Students vs. COVID-19By Simmone Seymour
It’s been over 90 days since Penn students returned from their Spring Break to a closed-down campus and a fully virtual classroom experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, the uncertain nature of “the new normal” hasn’t stopped student founders from launching, pivoting, and growing their businesses.
We interviewed a diverse group of Penn founders to understand how they’ve adapted their businesses, and were inspired to find them pressing forward with a positive mindset and fresh ideas. Pandemic or no pandemic, nothing is holding these founders back.
Let’s Hear it For the Dogs
Our health is a top priority these days, but what about the health of our furry friends? Felicity Johnson (Wharton MBA ‘20) started her MBA with a goal of leaning into her entrepreneurial spirit while simultaneously staying close to a passion since childhood – animals. After interviewing dozens of veterinarians she identified a massive pain point: pet parents would often call veterinary offices unsolicited and without appointment, simply to seek advice about caring for their pets. In addition, pet parents often struggled to find time for regular vet checkups.
Johnson launched My Virtual Veterinarian in the era of COVID-19 to provide telehealth care to pets by matching licensed veterinarians with pet parents. Until April 2020, veterinarians were required to have previously physically examined the animal in person before being able to provide services over the phone or internet. Due to the COVID pandemic and nationwide social distancing guidance, this rule was temporarily suspended. As a result, My Virtual Veterinarian has been able to grow exponentially, with nearly 400 users on the platform and appointments taking place on a daily basis.
Johnson expects that the convenience of telehealth for pets will continue to drive users to the platform, even when it is not a necessity, such as in the current circumstances. Investors seem to think the same, as My Virtual Veterinarian has recently raised over $100K from angel investors and grant funding.
Stay Home, Stay Fit
While being stuck inside for the last three months, keeping on a healthy exercise regimen has been tough, if not impossible. Fortunately there’s Solin. Founded by Mat Rosenburg (Wharton MBA ‘21), Solin began as a fitness discovery application, providing an easy and fast way for users to find and try fun workout challenges and exercise videos from top online trainers, for free. The company prioritizes the social component with a mission of bringing together people through exercise. And in the era of social distancing, connecting with friends while working out is a fantastic way to stay engaged and healthy.
The Solin team was planning on launching their application in mid-summer, but due to a huge increase in demand for online at-home workouts, it ended up launching in early April, several months ahead of schedule. The early launch provided users with ~350 on-demand workouts and ~2,000 exercise videos at their fingertips. Especially helpful is Solin’s in-app filter tool, which has allowed many users to easily find “no equipment” workouts they can do right on their apartment floors.
By launching early, Solin has been able to get valuable feedback from its users and iterate on its product much more quickly than it otherwise would have. While Solin’s initial application revolved solely around workout discovery, it is now working to facilitate a greater sense of community amongst its members by prioritizing social features to bring people together and make exercise more fun. In the COVID environment, users have come to prioritize community through online platforms, and Solin hopes to provide the features that enable its users to bond through exercise.
The Solin app, available in the Apple App Store, has seen a 4-5x increase in weekly active users, and has garnered hundreds of positive reviews. With the easy interface and convenient features, we have no excuse for skipping the home gym anymore!
And we definitely need it based on all the snacking we’re doing…
Discover Free Products, Even at Home
Sick of munching on the same old snacks? SHOWCASE vending machines launched earlier this year at Penn, started by Dana Kim (Wharton MBA ‘20) and Ethan Kellough (Penn Integrated Product Design ‘21). SHOWCASE machines offer completely free products, including snacks and other packaged goods, in exchange for one simple yet valuable thing in return: consumer feedback. The team analyzes results and relays them back to the brands supplying the products. This allows the brands to gain feedback at a fraction of the cost traditionally associated with surveys and focus groups.
Amidst the closure of public spaces due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kim and Kellough pulled an impressive pivot in the span of just a few days. They have now launched a SHOWCASE v2, The Boxed Club, which delivers curated discovery boxes of snacks and other fun products to your door. Most importantly, The Boxed Club offers the same promise as SHOWCASE – all products are completely free in exchange for consumer feedback. The company has already launched in Philadelphia and is expanding shipping nationwide soon!
Physically Distant, but still ConnectED
Being an international student is incredibly hard. Many international students speak English as a second language, and have little-to-no social network in the US. This compounds their difficulty in obtaining cell phone service, which in the US is traditionally obtained through family plans and requires a social security number. ConnectED, founded by Andie Kaplan (Wharton MBA ‘20), works with major service providers, including a direct relationship with T-Mobile, to offer individual service plans to international students at the lower rates usually reserved for family plans. Customers enjoy service offerings directly from ConnectED without the administrative burden typically associated with signup and management of family plans in the US. Prior to COVID-19, ConnectED was already growing fast, with a customer base of students from over 25 universities across the country.
ConnectED’s current traction is impressive, but what’s even more impressive is their dedication to support international students. In this current climate, international students have been forced to quickly pick up their lives and leave campus, and many have moved back to their home countries to be with their families. ConnectED has prioritized ensuring these students are able to stay connected during the pandemic by offering new service options while the crisis is ongoing. For example, the team quickly launched a service to allow students to suspend phone numbers while they are abroad and not using their phones. ConnectED also offers free data abroad, which students are using twice as much as they were before the pandemic.
Kaplan and her team believe providing amazing customer service to their loyal early customers will prove valuable in the long run, and they expect to generate high word-of-mouth growth in the tight-knit international student community going forward.
Overall, we’re impressed by the ability of our student founders to find the positives in a tough situation, launching, growing, and pivoting their ventures. We can’t wait to see what’s next!