Zondr Has Taken the Social Illini By Storm

3/30/2015

Mike Koon, Engineering Communications Office

Editor's Note: This is one in a series of features on competitors in the 2015 Cozad New Venture competition, a program sponsored by the University of Illinois' Technology Entrepreneur Center that is designed to encourage students to create new businesses. The competition process offers teams assistance in the form of: mentors to help guide them through the phases of venture creation, workshops to help with idea validation, pitching skills, customer development, and more as well as and courses to enhance their skills and knowledge. Teams who make it to the finals round of competition will have the opportunity to meet with venture capitalists, early stage investors and successful entrepreneurs who will serve as judges. The judges will determine up to eight finalist teams that will present their ventures at the finals event. Last year, these teams competed for nearly $200,000 in funding and in-kind prizes.

 

Want to know where to catch up with your friends on a night out on campus? For University of Illinois students this year, that latest must-have app, called Zondr, has been a popular way to do just that. Created by John Zhao, a 2014 graduate in general engineering, and a team of undergraduates, Zondr has proven a necessity to those students who don’t want to miss out on an experience.

 

What exactly is Zondr and just how popular is it on the Urbana-Champaign campus? In a nutshell, Zondr enables users to tell exactly what bar their friends are at in real time, making it easier to catch up with them and make choices in their social planning. Launched in the fall semester and operating exclusively on the Illinois campus, Zondr had over 2,000 downloads in the first week and 5,000 downloads in the first month with around 10,000 or about 1/3 of the bar-eligible students now using the app.

Zondr has registered with the I-Start Program at the U of I's tech incubator, Enterprise Works, and has leveraged the College of Engineering's newly formed partnership with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and its startup incubator, Chicago Innovation Exchange (CIE). The Zondr team used CIE space to create an updated version of the app and to begin attracting a network of investors.

"CIE is a really great place because it has a lot of resources,” Zhao said. “The benefits include the many connections to a lot of great business people and different startups. The Director of Operations, Jason Pariso, has helped us understand the investment networks in Chicago and got our foot in the door with one of the biggest of those networks, the Hyde Park Angels."

“I think part of the reason it went viral is we attacked a very viral segment,” Zhao said of Zondr’s success. “The activity we are trying to attract is social planning. People have this fear of missing out. So when you are going after such a social segment and someone gets a hold of the app and shares it, it is not surprising how fast word spreads.”

There are at least two aspects to Zondr that make it so attractive. First instead of using GPS technology, which drains the phone’s battery, it relies on Bluetooth, which exists on virtually every smartphone on the market. Secondly, unlike Four Square or Facebook events, which ask users to check in at a location, Zondr does it for you. 

Zhao has worked with bar owners to install an iBeacon, a device that sticks to a wall and emits a Bluetooth signal. When a Zondr user comes into that establishment, there is no need to check in, its smartphone Bluetooth signal does it for them.

Zondr creates a token for each user, collecting data that the user has given to Facebook, but keeping his or her identity only visible to those the user chooses. Users create groups of friends and at any time can tell which of those friends are at a particular establishment. Those friends can take photos and videos and report in real time such topics as cover charges, long lines, drink specials, live music, or other information that might be useful in making choices about where to go.

While Zondr’s popularity targets the end user, its value comes on the back end. Because the app collects data, it is very useful to the establishments to better understand their customers.  Zondr is also working with larger beer and liquor distributors to provide a direct and contextual marketing platform. They can target messages directly to those they know are at bars. In addition, Zhao suggests that other businesses such as restaurants open after hours and cab companies could, through Zondr, send direct messages with special offers to those specific customers they know are leaving the bars.

While for now Zondr is focused on campus bars, Zhao anticipates it also being used at larger venues and events in the future.

“When you look at the fundamentals of our app, it allows people to see what is going on around them through location based pictures and videos and to see where the friends are at in a social location,” Zhao said. “That could be a bar, a football game, a music festival, or any event. Through the iBeacon, any of these events could create a Bluetooth signal or users could create their own venues the same way.”

Because Zondr only works with establishments that have the iBeacons, it has been able to keep its focus just on Illinois while beta testing. Zhao expects it to be up and running at the University of Iowa within a month and has also been in contact with establishments at the University of Wisconsin, targeting the fall for a roll out in Madison.

After the app went viral, Zhao sold his stake in a computer repair business (Fyx It) he had helped found to focus exclusively on Zondr. Instead of using outside sources, Zhao used banner ads through Zondr to help recruit other members of the team, which now includes Illinois students Stephen Herring (junior, computer science), Colton Mercurio (junior, computer science with minor in technology & management), David Van Vlierbergen (senior, accounting and finance, T&M minor), James Wegner (junior, computer science) and Kirk Wells (senior, finance).

“For us it wasn’t just about trying to find the best programmers or the best people, it was about finding the right ones,” explained Zhao.

The key to building the idea into a fledgling business is the data Zondr collects.

“Right now we have the problem of having so much data and we need to create a good way of organizing that data,” Zhao said. “That’s the next problem we’re tackling -- getting a system of infrastructure that can scale nationally.”

In assessing the viability of future growth, one only needs to look at the metrics and the market share it has established so quickly at Illinois.

“The most difficult part of every startup is getting that traction,” Zhao said. “We had that right off the bat. That was a big selling point for us to attract engineers and business talent.”

The team has registered with the I-Start Program at the U of I’s tech incubator, Enterprise Works, and has leveraged the College of Engineering’s newly formed partnership with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and its startup incubator, Chicago Innovation Exchange (CIE). The Zondr team used CIE space to create an updated version of the app and to begin attracting a network of investors.

“CIE is a really great place because it has a lot of resources,” Zhao said. “The benefits include the many connections to a lot of great business people and different startups. The Director of Operations, Jason Pariso, has helped us understand the investment networks in Chicago and got our foot in the door with one of the biggest of those networks, the Hyde Park Angels.”