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Students Unplug with Pocket Points

"Professors had given up, but Rob and I knew we had a great idea!"

Mitch Gardner (left) and Rob Richardson (right) in front of the Pocket Points office in Chico, CA. 

“There is no way you will be able to keep students off their phones!” Professors had given up, but Rob and I knew we had a great idea.

Odd as it may sound, the decision to combat cell phone addiction in college classrooms started with a text. In the spring of 2014, when I was a junior in college at California State University, Chico, I was approached by my friend and fraternity brother Rob Richardson who was sick of seeing so many people in class distracted by their mobile phones. It was something I felt strongly about too. In fact, I worked on a video project my sophomore year of college that took a humorous look at the awkward obliviousness that occurs when people refuse to put down their phones in public. Rob had created apps in the past, and given his entrepreneurial spirit, he knew that there had to be a way to incentivize students to set aside their phones and stay engaged in class. At the time, we didn’t see the irony of using a mobile phone app to help solve this problem; all we saw was that Rob’s idea presented us with the opportunity to help those students who were struggling with it themselves. Late that night I sent Rob a text message that read “I can’t stop thinking about the app. Let’s do it.”

Rob and I were young, only twenty and twenty-one respectively, but we knew we had a good idea and we had to find a way to make it happen. The motto of each day became “what do we do next?” and with the guidance of professors who saw our passion for this project, slowly the Pocket Points app began to take shape. The concept is simple: open the Pocket Points app while on campus and then lock your phone. As long as your phone remains locked, you are earning points that can be turned into discounts at your favorite businesses.

Although students were our focus, we thought it would be wise to reach out to professors and colleagues for additional feedback. Some teachers were wholeheartedly on board. Others didn’t like the idea, or didn’t think it was needed. Undoubtedly, some just didn’t think that two inexperienced college students could make it happen and that it would be a distraction from our regular schoolwork. But as students ourselves, we knew that there was a demand for something like this within the student community and it was our goal to fill that need. We wanted to give students a way to opt in that would improve their classroom experience while also providing perks to help them save money. Their professor may want them to use it or they may not, but the point was, and still remains, to create an app that the student wants to use. And when the student uses it, the end result benefits everyone. The students are able to focus in class and earn free food. The businesses increase their student foot traffic. And the teachers can finally teach without half of the class scrolling through cat pictures on Instagram.

In the beginning, I put in a lot of legwork reaching out to local businesses to try and get them involved. So many of them were paying to circulate coupons, and I knew we could offer them a better way to reach the students, which in turn would help the students to do more with their small budgets. As more and more local businesses opted in, it became clear that we were on to something big.

In September of 2014 we launched the Pocket Points app at Chico State. We started by announcing the app within our fraternity and a few other Greek organizations on campus. Word spread from there and within the first few weeks, 30% of Chico State students were using the app.

The Chico State newspaper, The Orion, printed an article about Pocket Points that caught the attention of Chris Friedland, founder of the Chico-based ecommerce company Build.com. He met with us and, impressed with the spread of Pocket Points at Chico State, became our first investor. He also kept us moving forward by providing us with our next goal. While Pocket Points had been a huge success at Chico State, Chris’ concerns related to whether or not we could have the same results elsewhere. He told us, “this is great, but I just don’t know if it will spread beyond Chico.” We left the meeting determined to launch Pocket Points at five more campuses.

Rob and I, intent on proving to Friedland, to our professors, and to ourselves that Pocket Points could succeed, launched the app at Penn State in February of 2015. Within a few weeks we had 40% of their 40,000 students using the app. By fall of 2015 we had launched at the sixty largest universities in the United States. We continued to improve our business model and expand to new cities throughout 2016 and 2017, and thanks to the hard work of our team, Pocket Points is currently available at schools in more than one hundred cities nationwide. As we look forward to 2018, we are gearing up to expand Pocket Points to every high school and college in the country.

We have been able to sustain a high rate of growth because college students are becoming more and more aware of the negative effects that technology addiction has on their lives, and are seeking ways to change their habits. Rob and I witnessed this struggle daily at Chico State, and that has fueled our desire to bring Pocket Points to as many students as possible. Studies continue to show that increased tech use correlates to things like increased anxiety and depression, and students want help putting down their cellphones. Pocket Points provides incentives to help them do just that. With more than one million students using Pocket Points in the U.S., we are thrilled to have had a positive impact on so many lives. Technology isn’t going anywhere and we wouldn’t want it to, but we do hope that we can be a part of the solution as students find a healthy balance that works for them.

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