In my day, we will tell our children, in my day, we used to socialize very differently from the way you kids do now. We used to call and text our friends to decide on plans for a night, and it was usually the same group of friends, and sometimes they were busy so we didn’t do anything at all. We used to get dressed in clothes we chose ourselves. And when we went to a party, we took shots and drank mixed drinks. It was a simpler time.
Our children will laugh at us.
For now, we’re the ones laughing. After all, most of us probably don’t think the ways we drink, dress and chill are broken. But that isn’t stopping Penn students and alumni from trying to fix them. In classic Quaker fashion, these young entrepreneurs are looking to change the world and make a buck — and to a lot of people, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Says Matthew Kalmans, a 2014 College graduate who founded his own political consulting company: “Everyone sees fit to call whatever idea they have, even the worst ones, a startup.”
But these ideas are not just technological spaghetti, thrown against the wall in the hope that something sticks. These junior tycoons think they’ve got the next big thing, whether you like it or not.
“Let’s rethink how we use the Internet for our social lives,” says Michael Powell, cofounder of the app Down to Chill, between sips of Saxby’s coffee. Down to Chill lets you know which of your Facebook friends is free and would be interested in getting together. It shows you a series of your friends’ profiles, and if you want to chill, you swipe down and start a chat. In Michael’s words, it’s “Tinder for friends.”
That might sound like something we can already do by looking at people’s statuses on Facebook Messenger or just shooting them a text. But Michael and his cofounders—Penn students Adam Elkassas, Arjun Jain, Matt Wojcieszek (all Wharton '16)—believe their app represents a genuine innovation. “Our main goal would be to recalibrate how people think about their friend groups,” he says, leaning forward. “It breaks down all the ‘oh, you’re in this frat, you’re in this sorority, you’re in this group of mine.’ It’s more just about how I can benefit from you and you can benefit from me.”
The idea was born last summer, when Michael and some friends were struggling to find people “down to chill” in a then–quiet University City. “Someone should make an app that’s like a beacon,” Michael suggested to his friends, hanging out at the Sigma Nu chapter house. An app “that says ‘Oh, I’m free,’ so people could see the tags of people who wanted to hang out.”
His friends laughed. “Tinder for friends?”
The room fell silent.
“We all looked at each other like ‘Oh shit, let’s think about this,’” Michael recalls, setting down his empty coffee cup. “We started the next day.”
With a grant from the Wharton Innovation Fund, Michael and his cofounders have been refining the functionality of Down to Chill. So far they’ve gotten the app into the hands of campus reps at six universities and hired a public relations team in Cairo to test its international appeal.
The Down to Chill team is currently on a leave of absence to work on the company full–time. Michael’s convinced Down to Chill is worth putting his education on hold. “My biggest goal—and this is kind of a joke—would be to turn down Facebook’s buyout offer. To have that option, to be at a table with Mark Zuckerberg.”
Andrew Levin, a 2014 College graduate, doesn’t want to revolutionize the way we live; he just wants to get us drunk more elegantly. Andrew and his business partner created a two–chamber shot glass they call a Snapshotr. Here’s how it works: put a chaser in the bottom chamber and a shot in the top. Twist the glass, and you can drink the two in one gulp.
“I’m trying not to sound too fratty,” he says, “but you know how it is in the college scene.” Andrew remembers the routine of putting liquor in one cup and a chaser in another, awkwardly fumbling to drink them in succession—and then, throwing the cups right out. “The ‘two red cup’ approach to drinking,” he laments, is “wasteful, awkward and messy.” Along with a friend, Andrew decided to build something more efficient.
What they didn’t anticipate was their gizmo’s applications outside the frat. “It makes the process of drinking kind of advanced, even for mixology,” Andrew believes. He rhapsodizes over the possibility of combining liquors and chasers of different densities or temperatures in a Snapshotr—beverages that would blow the mind of your average pledge on bar duty. He also highlights the visually “beautiful mixes” you can make in a Snapshotr.
