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Onin is trying to fix event planning by combining calendar and chat

·6-min read

What would happened if your go-to calendar and messaging apps were in fact one and the same thing? That's the thinking behind Onin -- a U.K. startup that wants to simplify event planning by, well, making a more organized app for organizing stuff.

If that sounds a little niche, it pays to remember that calendars have been having a bit of a moment (ha!) of late (ho!) -- what with the pandemic parceling our work lives into endless virtual meeting slots. Aka: How many Zoom calls can one human survive in a single day?

Certainly the limitations of digital calendars, these rather unlovely (yet ever more essential) time-management tools, have had faced closer scrutiny since COVID-19 popped up on the scene. Flaws? Yes they have a few.

And so we've seen a burst of startup attention to the space in recent years. Think stuff like Calendly and Reclaim.ai for more efficiently managing meeting scheduling (aka "smart calendar assistants") -- or, more recently, Magical -- which is trying to push the (invite) envelope a little further by trying to make calendars more collaborative.

Onin is taking a similarly collaborative tack -- but with, initially, more of a consumer focus: It wants to be your new go-to app to arrange stuff like drinks or trips with your friends. (If it can take off with 20-something socialites and worm its way from B2C into work settings via a consumerization backdoor then great, is the founder's thinking there.)

But why do you need a whole new app for organizing birthday drinks, I hear you cry!?

Because the experience of using a digital tool to arrange multiperson events is frustratingly unsocial and friction-filled is Onin's argument.

With a typical calendar, an event creator owns the event (and therefore the planning process) so only they can make changes that sync to all participants. Hence those endless email discussion threads that spring up around nascent group events as people try to hash out the details of a plan -- who's free when and which location works for everyone and so on -- and then nag the self-appointed organizer to update the invite so everyone stays on the same page.

Onin's alternative approach avoids this planning asymmetry by collapsing and combining chat and calendar into a one-stop scheduling dream: "One place to find time and plan events without leaving the chat." Or, well, that's the promise.

(And -- yes -- it will still integrate with your existing calendar software so that events planned in Onin get synced back there.)

Here's founder Ryan Brodie laying it out:

We want to be the aggregation layer for events, contextualising the process and third-party integrations so there's zero fragmentation between them and the discussion that forms them (right now the event in our diaries is always one step behind the convo and every step is duplicated).

To do this we want to replace your calendar app/web app and act as a client for whatever calendar provider you use ("bring your own calendar").

"We're starting from the consumer and consumer meetup side; however we strongly believe (and have already proven) Onin's usefulness across sectors," he also argues. "The key thing is we're chat first not event first; 95% of the planning is happening by chat and not by editing the event's details, thus our hard work on bringing the event into the conversation itself (you can @mention the group in any of its subgroups too making referring to an upcoming event delightful)."

Per Brodie, the problem Onin is focused on stems from fragmentation related to the long-standing iCalendar standard -- aka the Internet Calendaring and Scheduling Core Object Specification format (RFC 5545), which allows different scheduling services to understand and process calendaring items (and was first created in 1998) -- which is really why, as he tells it, trying to do group scheduling with existing calendar apps is such a frustrating mess.

Onin's answer to this legacy fragmentation takes the form of a patent-pending "architectural solution" -- which means the software always "organizes" the event "from a calendaring perspective, not a specific user," as Brodie puts it. (Or, more simply: "The organiser is the group email address and we control its sync.")

The effect of that is to circumvent the fragmentation between an event and its communication channels -- thereby removing unnecessary friction from the event planning process by letting groups plan stuff together more spontaneously.

"No one has solved this problem before," claims Brodie (who's name may be familiar as he co-founded YC-backed Muslim dating app Muzmatch, before moving on to his next app challenge).

"It's incredibly hard to as the calendaring standards are decentralised and non-canonical (our tech made our events centralised and canonical). Everything you can do in our native apps you can do with very low friction web experience first (every Onin group is a rapidly shareable link)."

Asked about other software solutions, he suggests Onin is shooting to be "Microsoft Teams, just done right." So, er, touché. ("An easy-to-use product and one that's simple to understand, isn't locked into the Microsoft ecosystem, and yet is incredibly powerful and versatile, scaling from 1:1 conversations to groups of hundreds of people, all the time seamlessly syncing event information into participant's diaries," is the ambition.)

"We send the invites to all users versus using their own calendar like say Calendly does," Brodie also tells us, going into more detail on how exactly Onin does things differently versus rivals. "Therefore events are fully collaborative and provide a history of changes inside Onin but in your external calendar all you can do is change your attending status as a regular participant. This makes Onin very sticky!"

For now, it's still super early for the product -- which bagged some attention after launching on Product Hunt in August -- and is just now launching as an MVP. But Onin has already turned investor heads, raising a $1 million pre-seed round ("with just the idea") last summer -- which looks like a notable vote of confidence at such an early stage.

Backers in the pre-seed include Entrepreneur First's Matt Clifford and Hambro Perks, plus a number of others who aren't up for going public just yet.

"We've had over 400 people join the early-access program in 48 hours which involved an eight-step form detailing their calendar woes. I'm very confident there is serious demand simply in combining chat and calendar," adds Brodie, before segueing into reeling off a list of integrations and features the team is working on adding.

"We already have an official Zoom integration and are working on Typeform and Calendly integrations (Notion, Google Workspace, etc. all targeted). We then want to take over the event-based discussions you have in other apps as a result, with you thinking of the event as living in Onin ('zero switching cost'). For example, when you join the Zoom call a contextual message is sent into the group -- '[Ryan] joined Zoom' -- no one has done this before!

"We own the event that is synced to everyone's diaries, it all links back to Onin. We have a unique, patent pending Talk around time chat UI that makes all of this possible. We have a very Notion-y style group/subgroup system: It's (a) extremely easy to create follow-up events and (b) easy to create subplans too (e.g., a holiday with lots of activities or a product launch with TechCrunch interviews)."

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