Wiggio Offers Free Groupware for Harried College Students

9/11/08Follow @wroush

When I was in college in the late 1980s, the apex of communications technology was the answering machine. Nobody had a mobile phone. Nobody even had an e-mail account, aside from a few computer-science majors. (And since there was no data connectivity in the dorms, even the geeks had to go to the computer room in the campus science center to read their e-mail.) If you wanted to contact a fellow student to set up a lunch date or a study group meeting or a band rehearsal, you had to call their dorm room and leave a message. And if you wanted a friend to edit your term paper, you had to hand it to them on a floppy disk.

So when Dana Lampert and Lance Polivy, two 22-year-old Cornell graduates, came by Xconomy’s office last week to talk about their Cambridge, MA-based startup, a student-oriented groupware provider called Wiggio, I listened with growing bemusement. It seems that kids these days are on the go so much of the time, and have so many clubs and groups and friends to keep up with, that they want help from the same kind of scheduling and collaboration software used inside many Fortune-1000 companies today. “Dana and I both had summer internships on Wall Street, working for big banks, and we realized that there are all these great collaboration tools, but we didn’t have any of them back at school,” says Polivy.

Nor could students afford these tools, even if they were available on campus. Microsoft’s Groove, a desktop program that teams can use to create online workspaces, costs $229 per copy—and even no-frills, Web-based alternatives like Basecamp, a popular collaboration suite from Chicago’s 37signals, can come with steep monthly fees ($24 to $149 per month, in Basecamp’s case). So Lampert and Polivy and their software-engineering colleagues, brothers Rob and Derek Doyle, built a system that lets students share files and calendars, set up group conference calls, and exchange mass text messages, voice messages, and e-mails—all from a free, advertising-supported Web interface.

Wiggio Calendar Screen ShotStudents at Cornell and other campuses have been testing Wiggio since last spring, and the startup will open the site to the general public on Monday. Lampert and Polivy say they plan to start marketing the system this fall on 40 select campuses around the country, including Boston schools like BU, Harvard, Northeastern, and Tufts.

The pair of young entrepreneurs say that Wiggio—the name is a takeoff on an acronym for “Working In Groups”—was born from their own frustrations at Cornell, keeping their busy student lives in order. “We were in many different business organizations, bands, sports teams, fraternity councils, and living in apartments with different housemates, and we found that each group was using different tools,” says Lampert. “Some were using Google Calendar, others were using Yahoo’s calendars. Some just sent e-mails out, others used listservs. For polls, they’d go to Survey Monkey, and for conference calls they’d use free apps like FreeConference.com. When Lance and I put our heads together, we thought we could put all these things in one place.”

Almost every function on Wiggio duplicates something that’s also available from some other service or platform. But the key to building Wiggio, Lampert says, was making things simple. Setting up a group is quick, easy, and free, and groups can use as many or as few of the communications options as they need. Each task, from creating an event on the Wiggio calendar to sending out a mass text message, is boiled down to about three steps. To set up a poll of group members, for example, users just have to name the poll, pick which group members should receive it, and write the questions.

“There are a lot of students who highly dislike doing student projects because it’s difficult to get hold of everyone and collaborate,” says Polivy. “The idea of one-stop shopping to solve their group needs is something students get excited about. We’ll call up students and say this is the kind of project we’re working on, and they’ll say, ‘What’s the URL? When can I go there?’”

Wiggio currently operates from the Cambridge studio/laboratory of Bob Doyle, a programming polymath and well-known Boston tech veteran who is the startup’s first angel investor. Doyle, currently the CEO of an open-source enterprise management software provider called skyBuilders.com, is a PhD astrophysicist who worked on the Skylab project for NASA and is probably most famous for co-inventing Merlin, a handheld electronic game released by Parker Brothers in 1978, and for developing MacPublisher, the first desktop publishing program, in 1984.

The Wiggio TeamLampert and Polivy connected with Doyle through Lampert’s father, Marc Lampert, owner of Pharmaceutics, a medical-supplies distributor in West Roxbury, MA, where Rob Doyle had done programming work. “My dad suggested I get in touch with Rob, who said it seemed really exciting and who wanted to be a partner,” says Lampert. “He then got his brother Derek as the second programmer. And their father is Bob Doyle,” who decided to invest.

The space in Doyle’s studio came as part of the equity agreement. And while it meant that Polivy and Lampert had to leave Ithaca, it gives Wiggio access to all of Boston’s campuses—and to the senior Doyle, whom Polivy calls “one of the smartest people I’ve ever been able to work with. One of my friends said, ‘I bet working in Bob’s office is a lot like going to grad school,’ and he’s right.”

That will have to do for now, since neither Polivy nor Lampert have any plans to pursue business school or other graduate studies—at least not until after Wiggio is well on its way to success. But that might happen quickly, if the site’s tools spread as virally as other campus-based technology phenomena such as Facebook. “The coolest part of this is that we’re building something that we know we needed ourselves as college students,” says Lampert. “And we know that our friends at Cornell still need it. And from reaching out to peers at other schools, we know they need it too.”

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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