Ben Kaplan is living the dream. “I almost feel like the new American Dream for our generation is to drop out of school and make an app that’s a multi-million dollar company,” the 23-year-old founder of WiGo tells me on a recent phone call. “I understand that I’m biased, of course, but I feel like almost every kid has an idea for an app and wants to make it happen.”
WiGo is an acronym for Who. Is. Going. Out. As an app, it answers a problem every group of friends runs into: “What are we doing tonight?” Exclusive only to college students, WiGo lets you know what party, bar, event, etc all your buddies are going to. It’s a tech-forward way of keeping your squad’s plans for a night-out coordinated with each other. It’s also a way of enhancing the college party experience; Users know a party’s vibe ahead of time since they know exactly who they’re going to be raging with.
WiGo is currently just for college students — “no parents, potential employers, or post-grads allowed,” as the company stated this past November. If you’re a social animal, it’s as Bro-tastic of an app as it gets:
To ensure no random townies or helicopter moms are using WiGo, it’s equipped with the “GTFO” blocking feature. If just two WiGo users report that someone doesn’t attend the school, they’re immediately investigated and kicked off the system. The “history-proof” chat feature prevents regretful morning phone checking after a night of questionable actions as it resets itself every morning. Wondering what your drunken2am message to the cutie from Econ class said? You’re out of luck. Every day on WiGo is a new day.
The story of WiGo’s founding is pretty Bro-y as well. Kaplan started the app while playing D-1 hockey at Holy Cross University in Worcester. It blew up at Holy Cross almost immediately after launching, inspiring him to take it to a national level. Like other young tech visionaries in the college/start-up life pressure cooker (cough, Mark Zuckerberg), Kaplan dropped out of school during his sophomore year to commit himself full time to the business. He recruited a round of financial backing from Vince Wilfork, the defensive tackle for the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots and James van Riemsdyk, the left winger for the Maple Leafs, to help take the app to a national stage. Then, while pitching his app at a tech conference in Philadelphia, got the attention of Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, the co-founders of Tinder. The Tinder co-founders opened up their wallets immediately.
The app launched nationally this past September, generating an active user base of over 100,000 college students. It’s been downloaded at 1,200 campuses and is in use at 75 schools. It often gets called “the new Yik Yak,” but that’s only because both are popular, trendy apps amongst current students on college campuses. In reality, the two have different utilities; WiGo is more like Facebook, while Yik Yak is more like Reddit. WiGo connects college kids with their friends in person socially, whereas Yik Yak is a way for an entire college community college students to gossip and chat with each other anonymously.
The explosion of interest in WiGo on college campuses hasn’t gone unnoticed by the business community, either. Most recently, Kaplan’s company landed a $1.4 million investment from KEC Ventures, putting the app at a valuation around $14 million. KEC made the reason for it’s seven-figure investment very clear:
“We think that Wigo has the ability to change the way that college students plan their daily and weekly social lives. We have seen a number of companies trying to solve similar social problems, but none have been nearly as successful as Wigo in targeting the college demographic. Wigo’s approach of on-boarding college campuses is unique, as school’s are “locked” until enough students from that school have downloaded the app and signed up on the waiting list. Long term however, we see Wigo as the destination to discover events happening in your immediate area (not just your college campus) and that its user base will extend far beyond the college demographic.
It was only a year ago that Kaplan was playing hockey at Holy Cross, living a prototypical college life. Now, thanks to a few strategic moves — including dropping out of college to chase his dream — he’s a entrepreneur of a growing company worth millions. It’s every Bro entrepreneur’s dream.
BroBible: How did WiGo get started? What’s the app’s story?
Ben Kaplan: We launched September 1st nationally. Last year I was a sophomore in college playing Division 1 hockey at Holy Cross. I had this idea. I was tired of my friends always saying “Hey, where are we going? Which bar? Who’s having a party?” I wasn’t some kid who just hung out in the library. I was a social kid, a scholarship athlete. It was still a problem — knowing which girls were going where and that sort of thing. I had the idea to build a social platform for colleges to make these plans.
So I did that. I borrowed a bunch of money — I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I was actually able to get something built. A lot of kids with ideas can’t actually get it built.
We launched the app at my school last year, about 13 months ago. It took off at my school. That’s when I dropped out, hired a team, started over to redesign the app, and added some cool features like “Where are you going?” and stuff like that, and relaunched nationally.
I think if you ask 10 college kids if they’ve heard of WiGo, I think six would say yes. And we’re just getting started, which is the scary part.
Right. What does your total user base look like?
Like I said, we haven’t been live that long at all, but our retention is like freakishly high. Over 50% of our users are monthly active and that’s as of this morning. That is looking back to our launch in September. So people are coming back to our app all the time.
We’re unlocking schools basically every week. For a school to be unlocked, it has to have a certain amount of people from the school wanting to use it. So by keeping people out, it actually makes them want to unlock their school even more. A lot of schools that don’t have WiGo are tweeting, “Come on, let’s unlock this.”
