At 4 a.m. on the first day of class, while most students were enjoying one last night of good sleep before the start of the school year, Engineering seniors Jason Bornhorst, Dheeraj Sanka and Brent Traut were wide awake, loading white folding chairs into a trailer attached to Bornhorst’s car.
The chairs, spray painted with the message “your neighbors could be sitting here,” were the beginning of what the three friends call a “guerrilla marketing campaign” for the social networking website they founded this summer, CampusRoost.com.
The website aims to help students meet and interact with their neighbors. The biggest difference between CampusRoost and other social networking sites is that instead of each user maintaining his own page, there’s one for every residence – or roost, as they’re dubbed on the site.
But like every social networking site, its strength is in numbers. To promote their product, the trio spent the morning scattering the chairs on front lawns, porches and in classrooms across campus.
“We’d just stop in the street, and Dheeraj and I would get out, and just put them on houses, and then we’d go to the next street,” Bornhorst said. “It took us all night.”
Many students have paid particular attention to the on-campus additions.
“In Angell Hall, there’ll be a sea of brown chairs, and then a white CampusRoost chair,” Traut said.
Along with 200 of the chairs, the trio put up large banners across campus, handed out free T-shirts, and slid fliers under residential doors. The intense marketing campaign has used about $4,000 of the organization’s $25,000 budget, Bornhorst said.
The company is funded by a grant it won last year in a competition called RPM 10. Sponsored by the College of Engineering and local venture capital firm RPM Ventures, the competition provided the students with free office space, legal counsel and other assistance for a year, along with the start-up cash.
Bornhorst now serves as the fledgling company’s chief executive officer. Sanka is chief information officer, and Traut, who wrote most of the code for the site, is chief technical officer.
Bornhorst said he and Sanka originally dreamed up a “one-stop-shop website for student housing” in entrepreneurship classes last year, but when the plan fell through, the team had to switch focus. And that change of focus resulted in CampusRoost.
If the site works as its creators hope, those chairs might soon be put to use. The site has already gained notoriety on campus, mostly because of the unorthodox marketing campaign.
“As soon as the name CampusRoost comes up, people say, ‘Chairs, chairs, you do the chairs,’” Bornhorst said. “Either they got one themselves, or one of their friends got one.”
The site itself is unorthodox in its own right. Each roost page has space for “roostmates” to describe their house or apartment, their collective interests and the classes each person is taking. There is also a posting wall and a checklist of activities the roost wants to be involved in, including parties, concerts, study groups, bookclubs, and to “Just Chill.”
Organized into neighborhoods, the site is linked to Google Maps and users are automatically connected with with all roosts within one block of them. In a dormitory, it’s all rooms in their hall.
The site uses a feature called “chirps” to broadcasts a message to the user’s roostmates, friends, neighbors or any combination of the three. Suggested chirps on the site include, “let’s go out for dinner,” “pickup bball,” or “natty light anyone?”
But the marketing isn’t just generating buzz — it’s drawing users. The founders said yesterday that though the site still had less than 1,000 members, it’s growing by between 100 and 150 users a day. So far, about two-thirds of the users live off campus, Bornhorst said.
“I’d say on South Campus, it’s now become a usable entity,” he said. “We’re still pushing for adoption in the dorms, so people are joining pretty fast down there, too.”
The trio plans to target more students living in residence halls by approaching resident advisors, Traut said.
“I think the idea of CampusRoost is something that your average RA would be looking for,” he said. “His job is to open up the doors and get all the students to meet each other and talk and just basically communicate, and that’s exactly what our site is. It’s like an open door policy, but on the internet.”
The trio said they aim to “coexist” rather than compete with established social networking sites like Facebook because they think their site’s mission differs from that of other sites.
“I think Facebook is great at what it does, and that’s keeping track of your existing friends,” Bornhorst said. “We’re really looking to help you meet new people — to help you expand your boundaries.”
So far, Traut said, students are using the site differently than they do Facebook.
“When you plan an event on Facebook, usually it’s a formal thing. It’s happening a week in advance,” he said.
“On our site, you’ve having a lot of chirps go out for, ‘Does anyone want to watch TV tonight?’ That would never happen on Facebook — it just wouldn’t be useful to make a Facebook event,” Traut said. “So we’re actually bringing that functionality in where Facebook falls short.”
The team is considering expanding beyond chirps, but they’re not sure which direction to go next.
“One thing we would like to see is people using this for stuff we haven’t thought of yet,” he added. “I think that’d be really cool.”
But they’re pleased with how people are using it so far. Traut said the site has already helped him meet new people. He said he chirped a party invitation to his friends last weekend, and six people he’d never met showed up.
“I asked them, you know, ‘What’s up guys, why are you here?’” Traut explained. “And they said, ‘I got a chair, I signed up for the site, and then I got a chirp saying I should come to this party.’”