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Former SXSW Darlings Twitter, Foursquare, Meerkat and Highlight: Where Are They Now?

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

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No, we’re not talking about the latest startup down round. This is how a breakthrough app from SXSW is typically described in the press, the kind of app people can’t pull themselves away from in between the rib tips and brand integrations that make up the annual tech and music festival in Austin, Texas, each year.

Every few years, a new consumer app garners a lot of attention from folks at South By, including investors. Last year, it was livestreaming app Meerkat. Better-known companies like Foursquare and Twitter also got their starts at SXSW. Making waves at SXSW doesn’t mean you’ll ultimately be successful (more on that below), but at the very least it usually means the tech world will talk about you for months longer than it ever would have otherwise.

We don’t know which app, if any, will be the talk of Austin this year, but in honor of the 2016 conference kicking off this weekend, here’s a look back at the four most notable companies to catch fire at SXSW and what to make of them now.

Twitter (2007)

Technically, Twitter had been around for almost a year before the 2007 SXSW conference, but South By is credited with putting Twitter and its text-like blogging feature on the map. The company won an award for best blog startup and the attention helped them land early, big-name investors, such as Union Square Ventures co-founder Fred Wilson.

It’s now considered the most successful SXSW launch company by most metrics: It’s a public company with billions in annual revenue and it has more than 300 million users. Still, Twitter is now going through an identity crisis around its business and having trouble growing its user base. In the eyes of Wall Street, it’s a struggling company in need of some serious changes. Compared to its fellow SXSW darlings, though, it looks pretty good.

Foursquare (2009)

Foursquare actually launched at SXSW 2009 as a way to find other friends and check in to places like restaurants or bars that you visit. It got pretty popular, and then Facebook created its own check-in feature a year and a half later, essentially spelling doom for the check-in heavy business model. A few years later, Foursquare split its app into two separate apps, one for check-ins (Swarm) and Foursquare for restaurant and bar reviews and recommendations (a la Yelp).

Most recently, Foursquare raised a bunch of money in January, which sounds good. The bad news is that it raised money at half its previous valuation, a trend of sorts so far in 2016 (other companies have raised or are rumored to be raising down rounds, too).

CEO Dennis Crowley also stepped down as CEO, moving into the company’s executive chairman role instead. The company appears to be focused on the recommendations side of its business, prompting users to visit restaurants or bars they might otherwise pass by.

Highlight (2012)

Highlight was all the rage at SXSW 2012. The app used GPS to alert users when they were close to people around them with similar interests. The general idea works today in the dating world thanks to apps like Tinder and Grindr, but Highlight was a little before its time, admits CEO Paul Davison. “Hyper local is a tough nut to crack,” Davison told Re/code in an interview earlier this week. “We still really believe in the mission behind Highlight, but I think it’s still in the early days.”

The company was back in the news this week because it’s ditching the original “meet strangers on the street” idea in favor of a new photo sharing app called Shorts. The new app encourages users to share everything on their camera roll with friends, a place for all the leftover photos you may not share with Facebook or Instagram. So, Highlight is still around, just not in the way people knew it back in 2012.

Meerkat (2015)

Meerkat has also been in the news lately. That’s because Re/code reported last week that the livestreaming company is abandoning livestreaming, turning its efforts to a social network of sorts where users can chat with each other over live video. After dominating the SXSW coverage last year, Meerkat chose to throw in the towel on livestreaming in part because the idea attracted big dogs like Facebook and Twitter, both of which now offer their own livestreaming feature.

“Over the year, it became rougher waters,” CEO Ben Rubin wrote in an email to investors last month. “The distribution advantages of Twitter/Periscope and Facebook Live drew more early users to them away from us and we were not able to grow as quickly alongside as we had planned.”

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