Thursday Sep 4, 2014 by Josh Boyle - Director of Community & Marketing, VentureFizz
How does a 20-year-old college student go from worrying about how he and his college buddies are planning their nights out to running a company alongside one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Boston?
Ben Kaplan, a Burlington, VT native, was a D1 hockey player at Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. Early on in his freshman year he took notice of a common theme around his friends and classmates – planning the night out. He remembers constantly hearing
“What is everyone doing tonight?”
“Where are you going?”
“Who is going out?”
He quickly realized there was no simple and efficient way to organize plans. Kaplan started researching and found the options available and most commonly used just weren’t good enough. Facebook wasn’t popular for planning because it came with social costs (appearing out of the loop). Group texts were annoying for those stuck on the chain that weren’t going out. Tweeting just wasn’t effective.
With an idea in his head, Kaplan started to sketch out his concept on paper, including some basic screens. He entered into, and won, an inaugural “Shark Tank” event at Holy Cross with just a concept, some basic imagery and a name – WiGo (Who is Going out?). This ‘win’ gave him the vote of confidence to continue moving forward.
During his summer break between freshman and sophomore years Kaplan hired a developer to build out a basic app for him to launch back on campus.
Just three weeks after introducing the app this past January at Holy Cross, Kaplan tells me over half of those with iPhones were using WiGo and on peak nights they saw 90% of users active. This, in Kaplan’s mind, validated a pain point.
While he and others were impressed with the early traction, he needed to explore replicating this success in a place where he wasn’t a student. Kaplan had a couple of friends download the app for their schools, UVM and St. Michaels in Vermont and within a week WiGo accumulated over 600 users.
Around this time, Kaplan met Entrepreneur In Residence at Worcester Polytechnic Institute Jim Giza, who was the 7th hire at Kayak and had a close relationship with Paul English, CEO & Co-Founder of the startup factory, Blade. Giza introduced Kaplan and English, as he saw a natural fit between the two.
The connection between Kaplan and English clicked immediately. And siting with the two to discuss WiGo, the chemistry was unmistakable.
An agreement between Kaplan and English was secured quickly and Kaplan would leave Holy Cross after his sophomore year this past spring.
I asked English what drew him to WiGo and Kaplan:
“I was drawn to WiGo because of Ben. I found him to be incredibly compelling -- he has a strong vision for the space, very strong conviction on his ideas. He fought back when I would suggest strategies he did not like, yet, he was also very open-minded and quick to understand new ideas.”
Kaplan returned the praises for English, saying “I wouldn’t be anywhere without Paul.”
One key element Kaplan touched upon was English’s guidance and role in building the WiGo team, specifically the recruitment of Giuliano Giacaglia, who is now Co-Founder & CTO.
Giacaglia, originally from Brazil, knew English from MIT where he earned a Bachelors degree in Computer Science and Engineering and Masters of Engineering, Artificial Intelligence.
English admits it took some serious convincing to bring Giacaglia on as a full-time employee to Blade (his initial role) as he was set on starting his own company, but English got it done. Once WiGo was brought on board to Blade, Giacaglia made the move full-time to WiGo. A move Giacaglia told me was a no-brainer.
The common theme on the day I caught up with the WiGo team, was, well, the team. Giacaglia talked of how he was “so lucky to be surrounded with such talent.”
English raved about the “mojo” the team has, at the pace at which they work and how exciting it has been for him to watch and be a part of.
And of course Kaplan, at times in awe of the fact that just four months ago he was a college student training for hockey season, is now working with some of the best startup talent in the area on WiGo.
So… what has this incredible team created?
WiGo is the first app that safely and securely shows college students who is going out at their school and where they're headed. All locations are user generated, which makes sense as many bars have nicknames students use and other venues may be on or off-campus buildings that don’t have a name or address at all.
WiGo allows users to playfully “tap” each other to meet up, and completely wipes clean the next morning, embracing a truly ephemeral approach. This feature was definitely something Kaplan keyed in on during our conversation and it’s easy to understand why it’s popular among users. It essentially allows users to flirt with each other, but removes the awkwardness.
The app has been available on iOS since its launch two weeks ago and became available on Android this week.
The traction is significant with over 600 schools having active WiGo users. While meeting in Blade we could see new users (name, photo, school, etc.) being added and popping up by the minute. Literally, they had the tracking screens projected onto the walls. If you’ve been to Blade you can picture the imagery around the room.
WiGo is free to download and is 100% ad free. Users simply log in to their school’s network using their .edu email address. Once they confirm their email address, they see a list of other WiGo users at their school to follow. There is also a chat feature where users can chat 1:1 with friends to solidify their plans.
Privacy was a key component Kaplan touched on as they take it very seriously. Along with a valid .edu email address they use Facebook for authorization during login, which adds another layer of legitimacy to the identities of users.
Additionally, users have the option to put their account on private (they must accept follow requests and their information is hidden from non-followers) and there is even a blocking mechanism where students can block individual users.
Along with college students around the country and top professional talent, Kaplan and English were able to draw the interest of key investors including, Vince Wilfork (New England Patriots), James van Riemsdyk (NHL - Toronto Maple Leafs), and Ben Fischman (founder of Rue La La & LIDS).
I asked Wilfork and his wife Bianca (the two met at the University of Miami) what made them invest in WiGo:
“The minute we heard about WiGo, we knew it would be special. Technology has changed so much since the UM days. We wish something like this would've been available then. At the end of the day, Ben Kaplan and the entire WiGo team has so much passion and energy going that there is no way this won't reach millions of college kids all over the place.”
In addition to these influential investors, who I’m sure you’ll see supporting and promoting WiGo, the team is working on finalizing additional (undisclosed) strategic partnerships to help grown the brand and user base. With these key partners, Kaplan tells me WiGo’s goal for this year is gain “critical mass at every school.” They certainly seem on their way.
Based on the strength of the team and rapid early growth, WiGo looks bound for exciting things ahead. Something Kaplan’s parents, who are both Yale graduates, have to be pleased (if not relieved) with after just a few months from seeing their son drop out of college to launch a smartphone app.
Josh Boyle is Director of Community & Marketing, VentureFizz. You can follow him on Twitter @jb_sid and keep up with his latest posts by signing up for the VentureFizz Weekly Email!