Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with PJ Harris, co-founder of the Totem app. A law student at the University of Virginia, Harris got the idea for a charitable social network in the summer of 2014 after watching the popularity of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Two years later, Totem is now an app with funding from UVa’s iLab, a University-wide incubation initiative which seeks to foster student and faculty entrepreneurship and innovation.
Harris describes Totem as “a philanthropy-based social platform where people form teams and compete to win rewards from local businesses by donating to local causes.” The app features a different charity and sponsor each week, and the team that raises the most money for the cause receives a prize from the sponsoring business. Harris has found that using a reward system encourages participation in fundraising for philanthropies as it gives college students an incentive to not only donate, but to use the app itself.
When thinking about transforming an abstract idea into an app, Harris stresses the importance of networking and connections in generating publicity and success. He cites support received from the UVa basketball team, multiple Charlottesville restaurants, and several fraternities and sororities as major sources of exposure. Harris also notes that the endorsement Totem received from the basketball team originated from a personal relationship with one of the players. The team donated a signed ball in early February to the team that raised the most money for Habitat for Humanity.
On Thursday, Totem was selected as a finalist for the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council’s Social Good Award. The CBIC award honors area individuals and organizations who are making a noteworthy impact on society through entrepreneurship, education, and the development and commercialization of new technologies. While Harris is proud of the app’s success thus far, he acknowledges that it was not a completely easy journey. Harris spoke openly about issues with the app’s algorithm and the difficulties in finding a proper point system.
The Totem team is hoping to expand to more Virginia colleges in the near future, as these communities have groups of people built in (such as clubs, Greek life, and sports teams) which allow for easier group-making and collaboration.
Harris is not the only UVa student who has built an app. Third Year College student Joshua Choi developed an app called Pear, a social matchmaking game where people can suggest pairs among their Facebook friends and ask their mutual friends to rate the potential match. After people vote, the app sends a message to the proposed couple letting them know what percentage of their friends think they would be a good match.
One of the biggest pieces of advice Choi offers to students creating their own apps is to confirm that there is a need for what the app provides before actually building it. He urges app creators to make sure that there is a demand for the product within the targeted audience and suggests looking at the market to confirm that the idea does not already exist. If a version of the concept is already on the market, Choi advises finding a way to make it more useful to a certain subset of people who will become your “core” users. He also wants to let other students that they should not be afraid to code.
Before launching an app, Choi also stresses the importance of securing funding in order to get the product off the ground. In the preparation process, he advises creators to execute multiple test runs to identify and fix any bugs or technical issues.
Choi notes that there are many resources available for UVa students who want to develop their own app or learn more about the app-making process. The CIO HooApps builds iPhone and Android apps, helping programmers improve their skills and learn what it is like to develop apps in a professional context. The club is also open to students with no prior experience and teaches web development to anyone interested.