A social campus life starts up with Chitter
eHUB startup creates a campus-life app that captures the attention of Silicon Valley.
By MICHAEL BROWN
A University of Alberta-born smartphone app created to bring students closer together has caught the attention of one of Silicon Valley’s most successful startup incubators.
The free sharing app, called Chitter, was designed to connect college and university students in a friendly, semi-anonymous environment.
From impromptu lunches, social mixers and events to general campus life—and even dating—the distinguishing features of the app have created a new sense of student community and solidarity since its launch Sept. 1, 2015, says Kyle Kaiser, an engineering alumnus who, along with computing science grads Tamara Bain and Mark Galloway, fourth-year computing science student Ben Lavin and Athabasca business student Anmol Choudhary, founded Chitter.
“I think it’s comforting to see that everyone else is facing the same challenges as you,” says Kaiser. “University is hard, but it doesn’t have to be something that anyone faces alone. Chitter connects students around these shared experiences.”
Within days of Chitter’s unveiling, users began increasing exponentially. Today, Chitter’s reach includes more than 20,000 users on five campuses—the U of A, University of Calgary, MacEwan University, Simon Fraser University and Mount Royal University.
Looking to take the next step, the Chitter team applied to Y Combinator—one of the world’s top startup accelerators, which, twice per year, invests US$120,000 in a large number of companies. Since 2005, Y-Combinator has funded more than 800 startups—including Airbnb, Reddit, Dropbox and Pebble.
In November, news came down that Chitter had been been selected from more than 6,000 applicants to interview in California for a spot with Y Combinator. Kaiser says the founders were excited for the opportunity, but remained cautiously optimistic as they were still one of 500 teams vying for about 100 spots.
“If they want to work with you, you’re in, and you find out that night when they call,” said Kaiser, adding that the aftermath of their interview was pretty tense. “It was getting later and later and we were getting more and more worried. You could tell everyone was getting anxious.”
“We were in San Francisco eating ice cream when we got the call. We ran out and started screaming. I think everyone in the ice cream shop thought we were crazy, but it was awesome and pretty surreal.”
What nobody in the ice cream shop realized they were witnessing was all any fledgling startup could hope for—a break.
“These accelerators are really great at taking these early-stage companies and helping them grow, and among accelerators Y Combinator is the best in the world,” said Kaiser. “We were surprised and very grateful to get in.”
Besides the monetary investment, the Chitter team moved to Silicon Valley in January for an intensive three-month program designed to get the company into the best possible shape and refine their pitch to investors.
Teams are invited to weekly dinners with founders of billion-dollar tech companies to hear their stories. Kaiser says his team is also fully immersed in the entrepreneurial spirit and what comes from it.
“We are learning from these successful people and learning from our batch mates, these people we are going through the program with—it is a cool learning experience that way,” he said, noting that beyond the seed funding and the unique setting, Y Combinator’s biggest contribution is what’s important.
“They teach you how to choose what to work on. We could work on our product for 100 years and we would still be improving things,” said Kaiser. “We have finite resources, in both time and money, so they show us how to prioritize this—what is going to get us the most bang for our buck.
“At the early stage it is all about learning and understanding—you’re trying to understand what it is people really love about our product. All of the hard work is actually done in the early stages as you’re learning these things.”
Of course, Y-Combinator wasn’t the first incubator in Chitter’s young life. The app—whose name was inspired by the chittering squirrels on the U of A campus—originally found its way as part of Entrepreneurship@UAlberta, an initiative of the Alberta School of Business’s Technology Commercialization Centre, which aims to catalyze a broader and more vibrant ecosystem of entrepreneurship and innovation at the U of A, and eHUB, the physical embodiment of Entrepreneurship@UAlberta where enterprising students work on creating new ventures.
“eHub was a really important first step. This is where we met our founders, it was the office space we worked out of, it was how we got started. Having that kind of place to work on an idea when it is just an idea is really important in getting Chitter off the ground.”
—With notes from Louise McEachern