Breathing ‘Life’ Back Into ’Student Life’Katie Hopewell / Charleston Digital Corridor
Susan Porter, has long been in the business of sharing insider info about college towns. She began with a website that was geared towards parents of college students, through which she shared suggestions for meal spots, shopping and places to stay. After learning that college campuses had never moved beyond the paradigm of advertising via flyers, she realized that parents were not the audience in need - but students were. Thus, the app Abuzz was developed with her work as co-founder.
Abuzz is now utilized by over twenty different collegiate institutions, providing students at those schools with information like upcoming events, local student discounts, a digital marketplace for buying and selling and information about graduation classes–collectively trying to highlight the obsolescence and disconnection of flyers. Through Abuzz, Porter aims to foster greater connectivity among college students and hopefully quell retention issues that so often result from students feeling disconnected from their school.
This series is brought to you by Charleston County Economic Development.
Would you like to tell me a little bit about your background? Where you grew up, where you attended college, what you studied?
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and I attended Denison University, which is a small, private liberal arts school in Ohio, where I studied Political Science. After Chicago, we moved to Boston and now we're in Charleston.
Any memorable first jobs?
Yes. I remember my first job out of college in Chicago, where I sold copiers for 3M. My territory included high-rise buildings filled with lawyers, and I tried selling them door-to-door. It was intense.
Do you feel that has become more relevant as you've taken on entrepreneurship?
No. It's such an old-school job; but the sales part of it and the tenacity involved was almost like a mini entrepreneurship within a company - so that would make it pretty similar.
What is your goal with Campus Abuzz?
Our goal with Abuzz is to connect every college student to their campus and find the best that their campus has to offer. We really want them to maximize their college experience. I think on one side there are people who go to school, they don't really connect, say they want to transfer and go home after a month or two. Then, there are people who take advantage of everything on their campus, graduate and have an amazing experience. Especially in this age, when mental illness is being taken more seriously and being in the midst of Covid-19, there are a lot of ways that students aren't connected.
Our greatest goal, to put it shortly, is to get rid of flyers. When I went to school, there were flyers everywhere. That's how we found information. The reason we started Abuzz was because I couldn't believe that students still used flyers. Everyone has a phone; why can't you find all the information from the flyers on your phone? And why can't you sign in using your school email to a space for just students? There are individual Slacks and GroupMe's, but there is not one space that provides all the student discounts, events and student organizations that should be accessible on your phone.
How successful would you say you've been at achieving that?
Well, Covid began right in the middle of things. We first launched in September 2019 at the University of Colorado and then we partnered with Colorado State. At first, it was very successful. People understood our goal and they were looking for a way to connect with their campus, and then Covid hit. Interestingly enough: when everyone left the college campuses, it was the southern schools that began finding out about Abuzz. They were still on campus, like Texas A&M and Central Florida, and we had people contact us and say, "We need this here. We're the least connected we've ever been." So, that's how we grew during Covid
What drew you to catering to collegiate audiences?
I started a website about six years ago, called "College Town Insider." It was for parents and explained where to stay, where to eat and what to do when visiting different campuses - the inside information.
When we were acquiring more content for the website, I asked Melissa, a former student who now works with us: "How would you go about finding the best biology tutor on campus?" And she said, "I'd text my friends, or my sorority. If I couldn't find it, I'd visit the biology department and there would likely be a flyer for that." And I asked, "Why can't you approach the campus about that?" And she said: "Well, there's not one app that we all use to talk to each other," and that's when we launched Abuzz - that's when we went from a website to an app for college students.
I couldn't believe that [students] were still obtaining information from flyers. Imagine a highly sought speaker comes to campus and the only notice about it was on a flyer, and you didn't find out until the day after their presentation? That's why we made the shift.
Where has Abuzz been most popular?
Texas A&M and the University of Central Florida have been amazing, because we have great ambassadors and digital teams at those schools. They were on campus during the beginning of Covid, which was very helpful. Now we got lucky and just launched at our first school in which the administration is helping implement the program. It's kind of a test, versus other schools, at a small school, Adrian College, in Michigan. They're helping us pump information into the app directly from the school, rather than just gathering information from students. This will show us the difference between just having students enter information and allowing administrators help by adding things like career-building events, campus speakers, athletic events or any other insular knowledge.
What have students had to say about Abuzz?
The first thing they usually say is: "I wish our campus had this." Also, they love the food deals–we have all of the local food deals for students on the app. We didn't know if it was going to be those deals, or the lists of events or the marketplace–we also have a marketplace where students can buy and sell things like dorm furniture, sports event tickets and other items–we didn't know which part of the app would be best-liked, but the food deals have been the most downloaded and saved.
What obstacles have you faced building your business? How did you overcome them?
