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For startup firm Heyy, a bet on missed connections

Usually the point of a dating app is to meet someone online. A Baltimore startup wants to help people who already met — or at least saw each other — for a too-brief moment.

It's the smartphone version of the "missed connection" ad.

Heyy LLC, one of six companies accepted into this year's AccelerateBaltimore program, which helps entrepreneurs with innovative ideas get funding and other resources, just launched the first version of that app. Mark Manzo, Heyy's co-founder and CEO, said he's long wanted to do this because he thinks the way conventional dating sites and apps work is backward.

"Most apps … have a database of photos that you scroll through and if you like them, you can email them and set up a place and a time, and then when you actually meet them in person, odds are you may be disappointed due to misrepresentation online," said Manzo, 40, of Canton. "We connect people who are attracted to one another in real life."

The idea: You see someone at the grocery store, you share a moment but you don't feel comfortable asking for a number — or there's no opportunity. You post a "heyy" on the Heyy app, as in, "Hey, I saw you at the frozen food section. You made me melt."

People have written variations on that theme for years, both in newspaper ads and free craigslist personals. But the Heyy messages will come paired with a photo, users will get push notifications of heyys if the description fits their profile — woman 20-25 with curly brown hair? check — and you can peruse the app's map to find heyys by exact location.

Manzo said Heyy users will also be able to connect online first in the more conventional dating-app way. He might prefer the other method, but he doesn't want to skip the one that people are accustomed to.

No wonder. Heyy — which will focus first on the Baltimore-Washington market — is trying to break into a crowded, difficult field. Online dating expert Julie Spira estimates the pool of dating and "social discovery" apps at close to a thousand. And each entrant needs lots of users.

Getting to critical mass will be particularly important for the Heyy app, given that it's focused on finding very specific people.

Manzo's plan is to sponsor concerts and other events locally, including at college campuses. To get in, you'll have to download the app. He's hoping people start heyy-ing on site.

Spira, founder of cyberdatingexpert.com and author of "The Perils of Cyber-Dating," said the appeal of Heyy's niche is that everyone has a missed-opportunity story. Hers was in an airplane with a guy named Howard. She didn't ask for his number while they were sitting on the plane chatting, and then she lost him on the way to baggage claim.

"It's a great idea to have a place for people to go to find their missed connections," she said. The key for Heyy, she said, will come down to "how many people know about it."

Heyy drew $25,000 in funding from the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation this year by landing a spot in AccelerateBaltimore, one of six companies selected from a field of more than 60. The city's Emerging Technology Centers runs the accelerator's programming, and Abell gives each company a loan that can later be converted to equity.

Eight of the 10 companies that went through the program in 2012 and 2013 — the first two years — are still in business and have won further funding from venture-capital groups and other investors, said Deb Tillett, the Emerging Technology Centers' president and executive director.

Heyy's founders got in because they understand the dating-app space, they're passionate about their concept and the selection team saw potential in it, she said.

"This was one of those things that's quirky, … trendy enough that if they got it done and did the right kind of marketing, it would go viral and they would have something," Tillett said.

Robert C. Embry Jr., Abell's president, can't speak to the relative merits of Heyy — he's not on the selection team. But he believes in the power of cultivating startups.

"We do it because we think that innovation is an important opportunity for Baltimore, and that it's difficult to attract large companies to come into the city," he said.

Manzo has a background in venture capital and real estate, with some pre-Heyy "dabbling" in tech. He teamed up with an app developer friend, Jeremy Feldman of Potomac.

It's been a whirlwind year. Since this year's 13-week AccelerateBaltimore program ended in May, they've been hiring interns, preparing an office in Hampden and working on the first version of their app.

They pushed out Heyy for iPhones and iPads on Friday. Android and web versions are next; they're hoping a new Kickstarter campaign will let them crowdfund some of that cost.

They have soft-launch parties planned in Baltimore and D.C. at the end of the month, with the "major launch" pegged for next Valentine's Day.

If the founders can get traction in this region, they'll go looking for venture capital to launch in New York, Los Angeles and other large markets. So they've got no shortage of things to do.

But Manzo is already thinking about other apps. Not all missed connections, after all, are about romance.

"We want to migrate to the business end as well," he said. "We think this could do very well at trade shows."

jhopkins@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jsmithhopkins

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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