“When I shared with Justin and Sean how fast we were growing, it really hit them that this is was about as fast as they grew. The next day they offered to write us a check.”
A freshman at Holy Cross, Ben Kaplan was frustrated when he found no simple way to make social plans for the night.
“College kids want to know what everyone is doing on the weekend,” Kaplan said. “The biggest things used were Facebook events and group texts, but I wanted something better—something more effective.”
Between class and hockey practice, Kaplan often worked well into the night from his dorm room to make his idea a reality. He pitched his idea in a “Shark Tank” business-style competition at Holy Cross, and won first prize for showing four slides for an app called WiGo—an acronym for ‘Who is Going Out?’—designed to solve the problem of finding social plans for the night by showing photos of friends who plan to go out, and letting you “tap” others you would like to encourage to come along.
“Holy Cross may just have its very own Mark Zuckerberg on its hands,” read one blog post following WiGo’s debut.
WiGo’s service is designed to be as simple as possible. The app links everyone at a given university in the same network by the school’s .edu email address. From there, students can post where they are going at night, and other friends can join. Each day, students create a list of events, and users can see where others are planning to go, invite each other to a destination, or suggest a new destination. The mobile app can relay a number of different signals—“following” someone, “favoriting” them, “tapping” them—that you’re interested in spending time together.
After winning the venture competition in his freshman year, Kaplan gained the confidence to take WiGo to the next level. Kaplan developed the software for his app over the summer, and WiGo at Holy Cross in January 2014. Within three weeks, over half of the student body had downloaded the app. At the end of his sophomore year in May, Kaplan decided to drop out of school in order to focus on spreading WiGo to other college campuses.
“After seeing WiGo take off at Holy Cross, I knew that this was something that other college kids would like and want to use,” Kaplan said. “When I dropped out of school, I had no tech team or any employees. It was just me, some code that I owned, and a vision to bring this to other schools.”
Since launching out of Holy Cross’s small campus in Worcester, WiGo has expanded to over 1,100 campuses nationwide, and currently has over 16,000 followers on Twitter. Kaplan and eight other WiGo employees have raised over $700,000 in initial funding, and are currently raising another $2 million seed round from investors.
“We hit 50,000 users in the first six weeks … that’s faster than Tinder when it started,” Kaplan said.
WiGo’s team of advisors and investors boasts some big names from the tech world. Paul English—the founder of Kayak.com and Boston-based startup hatchery Blade—invested in WiGo as one of its first startups, aiming to develop the app and graduate it as a standalone company. Tinder co-founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen are also investors and serve as active advisors to the startup.
“When I shared with Justin and Sean how fast we were growing, it really hit them that this is was about as fast as they grew,” Kaplan said. “The next day they offered to write us a check.”
Other investors include Kevin Colleran, one of the first ten employees at Facebook, as well as Ben Fishman, who is the founder of Rue La La and started the hat company LIDS as a student at Boston University. WiGo has also received support from New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk.
One reason why WiGo has spread so quickly at campuses across the country is that the company will pay students to host events on the app. Top ambassadors at the WiGo’s most popular universities earn over $1000 per week, according to Kaplan.
“What we do when we launch at schools is essentially pay kids to use our app,” Kaplan said. “If someone creates an event using the app to go to a BC hockey game and over 500 people attend, you can earn over $500. We’ve seen it be a big thing for athletes and super fans.”
Currently, over 100 students at a school must download the app and sign in with verified university credentials before the app gets “unlocked” for that campus. In the past, WiGo has predominantly focused on targeting large universities with fraternities and sororities. Suffolk University, Boston University, and Northeastern University are some of the top users of the social-networking app in the Boston-area. Although WiGo has not been “unlocked” at Boston College, Kaplan expects the app can make a big debut in the future.
“We hope to roll out at BC sometime early next month,” Kaplan said. “We haven’t done any targeted marketing yet, but at a place like BC with no fraternities and sororities, I think our app can be highly successful if social people promote events to places like parties, sporting events, clubs, shows, and bars.”
As a modern social-networking app, WiGo has received numerous privacy concerns. One of the app’s main defenses is that at 5 a.m. each morning, all of the data from the previous night is erased. WiGo also enforces a student-only user base by employing a self-policing mechanism that blocks administrators or other individuals with .edu email addresses.
“For kids to be making social plans on our app, there has to be some trust,” Kaplan said. “We have managed to be 100 percent college kids, and have essentially created a curated list of students that want to interact with each other.”
Looking to the future, Kaplan hopes to continue expanding his service across the U.S., as well as targeting post-graduate students living in large cities and eventually people of all ages.
“I think the tool we are using to make social plans is something that no one else has nailed,” Kaplan said. “We started with college kids, but we have this vision that we can build something that helps people of all ages make imminent social plans.”
Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Graphic