Covid. That was the big one. Additionally, getting school administrations to buy in. You go to the President's Office or Student Life, and they typically say, "Oh, well we already have a website that students use," and students usually don't use that website–they really don't. But they have their way of doing it and that has been tough to work around. Having Adrian College work with us has been huge, and hopefully their administrative involvement will be a selling point to other schools, so we're lucky to have them.
Where do you see Abuzz moving in the future?
We'd love to be on every campus. That would be the goal, and we would like our digital teams that work with Abuzz on campuses to start setting up scholarships for students that work for us. The long-term goal is to have Abuzz for alumni; so, you graduate, and your profile switches over to an alumni profile, and this allows students and alumni to talk to each other to foster connectivity when entering the workforce. When you graduate college, you're kind of a freshman in life, and we really want Abuzz to help facilitate that transition by allowing users to still have access to the app.
How was Abuzz impacted by Covid-19?
I'd say that it was affected both in a good way and a bad way. It was impacted because we were at the University of Colorado–our team was there for the entire second semester–doing events and abruptly had to leave. Everybody was gone. But it was good because we were shown that connection is everything.
Since we found that out, we've realized that there are two major reasons why students leave college campuses: troubles with finances, or connections. If we can solve the connection part, then they can stay. So often students leave a campus because they don't feel connected to the school, and that's not fully the fault of the school.
What has it been like building your team in Charleston?
It's been great. I came to Charleston about 20 years ago from Boston and we were in Kiawah first, but we're downtown now. Our two other team members both moved to Charleston this past month; so, we're building the team and our office space all at once, which is great. I can't imagine a better place to start your business because it's a booming city, with great weather and so much to do - if I was young, I'd definitely want to start out here.
What level of engagement do you have with the Charleston tech community?
We're just starting–we literally just moved in. We picked this building because of everything they have to offer and because of all the engagement that it entails. I'm looking forward to becoming even more connected with this community
What are the biggest misconceptions about being an entrepreneur?
The thinking that you can get so much done in your free time - it's really 24/7. There's flexibility in it–like my team decided that Thursday's can be a work-from-home day, even though we were sending each other emails at 7 in the morning that day. So, it's all the time, but there is flexibility. Somebody said that being an entrepreneur is like chewing glass, it's great but it's surely a lot to take on.
But that's also why I love this space–it's a collaborative space. I don't want my staff to ever feel like they have to come into this office from 9-5. I tell them "Come here whenever you like. If you're here, we can collaborate; but if you're just working on things that you can do from home and you're only present because you feel obligated, then don't come." I don't care where anybody works, provided the work gets done. I don't want this to be a place where people feel like they have to show up, I want it to be collaborative.
What do you look for in people that you hire?
We're looking for people who understand what our core mission is. If we are hiring people for our digital teams, we want to hear their story. Most people understand our mission and the need for connection on college campuses; but those who can give examples of their struggles with things like finding events or student deals or they feel disconnected, it's easy to work with them because they've experienced the problems that we're trying to solve.
What is the purpose of those digital teams you're mentioning?
The digital teams are looking on the member campus' for app content: what's happening on campus, they also visit local businesses asking about student discounts and providing advertising opportunities. They also help get students on the app. So they're looking for downloads and content.
How many of those would you say you have on each campus?
It depends on the campus. On some, we have three, and on campuses that we've just partnered with, it's just one - but they're looking to hire a team.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Find out what your "why?" is, like why are you doing this, and if that "why?" will carry you through the hard times. When I hear of students who aren't happy where they are, they're not meeting people or they're not finding out information that would be helpful to them, it's upsetting. An example is, at the University of Michigan, the campus has free bagels every Wednesday morning, yet there are students walking around that same campus, hungry and unable to buy food. The fact that they just don't know about it, that's troubling.
It's the little, one-step, day-to-day interactions that make the greatest impact; you may find a new couch, or a new coffee shop, or meet your best friend. I think that once you have made one step in connecting with your campus, then there's another, and another. It's all of the loose ends of college life in one space.
What keeps you inspired?
Trying new things on the member campuses and hearing stories about how students benefited from them. At Adrian College, this month, we're hosting a "Whiteout Day" and handing out white Abuzz shirts, and we're also hosting a scavenger hunt on campus, and hearing about students' excitement is really encouraging.
Outside of work, what keeps you busy?
I travel a lot - I've got a lot of family in Boston and in Charleston, and I love to travel. Also, I've just done these two events called "29029," where you climb a mountain. I just did it in Vermont and in Utah, but you've got 36 hours to climb the equivalent height of Mt. Everest. I really enjoy the intensity and having something to mark on my calendar
Fave App? Abuzz
Fave Book? A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer
Fave Podcast? How I Built This.
Fave coffee shop? Harken Cafe