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University News

Alums work with undergrads on Groupies app

App provides social groups with way to connect, as four undergrads market it on campus

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Think Tinder, but for groups socializing: That’s the pitch for Groupies, a new mobile app aimed at young adults founded by Rob Gillett ’12, who serves as chief executive officer of the company. The startup team includes co-founder Austin Truong  and fellow alums Marc Howland ’11 and Lisa Lansio ’12. In an innovative partnership, four Brown undergraduates have jumped on board ­— three as part of an independent study and one as an intern — to perfect the app before its launch in early April, Gillett said.

The idea for Groupies originated from Gillett’s personal experience searching for an effective way to connect with other people looking to socialize. After graduating from Brown, Gillett, who played on the football team, spent several months playing football in Italy. In an unfamiliar environment where few people spoke English, Gillett said that he wanted to meet new people and find more ways to have fun. Last February, while spending time with friends in Los Angeles, he came up with the term “groupie,” to mean group selfie. “That was the ‘aha’ moment that I had,” Gillett said. “The name clicked with what I was going through in Italy.” The next day Gillet started doing research. “The reason why I’m so passionate about it is that it’s actually something that I would use,” he added. “It’s solving a problem that I had.”

Gillett began coding the app in early August. Though he had taken only one computer science course as an undergraduate and had little experience, he was able to build up skills to a point where he could show others his vision, Gillett said.

In mid-November, Gillett connected with other Groupies team members at a Startup Weekend event in Orange County, California. At the event, developers had 54 hours to pitch startup ideas, assemble a team, develop a prototype and business model and receive feedback in hopes of winning the competition. Groupies took first place.

Groupies aims to provide a platform for groups of people to connect in a relaxed way, Gillett said. “Today’s social media is actually making people more anti-social. People spend more time on their devices than they do on forming strong, in-person relationships. There are apps that attempt to facilitate meetups, like Tinder, for example, but usually people don’t meet up … or if they do, they end up in really awkward one-on-one situations,” Gillett said.

To use the app, you take a “groupie” and upload it to the app. Users can then view other groups nearby and “like” those they are interested in meeting up with. If two groups like each other, the app gives users a code to put into their phones to access a group chat and potentially arrange an in-person meeting.

Though there are similar apps available — like Tinder and Grouper — Groupies’ combination of spontaneity and group interaction is unique, Gillett said.

“I think that the biggest competitor right now for Groupies is Tinder,” said Tiffany Chen ’18, who is in the independent study working on fine-tuning the app. “The thing is, we’re targeting a very different demographic and a different type of person, so it’s not someone who’s looking to date; it’s someone who’s looking to have fun and to be adventurous and to try new things,” Chen said. In the future, Groupies may be able to provide a more spontaneous alternative to Facebook events, she added.

Once the app gains popularity, the team may sell “premium listings” to businesses who want to be recommended by the app as a group venue, Gillett added.

For the Groupies team, working with college students is a valuable opportunity to get feedback directly from the app’s target audience. The students involved in the partnership will have two major tasks: getting other students’ feedback about Groupies and creating buzz for the app on campus. The students have a demo version of the app on their phones to show to others and will encourage other students to sign up to be beta testers of the app. The beta version will launch in mid-to-late February, with a final version launched right after spring break.

“At the same time I’m also developing, potentially, future employees,” Gillett said. “So say this thing takes off and does very well, I’m going to need to hire people by the end of the semester, full-time, and what better place to hire people than from your alma mater?”

Groupies is also working with business students at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in the future will recruit “campus ambassadors” at other schools around the country, Gillett said.

For students, the experience of working on an app for class credit is “an opportunity to understand the world as it is now in a way that’s more urgent than having to write a paper on something where it doesn’t really matter whether you’re right or wrong,” said Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine GP’15, who oversees the independent study. “Brown needs to have more entrepreneurial outlets and opportunities,” he said, adding that college is “the right age level for adventures.”

But, Hazeltine said, “other schools do it, schools we like to compare ourselves with. This is not breaking incredible ground.”

Gillett took several classes with Hazeltine as an undergrad and said he was “the first person I thought to reach out to” when looking for students to help work on the app. In the fall, Hazeltine sent an email to students in his class ENGN 0090: “Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations,” telling them about the opportunity to work on Groupies, which was also featured on the Brown Student Job and Internship Board. In addition to students’ technical and marketing skills, the company looked for “people that were very social and very excited about the product,” Gillett said.

“It’s a unique opportunity that I didn’t really expect to do in my time here at Brown,” said Diana Walters ’16, one of the students in the independent study. As a business, entrepreneurship and organizations concentrator, Walters said working on the app would be “a great way to get real-world marketing experience.”

“I’m really interested in the startup field and just how a product moves through the different development cycles,” Chen said. “I’m hoping to apply the things I learned in (ENGN 0090) to things that I can do outside of class.”

The biggest issue right now is “the chicken-and-egg problem,” Gillett said. “In order for this app to be successful, there has to be a lot of people to use the app. And people don’t want to use it if there’s not already a lot of people on it.” Their major strategy for building the user base is an app launch party, planned for the weekend of March 13. The team will also promote the app through social media, Gillet said.

Gillett’s ultimate goal for Groupies is ubiquity. “I would like to see the term ‘groupies’ to mean ‘group selfies.’ I want that to be in the Oxford Dictionary,” he said.

But his personal career goals are focused on the present. “I need to be invested in what I’m doing right now,” he said. “Right now this is the end-all be-all. All my time, effort, energy is focused into my startup.”

Students working on the app are optimistic. “I think (Groupies) has a lot of potential to grow, and I really want to be part of it,” said Shiying Luo ’17, the student intern for Groupies. “I think when we have a larger user base, it will be an even more amazing app,” she added.

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