Over the years I've regularly facilitated "founders' weekends" in Los Angeles, where I work with a number of CEOs developing new startups. At these weekends, companies like Breather and Quietly were vetted before launching. At one of these weekends, I met startup founder Greg Isenberg.
At the time, Greg was developing the video concierge service 5by (which was acquired by StumbleUpon in 2015). Today, at 28, Isenberg finds himself living on college campuses across the U.S.--not as a student, but as a researcher.
Call it networking, marketing, advertising, or viral campaigning. But whatever it is, Isenberg is putting time into getting to know his audience and do keg stands here and there.
His startup is Islands, a digital platform he describes as Slack for college students. It's a way for people on college campuses to connect and communicate, whether it's about an upcoming exam, organizing a rally, or planning a party.
Islands is the reason this San Francisco-based tech entrepreneur suddenly finds himself hanging out with 20-year-olds on college campuses, learning about their lives, needs, and daily concerns.
What he's learned from integrating himself into college living--and getting out of his comfort zone--are some valuable lessons that apply to any entrepreneur who's looking to better connect with their audience.
1. Handshakes are more valuable than data
Rather than focusing on targeted ads or analytical number crunching to acquire users, Isenberg is taking a more classic approach to getting the word out: he's showing up and shaking hands.
According to Isenberg, Islands is gaining traction across southern U.S. schools like the University of South Carolina, the College of Charleston, the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama.
2. See the whole picture outside your bubble
With so many social apps popping up in Silicon Valley, the biggest oversight many seem to suffer from is scope--what seems relevant in their corner of the world may not translate elsewhere. Many chase markets that promise "big numbers," forgetting just how many people are in between.
Islands has taken the road less traveled, focusing first on southern universities outside major metropolitan areas whose student populations are no less engaged or eager for new digital platforms.
3. Know your audience and forget about "us vs. them"
One of the most unique factors according to Isenberg, is not seeing his platform as "us vs. them." In other words, new users shouldn't be "targets," nor should apps work tirelessly on ways to win them over.
Rather than selling or pitching to college students--part of the highly sought-after Gen Z demographic--Greg is trying to actually understand them. He's sitting on their dorm room sofas and showing them how Islands works on his own cell phone.
4. Get to know "the plug" in every situation
So how does a tech founder show up on a university campus and get people interested in a social app? The first order of business is always finding "the plug." This is someone who's always in-the-know on campus.
In this case of Islands, "the plug" knows all the popular spots, have top-level insight on what's cool, and have access to all the best parties, rallies, and events. On each campus he visits, Isenberg secures a "plug" in advance.
5. When it comes to people, a real connection is key
Once Isenberg is in the right places, he avoids sales pitches--although he always wears an Islands shirt to spark a conversation. He tries to get to know students first, and he gives them a chance to get to know him and what his company's about.
He doesn't rush students into signing up for Islands. Because once there's a real connection and interest, word of mouth travels fast--especially when there's a solid product behind it.