Welcome, Harpoen

Welcome, Harpoen
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While Indonesians are some of the most active Twitter and Facebook users in the world, few companies have found ways to make much money off of their social clicks.

Yet as one of Indonesia’s biggest online success stories, Koprol – a location-based social network that was bought by Yahoo – is being shut down, a new location-based platform called Harpoen thinks it can make bucks off of Indonesia’s buddy-based buzz.

The creators of the iPhone application say the secret is to use Indonesia as a sort of intense beta testing ground. Indonesians post more tweets and Facebook updates than almost any other group in the world, and they love to try new things online on their cellphones. That means that if you give them something cool to try out, they will quickly find the glitches in the system and create new ways to use it, programmers say.

Harpoen, which lets users drop comments, photos or videos (which it calls “digital graffiti”) at specific locations for others to find, figures it can leverage all that enthusiasm to make its products better—and also find ways to make them profitable on a global scale.

“Indonesia has a huge population of hip and tech-savvy urbanites who are very open-minded to new ideas and concepts,” says J.P. Ellis, a Jakarta-based American who left his job at a private equity firm to start Harpoen. “Indonesians are also naturally social. We may be the friendliest country in the world.”

Though it was released only four months ago, users have already dropped tens of thousands of “harps” around Jakarta, Bandung and other cities. Many comments left are predictable gripes at big traffic bottlenecks. But users are also using the service in other unexpected ways.

Some are using it to tell others about their favorite waitress at a restaurant, while others are using it to post poetry connected to a certain location. Others are dropping harps to recommend street-food stands. One of the unexpected uses has been to post Wi-Fi passwords at the locations of the many restaurants and cafes that have free Wi-Fi for customers.

There are other services that have stumbled upon surprising popularity in Indonesia. Mig33—which allows people without smartphones chat and blog on their less-expensive cellphones—has millions of users in Indonesia. Meanwhile, Indonesia has become one of BlackBerry’s most important markets, with Indonesians often using it for its instant-messaging services rather than its email capabilities.

“Indonesians are driven to always be in contact with their peers,” said Aulia Masna, editor of Dailysocial, an Indonesian technology news website. “When somebody that [an Indonesian] looks up to uses a particular technology and looks like they are having fun with it, everyone will follow.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean anything launched in Indonesia will become a hit, especially when it comes to making money. Harpoen, for example, needs much more user-generated content to make it fun. In malls or college campuses there may be many harps to see, but elsewhere when people open their Harpoen application, they often find nothing nearby.

Meanwhile, the app may be handicapping itself by offering the service only to iPhone users. Indonesia’s sticky social networkers may be incredibly active online, but few can afford the $600 phones.

The company hopes to fix that soon by making it available for phones that use the Android operating system. That will expand its potential audience from the hundreds of thousands to millions in Indonesia.

If Harpoen can capture the attention of a large enough group of Indonesian hipsters, the company hopes the local advertising, and then the international expansion, will follow.

By Eric Bellman - Wall Street Journal

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