Dive Deeper into the RelationshipTech Startup Landscape.

Humans crave connections and startups are taking notice. It has been part of our DNA since we were a baby and none of it is surprising. Genuine social connections and companionship are what drives people in life. This is a topic that we at Peppercorn have become more aware of as we've gotten older. Now we're working on a product with the aim of positively impacting relationships.

As we spend more time exploring this space, we realized that the foundation and motivation of human relationships are very similar which is what inspired us to create this market map that we call ‘relationship tech’. We’ve seen a ton of really great market landscapes recently on remote work, mental health, and even valentine’s day. Thought we’d create one from a different perspective that is focused on startups that are looking to develop, grow, and enhance authentic relationships between people.

If you need more evidence on the importance of relationships in our lives, here are a few sources:

  • One study, which examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50% — an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.
  • Social interaction has a big effect on mental health at all ages, but our desire to connect seems to hit a peak in our teen years, then decline.  Midlife, anywhere from 40 to 50, tends to be a time when people become more interested in socializing than they were in their thirties, some research shows.
  • Face-to-face visits, when we're older, may do more to prevent depression than phone calls, email, and texting, according to an analysis of survey data for people age 50 and up across the United States.
  • In a 2018 survey, nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. One in five people reports they rarely or never feel close to people and 18 percent say they rarely or never feel like there are people they can talk to.
  • This is also seen in the workplace too such as in the SHRM’s 2016 Report, 77% of participants listed connections with co-workers as the top driver for employee engagement but a recent Atlassian study indicated that 78% of respondents don’t fully trust their teammates
  • And a lot more here.

Covid-19 is also rapidly changing and affecting relationships significantly. Three-quarters of people surveyed saw communication with their partner during the pandemic improved and they’re more open to trying new things in their sexual lives. Single people are using dating apps more frequently to battle loneliness. Recent studies also suggest that “ambivalent” relationships, those combining affection and hostility (alas, like so many family ties), create chronic stress that can ultimately damage health.

Here is how we’ve defined the various categories. Would love your feedback. This is based on the various relationships that we have with each other and with ourselves. This is by no means mutually exclusive or collectively exhaustive but we want to use it as a starting point to drive discussion with folks who are also interested in this area.

Romance

  • Dating startups continue to be popular even when the market is dominated by products owned by Match group. You’re seeing more targeted dating apps grow and further exploration of sexuality accepted. Everyone is hopeful to find their significant other even if it's all the same people using different apps. You’re seeing new apps having their own approach to creating ‘genuine’ connections. We feel like the pandemic has forced people to approach dating differently, less immediate hook-ups and more getting to know each other first because of the fear of COVID-19. We’re also seeing a growth of services around couples counseling, making divorce more efficient, and also helping couples deal with finances.

Friendship

  • You always hear people say it’s becoming harder to meet friends as you get older. This is probably because we meet our friends growing up based on proximity and as we get older, we want to meet friends that are more based on interests and values. Throughout the past decade, many have launched startups to bring a community together based on common interest but many have found it difficult to acquire users and scale with a sustainable business model (e.g. remember location-based startups like Glimpse or Highlight? - although Pokemon is extremely successful!). You’re starting to see many volunteer-based communities thriving on social network platforms through Facebook Groups, Discord, and Slack channels.

Family

  • Family plays a big role in your development from Day 1. It also impacts your identity, your sense of self-worth, and eventually how you choose to live your life. There’s no denying that as you form your own identity, the family will always be there, either to support you or make it difficult. We’re seeing more startups helping parents understand their children and connect grandparents with their grandkids. Potentially there could be opportunities for adult kids to better understand their parents too (and vice versa)? You always think parents always know all the answers until you realize they don’t. Maybe this parent/child power dynamic will continue to evolve.

Self

  • The importance of being healthy both physically and mentally continues to grow over the past few years which has led to the explosion of this category. The expectation here is that we will continue to get more data around our body, our nutrition, our microbiomes, our emotional state and more. We just need startups to provide insight and guidance on how to manage that. The hope is once you get to know yourself, you can start to involve others in your data and be willing to be more vulnerable in order to form deeper relationships with others.

