May 7, 2019
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This app lets high schoolers create a path to their dream college

Social entrepreneur Brennan Stark set out to solve a problem in the college application process. The result is a tool that empowers future college students.

High schoolers around the country who might not be able to visit their dream school can gain access in a new and more personalized way through Scope Messenger. Photo of the Stanford University campus by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Last summer, I worked as a mentor for an entrepreneurship camp for high school students. The students’ first assignment was to brainstorm all the problems they had observed that day to help them find problems they could potentially solve.

Problem identification is one of the most valuable skills an entrepreneur can have. I wanted to demonstrate to the students how valuable the activity was, so I decided to participate and make my own list of problems.

After making a list of problems, the next step in the assignment is to choose one or two that seem interesting. In looking over my list, there was one that I found particularly interesting.

My sister had just finished her junior year of high school and was preparing to apply for college in the fall. At home, right inside the door there was a giant bin full of junk mail that she had received from colleges. When the mail first started coming during her sophomore year, I think she found it cool that colleges were reaching out to her. By the time she received her 500th piece of mail, it had gotten old.

Colleges had an interest in reaching students and informing them about their schools, but the way they were doing it was, at best, ineffective and, at worst, actively harmful to students’ perception of them. Even though students want to learn about schools they’re interested in, colleges send so much spam that many just tune it out altogether.

The core problem I saw was that these two groups—students and colleges—didn’t have an effective medium to connect. The place that students spend most of their time, their phones, is a place that universities haven’t yet found a tactful way to use to their advantage. The mediums colleges are traditionally comfortable using, mail and email, are ones that students tune out. Finding a way to bring high quality information about colleges to students in a place where they actively pay attention seemed like a valuable thing to do.

At the entrepreneurship camp, the students’ next assignment was to generate potential solutions for their problems. My initial idea for a solution was a platform where high school students could see profiles of a college and give them a rating from 1–10. This data could then be shared with the universities and they could reach out via the platform to students who were interested.

Immediately, it was clear that there was one big flaw with this idea: what incentive would high school students have to rate universities? I knew I would need something to incentivize them, so I started brainstorming potential incentives. Eventually, I came up with offering high school students the opportunity to message real college students at the schools they rated highly.

At the entrepreneurship camp, we teach the students to run tests in the real world to see if their assumptions are true. I decided it was time to run a test to see if my assumption that messaging real college students would be a valuable incentive for high school students was true. In order to run this test, I created a simple post on Reddit.

I had expected maybe a few students would sign up on the Google form I had attached. To my surprise, over 1,200 signed up in the first 48 hours.

There were two ways of interpreting the results of my Reddit experiment:

    1. Success! High school students find messaging college students to be a valuable incentive. Time to go build the college rating service.

    2. Wow! High school students really want to message college students. Maybe I should experiment a little more with this and see where it goes.

I chose option 2.

Next, it was time to find college students to talk with the high school students who had signed up. Initially, my plan was to just use my friends, but that was when I was expecting at most a few dozen signups. The 1,200 high school students had requested to talk to students from over 600 universities. That was way beyond my personal network.

So what did I do? I posted in the dedicated subreddits for each university looking for college volunteers.

This was certainly slightly spammy and I got quite a few rejections, but overwhelmingly the response was positive and over 600 college students from over 300 universities signed up to participate.

The next step was the fun part. I started connecting each of the high school students with the college students via iMessage.

At this point, I was just doing this as a fun experiment and an example for the students at the camp on how to run assumption tests, but the more I kept connecting people, the more I realized that this might actually be something that people really wanted.

It took me about two months to connect the first 1,200 high school students with all the college students they wanted to talk to. By the time I finished, hundreds more had already signed up and I had received dozens of requests to build the service into an app.

An app seemed like a cool idea, but I wanted to make sure that this was something that people really wanted before investing the time necessary to build a fully functional app. Frankly, I had also never built an app before and wasn’t sure where to start. By January, it was clear that people loved the service and that there was significant demand for an app. By that point, I had facilitated over 10,000 iMessage conversations between high school and college students.

In January, I reached out to my friend, Pranav Neyveli. I had met Pranav through a cold Facebook message and we had connected over our shared interest in dropping out of school. I knew that Pranav was a talented developer and I wanted to get his opinion on what it would take to build out a simple messaging app.

In talking to Pranav, it became clear that there was a lot of potential to build the platform into something that provided significant value. After talking through everything, we decided to co-found Scope Analytics, a startup focused on helping high school students discover their dream college, along with Pranav’s close friend and engineering partner, Satya Koppu.

By February, we started development of the initial app, Scope Messenger. After five days of nonstop work, we had a rough beta version complete. We launched the beta version of the app through Testflight and made it available to the initial set of students who had participated in the iMessage test.

Launching a beta version allowed us to quickly get feedback from students who were eager to try out the product. We stayed in beta for about six weeks, quickly iterating and adding new features, before launching publicly on the App Store on April 7.

The app is still in its infancy, but we’ve been lucky enough to have thousands of high school and college students use it in its first month. For a high school student, the value proposition is simple: by creating an account, a high school student can message college students at over 200 universities to ask about campus life, application tips, or anything else one might be curious about.

The core problem that Scope Messenger solves is that there is too much information about college admissions and that high school students have trouble filtering out the good information from the spam. Scope Messenger provides an easy solution: talk to a real student at the school you want to go to and hear about their real, unfiltered experiences.

While it’s still early, we are optimistic that we can build Scope Messenger into the go-to platform for students looking for information about specific colleges.

To download Scope Messenger, check it out in the App Store.

To sign up for the Android waiting list, visit our website: www.downloadscope.com.

Brennan Stark

Brennan is the founder of Scope Messenger and the co-founder and CEO of Y Innovations, a nonprofit organization that is building affordable net-zero energy housing for low-income families in Wilmington, Delaware, using natural materials. For his work with Y Innovations, Brennan was recognized with the 2017 Youth in Philanthropy Award. He was also named a 2017 Sustainable Development Goal Talent, which afforded him the opportunity to travel to Denmark to work with various NGOs, government officials, and investors to pioneer new solutions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In addition to running Y Innovations, Brennan is also a Partner at Teen Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in high school founders. Brennan believes passionately that entrepreneurship is at its best when it is used as a vessel for self-discovery and he enjoys speaking to students about the life-changing power of entrepreneurship. In his free time, Brennan enjoys reading, backpacking in the woods, and spending time with his loving family and his girlfriend, Maureen.