A mobile app that connects classmates to form a “virtual community” has gathered 4,000 users in its first four months and is on track to amass as many as 10,000 by the end of the semester, according to its student creators at Clemson University and North Carolina State University.
Phloat is the brainchild of Ryan Catoe, a junior electrical engineering major at Clemson, and Geoffrey Fylak, a junior computer science major at N.C. State. They have been working with the Spiro Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Clemson to develop the app and form a business based on it.
Students download the free app to their smartphones, sign up using their university email address and instantly have access to group chats for all of their courses.
Phloat is a handy way to chat about homework, set up study groups and trade notes. Students can also send direct messages to each other and start sub-group chats.
Each user creates a profile that can include a bio and links to other social platforms such as Instagram and LinkedIn.
“It creates a virtual community for the class you’re in,” Fylak said.
Students have used other apps, such as GroupMe, or the text feature on their phones to communicate, but assembling phone numbers to create the group chat can be a pain, and some students are left out. Phloat is totally inclusive and makes this process much quicker.
“We thought, why not make it easier for students to use group chats so collaboration can happen at the very beginning of the semester without students having to know each other?” Catoe said. “You don’t have to be invited. No prior connections are needed.”
Phloat soft-launched at N.C. State’s Entrepalooza in late 2021 and accumulated about 4,000 users by early February this year, including 2,500 in 300 group chats at Clemson alone, Catoe and Fylak said.
The app is used mostly at Clemson and N.C. State, and it is being tested at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Eastern Carolina University, they said.
The student entrepreneurs have set a goal to hit 10,000 users by the end of the semester and to expand to 10 or 15 schools in the fall. The app is free and does not contain advertising.
Phloat is available for the iPhone in Apple’s App Store, and it is coming soon to Google Play Store for Android phones, Catoe and Fylak said.
The pair first worked together at North Carolina’s School of Science and Math in Durham, where they started a mock company as part of an entrepreneurship class. They graduated in 2019 and went their separate ways for college.
When the pandemic hit in the spring semester of their freshman year, it underscored how difficult it could be to connect with other classmates virtually. Many class group chats, they found, were based on connections that were formed before quarantine. No new group chats or connections were being made.
Catoe and Fylak came up with the idea for Phloat while visiting each other in May 2020 in Boone, North Carolina. They brainstormed for a few weeks and reconvened in July 2020 at Catoe’s parents home in Greenville, South Carolina to begin developing the app.
Catoe, the company’s chief executive officer, and Fylak, the chief technical officer, named the app Phloat because it was created to help students stay afloat through college.
They soon got in touch with John Hannon, senior lecturer and director of the Spiro Institute.
Catoe and Fylak met with Hannon via Zoom as often as once or twice a week, especially in the first six months.
“He guided us through the early stages of a company, helped us connect with investors, and always had a helpful answer for our questions,” Catoe said. “Spiro also has a ton of great mentors who have started their own companies and are still very active in the Clemson community. We were able to meet with a lot of them, pitch them our app and see what their feedback was. Spiro has been very instrumental in our success.”
Hannon said the company is off to a great start.
“Ryan and Geoffrey have come up with an innovative way of connecting classmates that is gaining amazing traction in classrooms at two universities,” he said. “They have worked hard at starting their company, finding product-market fit, and are well positioned for growth.”
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