In April 2013, the Ciocca Office of Entrepreneurial Studies and the Entrepreneurship Club co-sponsored a “Shark Tank” competition, based on the popular television show. Participating students created a product and pitched the idea to a panel of alumni judges. The exercise gave students an opportunity to sell and defend their business plan to real life business leaders.
Ben Kaplan ’16 won the first place prize with his idea for a social networking app, “WiGo: Who is Going Out.”
Kaplan, a native of Burlington, Vt. and a member of the varsity men’s ice hockey team, presented his idea to judges Mary Moran ’77, Patrick Sansonetti ’93, John Schiffmann ’82, Chris Stephenson ’97 and Bryan Sparkes ’04. In his presentation, Kaplan had a comprehensive business plan for how the app would succeed with its intended market, how to market the app, and even a logo for it. Stephenson was so impressed by the initial pitch that he offered Kaplan the opportunity to meet with him at his offices in Seattle to discuss WiGo in more detail.
“The Shark Tank competition at Holy Cross was a fantastic experience,” says Kaplan. “Having the opportunity to formally present my idea to a panel of judges, especially alumni judges, was one I am very thankful for. Chris [Stephenson] has served as a personal advisor to my venture, helping me across the board, from selecting the right programmers to making savvy business decisions.”
The goal of Kaplan’s app is to simplify the process of making social plans for college students. As a first-year student at the College, Kaplan felt that making social plans and determining “who is going out?” and “what is going on?” on a nightly basis was unnecessarily challenging. He observed that existing social networking platforms focused primarily on documenting past events, rather than planning upcoming events, but that he and his peers didn’t want to post all the details of their social plans online. Through brainstorming, a new social networking platform was born: WiGo.
WiGo allows students in an approved network to communicate their plans quickly and efficiently. A user can designate whether he or she is “going out,” see a list of other users in their network who are also interested in making plans for the evening, and chat with other users. Using a basic profile that includes a name, user picture and class year, users can create social plans within their college’s network and encourage friends and classmates to join them. Kaplan worked over the summer of 2013 with developers in his hometown of Burlington to move his app from an idea into a reality, testing each layer of code as it was completed to ensure that his vision was achieved in the final product.
After developing and building the app, the next big step was launching it. Kaplan created an ‘ambassador’ program, recruiting students on campus to help spread the word of the forthcoming product and build an interested user base. Over the course of the fall semester, he worked with those ambassadors to test prototypes of the app, working out glitches to ensure a smooth launch. Kaplan also enrolled in an independent study in entrepreneurship with David Chu, director of the Ciocca Office of Entrepreneurial Studies and Prebusiness Program, and associate professor of economics and accounting, which he said provided invaluable knowledge about starting a business.
“Doing this independent study with Ben was a wonderful learning experience for both of us,” said Chu. “He eagerly devoured all the reading assignments I gave him, while we worked together to solve real-life problems which he had encountered in developing the WiGo app.”
The app officially launched on December 18 on Apple’s app store, and is currently available only to Holy Cross students (users must have a valid g.holycross.edu email address). It has been downloaded by more than 1,000 Holy Cross students, and according to Kaplan, up to 90 percent of the registered users are using the app to make their social plans, depending on the night.
“The students have made the app as successful as it is,” says Kaplan. “They are responsible for its organic growth. Not only are they using it when they go out, they are offering feedback about features they would like to see in future builds. Initially keeping WiGo within the gates of Holy Cross has allowed me to gauge user feedback on a small scale and improve the app before rolling it out to other schools.”
In the coming months, Kaplan plans to expand the audience of the app to other campuses, using a model similar to his launch at Holy Cross. He is in the process of redesigning the app, taking into account feedback from users and allowing the app to communicate with other social media platforms, further improving the user experience. Additionally, Kaplan is putting together an entry for MassChallenge, held each summer in Boston, which offers start-ups the opportunity to network and connect with resources to be immediately successful. Kaplan is certainly familiar with the power of a good network, identifying the Holy Cross alumni network as being key to the success of his start-up thus far.
“The Holy Cross alumni network has helped me every step of the way,” says Kaplan. “Chris and I are currently discussing WiGo’s first round of funding, and all the alumni I have met with were so eager to help. It is truly a special feeling to be part of such a strong, loyal group.”
The second annual Shark Tank competition at the College will be held on Saturday, April 5 at 2 p.m. in Smith Labs 154. The competition is open to the campus community.
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