Startup Q&A - Dollarship Gamifies the Student Loan Repayment Cycle
As of this writing, that is how high student debt has raised. The adverse effects of having a significant amount of debt after receiving your degree are well reported.
Dollarship Co-Founder and CEO Seth Knoll, along with his founding team, are no strangers to the student debt crisis. Knoll sat down with us to share how their own experiences helped them found their company and how their smartphone app is helping ease graduates’ pains. Knoll also went into detail on how their app is gamifying the repayment process and even shared what retailers have signed up to use the app.
Colin Barry [CB]: I’m a big fan of the phrase “origin story.” What are the origins behind Dollarship?
Seth Knoll [SK]: The origins of Dollarship can be found in the student debt crisis that currently impacts 45 million Americans and is on track to continue to burden generations to come. Like many people my age, I have college debt to pay off. My co-founder and brother, Adam Knoll has double my debt load. Our CMO, Eric Jacunski, has faced student debt via his kids. We like to say that we have real skin in the game!
Based on our experiences, as well as those of many friends and family members, we knew this was an important issue, and that we could create a mission-based company to help tackle this problem.
The result is Dollarship, a mobile loyalty platform built to help users ease the burden of student debt by simply shopping and engaging with your favorite brands, retailers, and restaurants.
CB: What is the mission statement of Dollarship?
SK: Our ultimate goal is to provide a light at the end of the tunnel for those at every stage of the student debt epidemic. We envision a platform focused on improving the overall well-being of all of those that student debt impacts or will impact.
CB: Explain what your company does. How does the app it work?
SK: Dollarship is a mobile rewards app that combines the best elements of a college savings/rewards program like UPromise and exciting mobile crowd-sourced sweepstakes like HQ Trivia. All Dollarship awards are mission-driven, linked to scholarship, student debt payment or 529 plan savings.
Dollarship has more than 200 merchants already on board for its Summer 2018 launch, including Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Nike, Petco, Macy’s, Walgreens, American Eagle and many more.
By shopping with these retail partners or completing Homework (various KPI-driven merchant tasks), users earn Credits that can be cashed out (towards tuition, linked student loan or 529 Plan) or exchanged for entries into a weekly, rising Dollarship Sweepstakes. The sweepstakes grow as more people enter, with up to 10 winners each week having the chance to earn Dollarship Awards ranging from $500 to $10,000.
These Dollarship Awards can be used as a scholarship, student debt payment or 529 Plan savings, depending on the winners need. The crowd-funding aspect of the prizes creates a viral excitement about the app that we hope will help drive engagement and participation.
CB: What was the big “a-ha!” moment for the team to go with this business model? Did you have several other ideas before you decided on this particular platform?
SK: As we started bringing on some very impactful and experienced team members and advisors, the perfect business model began to evolve through consistently challenging ourselves to figure out the best way to approach such a massive issue. The mission of easing student debt has been in our DNA from the beginning, never changing or will change. It was such a strong pain point that it made sense to explore pairing this pain point with another group who was indirectly feeling it as well - this is where retailers and brands came into the picture. They have apparent pain points that could be seen as indirectly affected by the same problem as our users, a perfect marriage. The sweepstakes element came into play when attempting to create a strong engagement vehicle to fuel the potential of our mission. The “a-ha!” moment came when retailers became very, very excited about being a part of such an innovative and exciting platform with such huge potential to help all those involved.
CB: Who is the ideal user of Dollarship?
SK: At the outset, Millennials, GenY and GenZ users are ideal targets to benefit from Dollarship, as those generations are burdened by student debt to a greater extent than ones before it, and they have grown up leveraging mobile devices and online shopping as part of daily life. However, Dollarship is really for anyone who shops online to buy what they need which is turn offers to ease the burden of student debt or save for future college costs. Our mission casts a wide demographic net which includes prospective and current students, student debt borrowers and cosigners and those current savings towards a 529 Plan.
CB: How big is the team? Looking to hire any particular position in the upcoming months?
SK: We have a team of six who have a passion for strong user experiences and solving social missions. We also have a strong group of six advisors behind us, executives past and present from Perk.com, Shopkick, Pinterest, Rocketmiles, Groupon, SimpleTuition, LendingTree, Cengage, BP Oil and more. We currently have three amazing developers on board who have worked hard to build a great product but we are always looking for more talented engineers to join them as we grow.
CB: Has your company participated in any trade shows/meetup events in the Boston area? What about events outside of Boston?
SK: Dollarship launches its beta in Summer 2018 so we haven’t participated in any notable trades shows in the area as we are heads down building, but do attend some great meetup events every now and then to continue to stay connected to the Boston startup community. We’ve also attended Shoptalk in Las Vegas in years past which has been hugely beneficial for us as we build our retailer and brand relationships. As we launch and grow, we’ll be sure to take advantage of many more events, both local and outside the area.
CB: Is the company bootstrapped or seeking investments?
SK: We are in the midst of our pre-seed convertible note round of $500,000 with 25 percent committed so far from friends, advisors and angel investors. Our friends and advisors already see the enormous potential of Dollarship and have been amazingly supportive.
CB: I’m always interested in how a startup came up with its name. How did Dollarship get its name?
SK: I personally love our name! We always receive great feedback and compliments on the Dollarship name which I’m very proud of. When I first began the concept of Dollarship, pre-name, in college, I thought long and hard about the perfect name. It’s not an easy feat - you are after all naming your baby in a sense and it’s something that encompasses your entire brand. I focused in our what the core concept of Dollarship is, which was avoiding student debt and shopping. There’s also nothing out there that is like a scholarship but for those out of college with student debt. I wanted to create something that would describe that perfectly. So I started with scholarship, knew rhyming is a great method towards something and split the word in half. Scholar rhymes with Dollar… and that’s how Dollarship got its name!
CB: Any other additional comments you’d like to make?
SK: We feel like our mission-driven mobile loyalty platform is truly unique. Our sweepstakes model will drive engagement and enthusiasm and we’re excited about the impact Dollarship will have on our users.
Having said that, we’re also proud of the value proposition we are offering our retail partners and of the success we’ve had so far in attracting those partners. Before even launching the platform, we have 200 of the most popular brands signed on to partner with us. We are committed to growing that number as we ramp up the platform. Based on the feedback we’ve already received from our current partners, I believe we’ll continue to be able to provide our users with the opportunity to engage with the best brands around and provide our retail partners with the opportunity to connect and create emotional loyalty with very desirable demographics.
We also recently just gave away our first $500 Dollarship Award to Sarah L. of Seattle as part of our pre-launch Dollarship Sweepstakes. The huge excitement was shared on both sides. We’re pumped to give out many more Dollarship Awards!