Under the Button snarked last week that Snapshotr “solves a problem that didn’t need solving.” Andrew laughs that off. “We think the product is resonating very well, regardless of what some uninformed blog writer has to say.”
Andrew’s counting on Snapshotr’s upcoming Kickstarter launch to confirm his opinion, but in the meantime he can point to positive coverage in Buzzfeed and Elite Daily for backup. And if you’re still thinking Snapshotr isn’t about to win a MacArthur Grant, well, Andrew doesn’t think so either. His dream is more modest than that. “The end goal is trying to get it in bars and clubs,” he says. “Maybe, someday, they’ll come to the VIP table with two Snapshotrs.”
When Engineering sophomore Yagil Burowski and 2014 Wharton graduate Edward Lando created a website for their app, BlackV Club, it only had one line of text: “You Dress Like Shit.” The product is no less provocative. BlackV Club, which is still in the development stage, has a simple purpose. “It’s an app that sells you black v–necks. That’s all it does,” Yagil says. “It’s this insane proposition.”
Despite that insanity—or maybe because of it—Yagil is sure there’s a market for his app. “What it actually sells is a lifestyle,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle with fewer decisions.”
But couldn’t you acquire the necessary garb for this “lifestyle” from American Apparel or Amazon? “A lot of people say that,” he smirks. “And my answer is: but you don’t.”
Working in San Francisco over the summer, Yagil and Edward found themselves too busy to spend time picking out an outfit every morning. So they took to wearing only black v–necks as a way of reducing their “cognitive load” in style. “We were like, ‘okay, this is cool, this is so Zen,’” Yagil recounts. The point of BlackV Club is to share that stylish simplicity.
The reaction was far from simple. Yagil says that within hours of posting the app’s website on industry forums, “we started getting hundreds of people signing up. Immediately. People started tweeting about it. I think within a few hours, we got an email from BetaBeat, or VentureBeat.” Yagil credits the app’s straightforwardness and provocative website in equal measure. “People say, ‘this is ridiculous,’” his voice drops. “And then they say, ‘but it’s genius.’”
It’s easy to look at these students’ projects as examples of a tech culture gone wild. That’s certainly been BlackV Club’s reception in most media outlets. Refinery29 called it the latest attempt to “trick a bunch of hoodie–wearing tech investors into thinking you've reinvented the Internet.” Forbes used it as the centerpiece for an article on the new wave of counterintuitive single–use apps. Quartz half–snarked, half–raved that it “sounds like a joke, but it just might work.”
It’s a little too easy to laugh at unorthodox student businesses as the delusions of wannabe Mark Zuckerbergs. And it’s a little too unkind to accuse them of being long cons perpetrated by twenty-year-olds on overeager investors.
2014 Wharton grad Stephanie Weiner, a co-founder of the Dorm Room Fund who now works in venture capital, suggests that instead, we ought to look at these projects like any other undergraduate experimentation. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to work on something small,” she says. Building an app or designing a product, and bringing that to market, can teach people the skills they need to succeed when they really do strike gold. Sure, some would–be entrepreneurs seem overly committed to silly ideas. But if you’re going to put in the right amount of time and effort, “you have to think it’s the next big thing,” Stephanie says.
If she’s right, then undergrad entrepreneurship is poised to keep growing. Starting a business might become just a normal part of college life, as unremarkable as joining an a capella group. Everyone will half–heartedly support their friends’ startups and make fun of their roommates’ inventions, and everyone will also be occasionally delighted by a clever idea or fun launch event.
So, sure, we’ll probably still call our friends to make plans and dress ourselves in colorful clothes and take shots out of shot glasses. But that doesn’t mean these Penn entrepreneurs, and dozens like them, won’t have changed the world.
Adam Hersh is a senior anthropology major from Tenafly, New Jersey. He is the current Lowbrow editor for 34th Street.