What if there were a Yankee game on and only two people showed up to watch it? Did you guess that those two guys would become fast friends and co-founders of a social network just for college students?
Too bad if you didn’t, that would have been the right answer. As freshmen at Princeton University, Vaidhy Murti and Mike Pinsky, both Class of 2015, went to watch a playoff game on a campus TV, figuring there would be a ton of people there to get to know. Instead, they only met each other. On the plus side, Pinsky says, he did become friends with 100 percent of the people he met.
This triggered an idea. As much as movies and TV shows make getting to know your fellow collegians look easy and fun, the truth is, being stationed among several thousand strangers who in large part are as lost as you can be intimidating. Not everyone, says Pinsky, is able to just walk up to people and make new friends or ask girls out, even with all the social media outlets that are supposed to help you get to know people.
The resulting collaboration between Murti, the son of a Boston-area shipbuilder who earned his bachelor’s in computer science, and Pinsky, a New York City-raised son of a writing seminar teacher (father) and a journalist, who earned his bachelor’s in psychology and American studies, is called Friendsy. This likely is only a word you’d know if you’ve been in college since 2013. Friendsy is a social network available only to college students and is kind of a reboot of the original idea behind Facebook.
Launched at Princeton in 2013, the network is now growing on other college campuses and is one of the seven featured ventures at this year’s eLab Demo Day at Princeton’s Keller Center.
Demo Day, the culmination of Keller’s eLab Summer Accelerator Program for student startups, begins on Tuesday, August 11, at 3 p.m. at the Friend Center. The startups, developed over 10 weeks, will display their plans with investors, innovators, and entrepreneurs as part of the evolution of the business. Along with Friendsy will be:
BLOC, an online professional network for historically disadvantaged collegians of color with plans to generate revenue by charging graduate programs, companies, and governments for access to its network.
Bodhi Tree Systems, an early-stage biotech/IT startup seeking to improve pharmaceutical development.
ClickStick, which has developed a new dispensing technology for personal care and cosmetic products, as well as medicines, thereby cutting down significantly on plastic container waste. The company’s first venture is a deodorant that won’t require you to keep buying new plastic-sealed replacements.
KLOS Guitars, which makes “the first comfortable, affordable, and durable carbon fiber travel guitar” for musicians who make their lives on the road and anyone who travels with a guitar they don’t want to damage.
Rodeo, a mobile platform for live events in a user’s community. The name refers to the program’s ability to “lasso” friends and interact with community organizers and venues in a fun, safe social forum.
TeachMe, a mobile app that allows users to share knowledge one-on-one in a community and facilitates one-on-one meetups with users nearby who can share their expertise on anything anyone is seeking to learn.
Demo Day is free and open to the public. Visit http://kellercenter.princeton.edu.
Four of the seven Demo Day startups revolve around new social networks. This isn’t necessarily a cynical attempt to capitalize on the territory owned so much by Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. It’s also not just youthful bravado thinking it can take a healthy bite out of the big boys. Below is some of the strategic thinking:
The concept. Judging by what Murti and Pinsky want to accomplish with Friendsy, and a cursory look at what BLOC, Rodeo, and TeachMe want to do, it’s evident that the social media universe has a few holes in it. There are simply populations who are not being served. Think about it in the context of Facebook.
“Facebook started out as a very cool thing,” Murti says. It began on Harvard’s campus as a way for students there to find all the best parties and events and such, and it took off like a quarter horse because it was relevant to the people who used it. “But now, my parents are on Facebook; my grandparents,” he says. “There’s a lot of people on it now, and I’m not always comfortable sharing certain things in front of them.”
In short, Facebook has become diluted and irrelevant to college-age people, Murti says. No one wants to try to meet someone on campus through Facebook. Someone might think you’re stalking. Worse, if you’re just coming into your own as a young adult and trying to talk to a young lady you’re interested in, do you really want your mom to show up in your Facebook stream for any reason at all?
“Another difference from Facebook,” says Murti, “is that on Facebook you really only connect with people you already know.” On Friendsy, the idea is to get to know new people. That can be because you both share an interest in baseball playoff games or because you want to see if someone wants to grab lunch or because you see someone a lot but you’re not quite James Bond enough to walk up and say hi in person.
The relevance to college students, Murti and Pinsky say, is that you can’t access it unless you’re an enrolled student, and it prefers to keep your connections local. Your home base is your campus so that you can meet and share and talk with a large measure of protection from the outside world and its lurking spammers and nosy relatives. You can, however, talk to people at other schools.
The business. Friendsy launched at Princeton two years ago and the network registered about a quarter of the students, or about 1,500 people, Pinsky says. In March it launched nationally and now claims about 85,000 users.
While the company is still pre-revenue, the funding for it has increased slowly but notably. The first round of money came from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that landed the entrepreneurs about $7,500. In 2014 Friendsy was admitted to eLab for the first time. Keller gave the company a $20,000 stipend to help it upscale its reach last fall, when Friendsy increased its user base more than tenfold. With the help of a matching fund from Princeton, Friendsy raised about $90,000 to grow.
In March, as Friendsy went national, a New York City-based angel investor (whose name is not public knowledge) put $500,000 into the company, bringing its total raised revenues up to about $600,000.
Murti says he expects Friendsy to start making its own profits within two years. Hyper-localized advertising is one strong possibility for generating revenue, he says. Say, for example, you ask someone on Friendsy to coffee — a nearby coffee shop could pop up to offer a coupon for your meetup. It’s still just an idea, but it’s one based in the core of why Friendsy exists — to be relevant.
Friendsy now has 15 employees. With two more rounds of serious funding, Murti expects to be able to grow the company and set it up in a place where it can start making its own money.
The reaction. Relevant is a big piece of the picture, but so is safety. Friendsy users, Murti says, want to be able to talk freely and openly among their peers. So far, he says, it’s worked out well for those users.
“People like it a lot,” he says. “Over the summer sessions, people are on it for an average of 15 minutes at a time.” That’s 15 active minutes, by the way. Fifteen minutes of people actually chatting and getting to know each other, which is by social media standards actually quite epic.
So in other words, it seems to be doing what it set out to do, which is to allow college students to connect among themselves. “What makes college so special,” Pinksy says, “are the connections you make. And yet it’s so difficult to branch out from your social circle. Well, here’s a risk-free way to do that.”