helps entrepreneurs start businesses.

“The only reason why it will be effective is if you know there are enough people or friends using it to make it worthwhile,” he said. “It’s not a guarantee that just because something has a semi-cool factor that it will instantly take off.”

Convincing users to try something new is tricky, he said.

“People … have a limited capacity to accept something new onto their device and into their life,” Uttley said. “It has to be dramatically better than what is already out there.”

Socialtopias has an edge, he said, if it can deliver on its promise to offer real-time deals and coupons.

When users log into the app, they are taken to an “intentions page” that greets them by name, asks “What would you like to do tonight?” and provides three options: find a destination, create a night out or chat with friends. A deal button gives users access to discounts offered by participating bars or restaurants.

There’s no random baby photos, writing on a friend’s wall or “liking” pictures or posts, said Ward Thompson, Socialtopia’s chief legal counsel. “We’re about getting out.”

Lineberger called Charlotte the “perfect birthplace of Socialtopias.”

While finding capital here to finance his venture was difficult, Lineberger, a Michigan native, called the Queen City a burgeoning “Silicon of the South” that is moving beyond its banking identity and embracing a culture of startups.

“There’s something here that people are drawn to,” he said.