Jumbo Startups: Piinch and SpotLight
Students Creating and Launching Smartphone Apps
by Alexandra Erath, A16
This article is the first of a two-part series focusing on Tufts students developing smartphone apps.
The surge in smartphone use and demand for mobile apps has lead to an unprecedented number of students developing and marketing apps for mobile devices. What's fueling student interest in launching apps? "College campuses are full of energetic, enthusiastic and smart people in an almost ‘closed system' that helps students connect," says Josh Wiesman, a lecturer in Tufts Gordon Institute's Entrepreneurial Leadership Studies (ELS) program. Instant feedback also facilitates app development. "A group of students can quickly distribute their app to 30 or 40 people for testing, people who are likely to fit the demographic of their target customers," says Wiesman.
Tanay Modi, CEO of Piinch
Tanay Modi, A17, a sophomore economics major, is CEO of Piinch, a location-based social platform that facilitates student meet-ups. Modi, who hails from New York, Delhi, and London, came up with the idea for Piinch during his first year at Tufts, when he noticed there were many repetitive logistical questions in a group phone message chain with his friends.
"I knew there had to be a way to fix this," Modi recalls. "And then I thought of an app that could tell your friends where you are and show them where you'll be on a map." After talking with friends who had experience with computing, and receiving positive feedback on both the premise and the feasibility of such an app, Modi decided to pursue his idea. They named the app Piinch, Modi, says, "because it sounds familiar, and could be used as a verb such as 'I'll Piinch you later', but the double "I" gives us a proprietary name."
Ariel Luque, Lead Developer, Piinch
In the spring of 2014, Modi posted an ad seeking student mobile developers on campus message boards and began interviewing potential candidates. Above all, he was looking for passion; Modi believes that along with skill, dedication is essential for success. Ariel Luque, E17, and Daniel Baigel, A17, were "overwhelmingly enthusiastic" about the project and joined the team.
The trio devoted the summer of 2014 to developing Piinch. Luque and Baigel continued programming until February 2015, when the team submitted Piinch to Apple for consideration for inclusion in the Apple exclusive app store.
Along with the coursework, Modi says his classmates motivated him. "There were so many people doing so many other cool things that it just motivated me further," adds Modi. He points to the value of his courses in Entrepreneurial Leadership In High Technology (ELS 101.03) taught by Josh Wiesman, and his Independent Study with Associate Dean, Executive Director, and Professor of the Practice Mark Ranalli of the Gordon Institute.
"It was back and forth for a while," Luque says of the Apple approval process. "There are things we just hadn't thought of at first, like including a user agreement or a way of rejecting inappropriate photos."
Daniel Baigel, Lead UI Developer,
Recently, Apple approved Piinch for inclusion in its app store, but Modi is not planning extensive marketing at this point. He does envision using of his friends' social networks in order to ensure that everyone who downloads the app already knows a few people on it when the product launches. "We're aiming for a soft launch at first, starting with 50 or so friends and letting it grow from there," he says. "First impressions are everything."
Luque, who lived in Guantanamo until his family moved to Miami and is the first in his family to attend college, says he never dreamed he would be the lead developer on an app that is launching while he is in college. He credits several Tufts computer science classes, including Web Programming (COMP 20) and Data Structures (COMP 15) with Lecturer Ming Chow, with helping him develop the skills necessary for the project. "Data Structures is very important," says Luque. "I learned important concepts such as how you get data from servers."
As CEO, Modi is less involved with the technical aspects of the project and more focused on its future. "I'm the one who reaches out to investors, mentors, and people who can help us grow the platform," says Modi. "It's my role to make our company a viable one."
Mike Miele, Founder and CEO
In September 2013, Mike Miele, A15, pitched his idea for an on-demand parking app to his peers on the first day of his Entrepreneurship and Business Planning class (ELS 101), an ELS course taught by Lecturer David Greenwald. After hearing Miele's class presentation, classmates Karan Singhal, E15 and, Joseph Price, A00, were eager to get involved.
Today, Miele is founder and CEO of SpotLight Parking, an app that connects drivers to valets who will park their vehicles in Boston. Singhal is SpotLight's Chief Technological Officer, and Price, a Tufts alumnus who returned to take a few entrepreneurship classes, is the company's Chief Operating Officer.
Miele dreamed up SpotLight during a frustrating parking search in Boston almost two years ago, while driving to a Red Sox game with his mother. "We couldn't find a parking spot, and my mother said ‘I wish I could just pull over, throw someone my keys, and be done with it!'" Miele says. At that point, Miele says, "A light bulb went off."
"Until now, valets have been using paper tickets and cash, which is just not something you do in the 21st century," Miele explains. By digitizing the process and providing an excellent user experience, says Miele, "we've made an awesome app."
Joseph Price, Chief Operating
Officer, SpotLight Parking
Miele says he has invested considerable time and energy in SpotLight. He calls Greenwald's course, which focuses on investigating, understanding, and implementing the process of founding a startup firm, tremendously valuable in giving him the tools to launch SpotLight. Since last fall, Miele and his team have refined their parking logarithm and perfected their business plan. The entrepreneurship class culminated in a presentation to several angel investors, and they have pitched their idea to contacts in the industry several more times, each time with a better and more developed product.
This past August, the SpotLight team participated in Fenway Fast Pitch, a competition in which six startups have three minutes each to pitch their idea to tech enthusiasts and investors. The startup that captures the most audience votes wins a grand prize of $15,000. While SpotLight came in second place, Miele was thrilled that many audience members sought their team members afterward to express their support and faith in the company's future. In December, the SpotLight team launched a test version in several different Boston neighborhoods, and plans to officially introduce the app this spring.
Karan Singhal, Chief Technological
Officer, SpotLight Parking
An economics major, Miele says SpotLight has changed his plan for a career in finance. He decided against taking an internship in New York before his senior year, instead choosing to work on SpotLight over the summer, and now intends to pursue his company full-time after graduation. "SpotLight allowed me to find what I'm most passionate about," he explains. "I really enjoy growing and building something. I'm lucky enough to be with a young, early-stage company, and I think I'll be in the car technology world for a while."
Miele credits Tufts courses with helping students create their startup companies, "The ELS program, and especially Entrepreneurship and Business Planning, taught me how to put a business plan together and speak to investors," says Miele. "It gave me a huge advantage in being able to pitch my product."
The student entrepreneurs offer encouragement for aspiring app developers. "Entrepreneurship is only for a certain type of risk-taking personality, but if you think you can handle the ‘lows' that come with the huge 'ups,' go for it," says Miele.
Luque agrees. "If you have the opportunity to join a startup, you should give it a shot," he says. "Even if it doesn't work out, you really do grow as a person, and you learn a lot about yourself and what you're capable of."
Piinch is available for download on iPhone, and SpotLight is available download on iPhone and Android smartphones on the SpotLight website.