Team

  • People at work that you interact with every day can either be empowering or toxic. A strong high performing team supports each other proactively. They don’t necessarily need to be best friends but they come to work expecting to deliver impactful results and it’s important for folks to work with team members that support, appreciate, and empower each other. Many products in the market in the team collaboration space are focused on the technology to enable communication but few are focused on helping teams build relationships. With the rise of remote working due to the pandemic, it’s becoming even more difficult to form relationships so this is definitely an area to watch out for.

Enabling Technology

  • This section is about technologies or products that enable relationship building but do not do that directly. Examples include zoom or slack or miro. All great products to drive easy collaboration and communication but still require humans to know how to leverage the product to its full potential based on the dynamics within the family or team.

This market landscape is a mere sample of startups that are building something different and interesting. I’ve chosen to exclude the larger tech companies such as Nextdoor (neighbors), Twitch (Gaming), Facebook, Twitter as well as B2B transactional-based relationships where you don’t see each other regularly (e.g. customers (Salesforce) or investors (e.g. Carta), etc.

That being said, if you see any interesting relationship tech startups out there, please send us an email at team@peppercorn.io and I’ll update this map!

Our thoughts

Sharing some thoughts and ideas on the future of technology when it comes to relationship building:

  • Whilst the pandemic has created new opportunities for startups to develop technology that form connections between humans easier. This has helped people to be more connected especially when they can’t travel and / or moved to more remote areas around the world. However, this does not solve the fact that humans in general are becoming more lonely. Technology has enabled a closer connection but cannot replicate the experience face to face contact and the intimacy that comes with a deeper understanding and relationship with people.
  • The rapid growth of mindfulness and mental health products have helped people become less anxious and depressed in this increasingly stressful world. When you feel more financially secure, emotionally secure, and physically secure - the next thing that you would want as humans is to feel more secure in relationships - a sense of true belonging and trust, not just with yourself but validation and appreciation with people that support you, especially with folks that you respect.
  • Startups that are able to build stronger empathy that is embedded in their product that can guide users to become more emotionally savvy will help battle the sense of loneliness and distrust in relationships. Rather than focus purely on the functional and practical aspects of a product as the single approach to drive efficiency and productivity, it is equally as important for users to leverage these products to build relationships which will further improve performance for everyone.
  • We will see even more startups focused on bringing people with common interests, and identity together. Monetization of these communities will be easier as humans are more willing to pay to be part of communities (e.g. membership models such as The Wing - note that this was the case in the past too with YMCA but with free social networks, advertising became the main channel until the scale made it a negative experience). Distribution has been prohibitive as cost of acquisition is expensive either through an app store or through paid social channels. We will see new distribution channels that make discovery of these communities easier (curated directory?). We will see more niche communities continue to form - each built with more personalized features and experience for that specific community rather than generic enabling technology.
  • We would love to see more omni-channel experiences where you can create experiences from indoors to outdoors to online and to virtual and be able to connect all these various experiences together wherever you are. People already do this naturally by leveraging technology for different purposes but being able to share that context and data across them all would make the relationship richer. Would Apple or Amazon be that platform that takes control of our lives? Potentially and arguably this is not great from a competition point of view, it could make our building relationships easier and more holistic. Would it be possible that the context, intent and emotions behind these experiences be shared products so that we can build stronger relationships with each other?
  • We imagine an experience where if we text our significant other to pick up eggs at the grocery store, that would automatically trigger a notification to tell us that they’re busy dealing with an urgent issue at work through their Google calendar or maybe their stress levels are high through Apple health from their heart rate being higher than normal. This additional context will help manage our expectations and allow us to be more attentive when they come home. Furthermore, this could trigger a way to add this specific item on a single to-do-list app where one of us will check on a daily basis to see how we can help each other based on what needs to be done at home. To make the experience even better, being able to remind ourselves of some of the conversations we’ve had previously that triggered negative reactions and coach us on how to approach the interaction differently to drive the relationship forward because we care.
  • Until we are at the stage where machines (robots?) can fully understand human emotions and develop empathy, I think technology can only do so much to enable stronger connections between people. At the end of the day, the ability to empathize is a core part of who we are as people and it is crucial that we continue to develop that skill throughout our lives.

Thanks for reading! Please feel free to ping us if you want to chat further at team@dingo.io! We’re also now opening access to our beta team building product so check it out at www.peppercorn.io. Look forward to collaborating with folks who want to build stronger relationships together.

Thanks!

Winson and Jacob