Today I wanted to write about a side project called FreeForCoffee that has consumed most of my Saturdays this semester. I have been meaning to write about it for a while, but the project kept morphing, there was always more to work on. But now that we don't have more groups to add in the pipeline and that the features are somewhat mature, it feels like the right moment to look back.
About a year ago, Hunter Horsley and I were grabbing coffee at Hubbub. We both had a project idea that we wanted to try out. So we decided to collaborate on each other's idea. His idea was video journaling. Mine was pooling people's schedules together for lunch matches.
We named the tool FreeAtNoon. The site itself was simply a signup page. A user would input his/her name, email, phone number, and weekly lunch schedule (into a when2meet-like form). Communication from then on would happen over text. We made a short video to explain the tool and ask our friends to sign up.
Every morning of the day you indicated a free time slot (e.g. Tue 1-2), you would receive a text asking if you were down for lunch with someone at that time. If you respond "yes", you were put into a GroupMe with your match. Since both people already confirmed availability for the exact time, you only needed to decide where to grab lunch.
We tried this idea twice. First during finals last spring when we first built it, then again during the beginning of last semester. About fifty of our friends signed up, but it never worked well. Everyone just kept responding "no". At that point we were just spamming our friends, so we shut it down.
We had two guesses as to why people said "no":
- The expected value of meeting someone totally random seems pretty low (even if it is within Penn).
- It kind of feels awkward to eat with someone you don't know (as opposed to getting coffee).
We were about to put the idea aside as a failed social experiment. However, Taylor Culliver, the executive editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian at the time, had the idea of piloting FreeAtNoon just within the DP. He thought it would be a good tool for the people in the DP to get to know each other better, especially those in different departments.
We liked the idea a lot and drastically simplified FreeAtNoon to meet this purpose. Lunch anytime of the week became coffee on weekends because optimizing lunch schedules was no longer the point. It worked like this:
- Thursday afternoon: You get a text asking if you want to meet someone within the DP for coffee over the weekend. You reply "yes" or "no".
- Thursday night: You are put into a GroupMe with your match. The two of you decide when and where to get coffee.
We launched FreeForCoffee within the DP mid October last year. About fifty people signed up, and it got much better engagement.
Around this time, Joon Choi, a member of Koreans At Penn(KAP), contacted me with the idea of running FreeAtNoon within KAP. He did not know about the DP case, but coincidentally had the same idea. So we created a FreeForCoffee for KAP.
After break, when this semester came around, both the DP and KAP wanted to continue using FreeForCoffee. At this point Hunter and I were curious to know if there would be more groups willing to use this tool. If there were, we wanted to put in more time and automate some of the manual tasks related to matching. Hunter created these slides and sent it out to a bunch of group presidents and social chairs. A surprising number of groups were excited about the idea. Since then, almost every week we've been working on adding new groups and developing the tool.
Now we have about 25 groups using the service, with 500+ people signed up and getting texts from FreeForCoffee each week. Numbers fluctuate with the tides of the semester, but around 150 people reply YES and get coffee in a given week. The groups range widely from small senior societies and interest groups to larger fraternities/sororities and cultural groups.
Personally, my biggest concern was whether people would continuously use it, after the initial novelty dies out. KAP, one of our biggest and oldest groups, with around 80 users and having ran more than 2 months, still gets more than a third of the members saying YES each week. That fact helps with my worries and keeps me excited. Some people have participated more than eight times, nearly every week. They must be getting some value out of it, right? I am uncertain about many things these days, but people meeting people is probably a good thing.
Anatomy of FreeForCoffee
For those of you who are interested in how the tool was built, I thought I'd include a short paragraph. The website in built with Ruby on Rails and is hosted on Heroku. We use Twilio for SMS interactions. So the text you send to your groups' number is forwarded to our server by Twilio, we parse the message, and send a response text back to you via Twilio. We use GroupMe's API to programmatically created group chats when admins approve matches on our website. That's it. It is a pretty simple tool.
We don't really know. It was never a business. Just a blown up social tool. We do need to figure out how to cover the costs (mostly sending and receiving text messages). We did start asking for money from new groups for this reason. We probably will add more groups that are interested (if you want FreeForCoffee for your group, leave email us at firstname.lastname@example.org). Maybe we could do something for NSO. We are open to ideas, so if you have any, let us know. That is all I wanted to write. To share our experience and also keep record for myself. Cheers!