Although we’ve been downloaded on over 1200 campuses — and we know that because every school uses a .edu and you have to use it for the app — we’ve only unlocked 70 schools. We’re very methodical of when we unlock. There’s a who science to it.
In addition to Kaplan, I also talked to WiGo’s 19-year-old director of business development, Tyler Swartz, who recently dropped out of the University of Maryland. He was the social chair of Delta Chi at UMD, but he’s betting all of his career chips that WiGo will continue to explode on college campuses:
“I went down to visit Maryland before Tyler dropped out,” Kaplan explains to me. “And let me tell you what — This kid was the ultimate frat Bro. He was kind of atop the Maryland frat scene. He decided to forgo that to join us.”
I asked Tyler about what it was like to leave college behind to roll the dice on start-up life.
“It’s funny that you mention that. At first I thought this was going to be the hardest decision I’d ever have to make — I was on top of a great Greek life system with all of my friends and I was the chairman of social. I don’t want to say that I was popular, but I have a lot of friends. At first I was a little hesitant and I think Ben noticed that, but I’ve been able to go back and visit them. Now I live vicariously through the app. I get to see every day what all my friends are doing and I get to see the pictures of them hanging out.
“I’m honestly living the dream. I never thought I could say that, but I stay at the office until 10pm each night because this is whatI love doing. I talk to college kids all across the country and get to rep what I think is the next coolest thing at every college across the United States.”
BroBible: What’s happening with the fundraise and future?
Ben Kaplan: We raised a very small seed round when we were first getting started and I stepped out of school. We raised $550,000 from a few guys, including Vince Wilfork from the Patriots and James van Riemsdyk from the Maple Leafs. Those are some of my athlete investors, but I also have Sean Rad and Justin Mateen who cofounded Tinder. I met them at a thing in Philadelphia and immediately when I showed them my app they offered to invest in my company. Those guys get it — They built one of the fastest growing tech companies with Tinder. Also a guy named Paul English who started Kayak.com.
A lot of the guys who see what we’re building and see the potential are really excited. About three weeks ago we closed out an extension of our seed round, now that we’ve gotten off the ground and have some really solid traction. We raised $1.5 million at about a $12 million pre-valuation which came out to about a $15 million post-valuation. The jump from like a $5 million valuation to a $15 million valuation happened over the course of the first semester this past year, in about five to six months.
Did you see any spiked interest on a consumer level with the announcement of the valuation?
You know, to be honest man, although Business Insider is awesome and all that, our app is harder to use than it is not to use. Let me explain that; In order for you to use WiGo right now, you’d have to enter a valid .edu e-mail address that we have verified, which means you’d have to click a link that we sent to that e-mail address. So after that Business Insider article, all of our LinkedIns are crammed with people trying to talk to us and we see a lot of downloads, but we don’t really count those downloads. People who e-mail us that read Business Insider from Dubai, for example, and don’t have .edu e-mail addresses, so they can’t use our app and we don’t count that towards our metrics.
Although yes, raw downloads increase, in terms of our user base, it’s only a slight uptick.
Do you ever plan on expanding to social beyond college?
Yeah, absolutely. We have a huge vision. I made this app as a sophomore to help facilitate my social plans, but it’s ironic because its success ultimately led me to drop out of school. Now I’m in Boston and living in a new city. The demand for something like this is even stronger because now I can’t just walk down my dorm to talk to people or hit up my hockey team and say “what are we doing tonight?” I’m always wondering what all of my buddies in Boston are doing, but they’re also scattered and there’s not like an efficient way. I think the same would go for our two newest employees, who dropped out of Maryland to work on WiGo. They have some Facebook friends in the area, but there’s nothing facilitating who’s going out and where tonight. So we’re definitely ambitiously doing that. We’re doing a beta test this summer in New York City and Boston to geo-test those two locations. Any WiGo user within that area can use the app instead of just people with the same school.
The next step from there would be opening it up to anyone with just a .edu e-mail address. We want a young user base, but also maybe every WiGo user gets 3 or 5 invites, to invite friends who maybe didn’t go to college that they still hang out with.
I’ll be straight up: There’s certain people on some social networks that I wouldn’t want to go within 10 feet of because it’s just the whole city. Whereas the WiGo network is 100% college students and every single person is verified between 18 – 23, close to college. So our user base is very curated. What we end up with is a super social, popular, hot user base.
It’s what Facebook was back when I was in college. Facebook launched at my school in 2004 and I was one of the first classes of people to sign up. You needed a .edu e-mail address then too because it was exclusive just for college kids having a college experience. For people my age, those days when you could just have a .edu e-mail address to use Facebook was a very special thing.
Yeah, we’re really using that as a model.
You’re living the start-up dream. How weird is it going to be watching HBO’s Silicon Valley this year as compared to last year?
To be honest, I don’t watch Silicon Valley. I think it’s kind of silly. That sounds really douchey, but I live it so I don’t need to watch it.
WiGo is available on Apple and Android. But you better have a .edu e-mail address if you want to use it.