Once upon a time, colleges were mecca for Facebook and in turn Facebook was mecca for college students. The two were utterly reliant on one another – Facebook on colleges for launching its product and growing its user base and college students on Facebook for letting them bond over Friday night pictures of keg stands and costume parties.
In Facebook’s transition to a thriving public company, the site stopped being the ideal place for students to connect in that adventurous new period of their lives. Facebook feeds became clogged with family ties and former friends. The company started surfacing news articles more frequently than updates from fellow co-eds.
But the need of college students to make connections and form bonds hasn’t dissipated just because Facebook has moved on to broader targets than the local university. The apps that students use more regularly, like Instagram and Snapchat, aren’t particularly well designed for making new friends at a new school.
Enter eCampus Ventures. You’ve likely never heard of the bootstrapped company out of Florida, but its founders say they made almost half a million in revenue last year from its Tinder-meets-Facebook-meets-Amazon products. eCampus Ventures runs three applications: RoomSurf for finding a roommate, TextSurf for comparing online textbook prices, and JoinU for making friends.
JoinU – their most recently launched effort – is an app that connects college students by prompting users to enter their dorm and interests. You can scope other people’s profiles and posts, click a heart button if you like them (as with Tinder, you’ll be notified if they liked you too), and chat with them in the app. It’s like a Whatsapp-Facebook-Tinder amalgamation.
“We wanted to create a way where incoming college students could meet and connect with other incoming college students and have it be a unique thing for their campus,” co-founder Dan Thibodeau told me.
Without spending any money on marketing, the eCampus founders saw JoinU signups expand to 50 schools through word of mouth the day after launching the beta at ten schools.
JoinU fits eCampus Ventures first two applications. The trio work in conjunction with each other, each meeting a different student need.
RoomSurf prompts students to take surveys that determine their matches with others. The company monetized it by charging students to message one another once they’re matched – a slightly shady business practice that The New York Times criticized it for in 2010 when it first launched. After all, schools have final say in matching roommates and don’t necessarily let students pick. The RoomSurf site showed school logos when a student selected their campus, so colleges were concerned students would be duped into thinking the app represented the school itself.
But as eCampus co-founder Dan Thibodeau told me, “most schools didn’t like the idea of Facebook either, but have grown to accept and even utilize it during the recruitment process. Similarly, schools are now seeking out roommate matching systems like ours to help students find roommates.”
After taking flak in 2010, eCampus established a small handful of school partnerships. The University of Arizona, University of Central Florida, and Viterbo actually pay for all its students to use RoomSurf for free.
TextSurf compares textbook prices among the big retailers so the student gets the best price. eCampus takes an eight to ten percent cut off each textbook purchased through the site – it varies by retailer – and sold $1 million in textbook sales last year.
At a certain level, eCampus Ventures is just another app company out there competing in the noisy environment. It hasn’t necessarily built revolutionary products – honestly, they’re generally ripoffs of the social networks that came before. But eCampus is onto something by targeting this specific market and building out an array of products to suit college students’ needs. It’s trying to be a portal to control various aspects of the experience, from networking and data, to textbook purchasing.
It’s also notable that the company is pulling in half a million in revenue with almost no media presence and without having raised venture funding.
“There’s a big void,” Thibodeau told me. “Students want something of their own.”