Last semester, Hunter and I were pretty engaged in a side project called FreeForCoffee. It was a tool that helped college groups organize one-on-one coffee chats among their members. At the end of the semester, about 25 groups (around 800 users) were using it with a 20-30% weekly participation rate.
When time came for me to finalize summer plans, I decided that I wanted to work on FreeForCoffee. I had a few reasons. First, usage stats of outlier groups were really intriguing. These groups had almost half of their members saying “yes” to meet someone new each week. Power users among those groups were participating literally every week. This felt rare. We had built an online tool that could persuade people to actually meet offline, consistently. Second, I had fiddled with building hobby projects long enough that the idea of developing an actual consumer-ready product felt like a welcome challenge. Lastly, I liked the byproduct of the service: people meeting people. I have long believed in the value of face-to-face one-on-one conversations and the idea of facilitating them felt worthwhile.
I talked to Hunter about this decision, and fortunately he was also interested in exploring the project further. In particular, he wanted to figure out whether companies would find FreeForCoffee useful. His hunch was that employees would be interested in meeting their coworkers. Why? Perhaps because they feel disconnected, are curious about what others work on, or even simply want to make friends. This seemed worth figuring out because, well, there are a ton of companies and companies pay for things they find useful (during school we had covered costs out of our pocket). Thus we agreed to explore the company use case as our primary focus for the summer. Shortly afterwards, we applied and received a $3K grant from the Wharton Innovation Fund, signed a 2BR sublet in Berkeley, and buckled down.
Getting started (Week 1-2)
The first two weeks were spent rewriting the old code. Our old codebase did not have the notion of a group. So whenever we needed to bring FreeForCoffee to a new group, we cloned the codebase, changed a configuration file that held stuff like group name and signup questions, and deployed it as a separate website with a separate database. This was handy in the beginning, but obviously wasn’t sustainable. The rewrite involved adding concepts of groups and membership, and a setup wizard-like flow that allowed us to create new groups with ease.
During this period, I was working alone in Berkeley (Hunter volunteering in the Philippines). It was a weird feeling, initiating work without a manager or any real deadline. I'd say it was a mixed bag of fear and excitement. During the past semester I had longed for a period of focus, so in a way it was liberating.
Collecting feedback (Week 3-5)
As soon as Hunter arrived, he started scheduling a bunch of meetings with friends, mentors, people he knew, etc. Basically people he thought would have valuable feedback regarding the product or who might be able to use FreeForCoffee at their own company. He had a lot of meetings, up to 4-5 a day all over the Bay Area. During this time, I kept developing the product.
Within these three weeks we launched our first batch of groups: two Penn groups that matched undergrads and alumni in the same city for the summer and Fragomen (an international law firm that Hunter’s dad works at). Because the Penn groups ran in different cities including NYC and SF, our service had to become timezone-aware (i.e. text messages needed to be delivered at the appropriate local time of each user). Fragomen ran in four cities (two of them international) and used FreeForCoffee to introduce employees in different cities for a video call. For this we needed to support text messaging to international numbers and video calls.
We also added some new core features during this time, such as relaying text messages ourselves rather than relying on GroupMe to put people into group chats, sending a confirmation text at the end of the week asking how the chat was, and a dashboard that showed cumulative stats for group admins. The dashboard for a small group would look something like this:
The dashboard design by the way is all Hunter. As a one-man development team, I quickly established myself as the bottleneck of our operation. This meant that Hunter started picking up everything besides writing code — designing, writing copy, and all outbound communication. Reika also helped a ton with design, most notably creating the logo.
Following leads (Week 6-8)
These three weeks were probably the low point of our summer. We had enough leads in our pipeline, originating from Hunter's many conversations, but nothing that actually crystalized. If we've learned one thing about enterprise software sales, it’s that it takes time. Emails and introductions are forwarded up and down the org chart and each step can be delayed 1-2 weeks even if all parties are happy with the product.
Personally, this time was an opportunity to do some engineering housekeeping. Having added code to the project for 5 weeks, it was accumulating a surprising amount of complexity for such a simple tool. The problem with complexity is that it slows down future development. I started to write automated tests to combat regressive bugs. I also took a day or two to study CSS, worked on some unattended basics like creating a home page, adding SSL and a CDN, and adding frontend validations to our signup form.
One piece of feedback we consistently heard from companies was that it would be nice if we integrated with their calendars to help with scheduling. So we added integration for Google calendar. We also added a weekly spotlight email.
Breakthrough (Week 9-12)
Four groups launched during these weeks: Altschool (150-person ed tech startup), Flatiron (200-person healthcare tech company), Facebook’s marketing team, and Wharton SF (MBA/Executive MBA program). The verdict is still out for some, but the pilots (most of these launches were 30-day free pilots) went very well with average weekly participation rates around 40%.
We launched many new features as well: a “who you already know” feature where you select people you shouldn’t be introduced to, an email version of the service, profile images and a “my account” page, an executive assistant feature, a timeline where people can upload selfies of their coffee chats, and a roster where you can view all members in the group.
We also incorporated as an LLC last week. We still don’t really call ourselves a startup (it’s more like an intense two-man side project), but it was necessary that we incorporate to assign our intellectual property to a legal entity before Hunter starts work at Facebook. Also, it’s important for customers that they’re dealing with a corporate entity, and not just a person.
It feels like we answered a series of questions this summer. Would companies listen to us, would they be interested, could we convince them to launch, would employees signup, would employees use the product. The answer to all these questions fortunately seems to be yes. We are mainly wondering two things now. First, whether we can keep up user participation in the long term (6 months, 1 year, 2 years, etc.). Second, if and how much companies would be willing to pay us. Wharton SF is going to be our first paying customer. We are amidst or approaching the pricing conversation with other companies. We will have to wait and see how it goes.
So that's it. That was our summer. If you have any thoughts about FreeForCoffee, feel free to reach out to us. We’d love to hear—