Greg Isenberg has seen how other apps grow.
That’s why he’s at the University of Alabama with his new app, Islands. It’s already the hot new thing as students start classes for the fall 2017 semester.
“Who wants to meet people the most? It’s people at college. College is the single greatest time for self-discovery. You’re deciding if you like X or Y,” Isenberg said via FaceTime as he strolled the Alabama campus.
Like many apps before—think Yik Yak, Tinder, and even Facebook—Islands is hoping to take advantage of the collegial nature of college students. Islands offers an easy way to make groups and profiles to share photos and make plans.
It’s already active at University of Alabama, University of Georgia, Clemson University, Auburn University, College of Charleston, University of South Carolina, and University of Florida. More than 25 percent of Alabama’s freshmen class has requested to join since classes started last week. The app is still in beta mode, meaning not everyone can download and sign up yet.
None of that is revolutionary, but maybe it doesn’t need to be.
“I don’t want to live in the world where Facebook Groups is the end all be all,” said Isenberg said. “The Snapchat generation doesn’t want social media posts on Facebook. We want a way to connect with the people around us in an interesting and in a beautiful way.”
Isenberg, 28, is quite familiar with building beautiful products. He gained attention with his first startup Stress Limit, a digital marketing company he launched at age 13. He later founded 5by, a video discovery app he sold to StumbleUpon.
Now, the entrepreneur is focused on Islands. He just raised $1.85 million from several investors, including Greylock, Scott Belsky of Benchmark, and Vaizra Investments, to grow the app from a handful of college campuses to more than 75 by the end of 2018. The competition from Facebook, Microsoft’s GroupMe, and other social networks is clear, but Isenberg hopes he can succeed by making something more Snapchat-like.
Isenberg nicknames his new app “Slack for College,” where students can easily communicate via one app. Groups organized by topic are called “Islands” and are shown within 5 miles of the campus.
Groups can be for anything from parties to pick-up basketball games.
That location-based function is similar to Yik Yak, the now-defunct messaging app that also rose to fame on college campuses. That’s not surprising given that Isenberg’s team includes former Yik Yak employees. He also recruited former employees at Twitter and 5by, who now work out of an office in San Francisco.
Unlike Yik Yak, Islands isn’t all anonymous. Yik Yak was plagued by bomb threats and bullying due to complete anonymity in part leading to its downfall. Island users can authenticate their profiles by linking to their social media accounts.
“We promote Facebook log-in but, that being said, you could create an Island that is anonymous. People do use it anonymously, but it’s predominantly with names,” Isenberg said.
About half of the app’s current users link to their Instagram or Snapchat accounts. It’s not just about authenticity.
“A big feedback that we got is that people want more followers on their platforms, and people are afraid to go up to their classmates and say, ‘Hey what’s your Instagram handle, and what’s your Snapchat?'” Isenberg said.
Isenberg said he got the idea for Islands after he met a woman in Los Angeles who was diagnosed with cancer. She was part of a support group organized via an email list. He thought there must be a better way to meet and communicate with people.
That idea eventually turned into Islands. Now, he is promoting the app on college campuses by hiring brand ambassadors. That’s a growth strategy invoked by dating apps Tinder and Bumble along with Yik Yak. Facebook and Snapchat also rose to prominence via students.
The team also created a clothing and accessory line, designed by Skrillex’s fashion brand Owsla, in the hopes of getting more public attention for the app.
Isenberg personally has been traveling to college campuses as he grows Islands into a must-have social network for students. He lived around the University of Western Ontario last semester last year.
“It’s literally where McDonalds tested McNuggets,” Isenberg said. “I embedded myself there, had a bunch of crazy realizations. You could go up to any college student and learn they all use Snapchat, Instagram, and GroupMe as their top three apps.”
Islands is in part a competitor to GroupMe due to the messaging focus. Yet, Isenberg said he wants it to be heralded more for discovery of people and of events.
“What makes me happiest is when I connect people, either through dinner parties or just introducing people or whatever it is. Why I’m so excited about Islands is we’re able to do it on a mass scale. Like right now, there are people playing basketball because of us,” Isenberg said.