When he was only 12-years-old, Chicagoan Trevor Wilkins was the youngest contestant on the Discovery Kids reality TV show Endurance, a show that was sort of a mix between Survivor and Big Brother. On the show, Wilkins learned that nothing would be handed to him, and that he had to work strategically with his team in order to win challenges. His experiences on that program created a blueprint for how he approached football in both middle and high school and how he approaches working as an entrepreneur today.
Wilkins officially launched Küdzoo, an app that rewards students for receiving good grades in school, with the help of his co-founder Logan Cohen this past school year and the duo was recently named one of the Best Education Entrepreneurs by Forbes. “I think we have a very attractive product and there have been a lot of people offering us the world and to take us to the Promised Land, but it is solely on my partner and me, and our supportive team, to get our goals accomplished,” says Wilkins.
The idea for Küdzoo, named after the fastest growing plant in the world, comes from Wilkins’ childhood as well. Growing up, his parents would reward he and his siblings $10 for an A and $5 for a B in high school. Those monetary rewards ultimately incentivized Wilkins to set his own personal goals of achievement, which led him to Princeton University where he eventually developed the idea to build Küdzoo in his senior year.
Here, Wilkins talks with The Upload about being an entrepreneur, Küdzoo 2.0, the growth to 500,00 active users and more.
EBONY.COM: Why did you name the app Küdzoo?
Trevor Wilkins: Küdzoo is the name of the fastest growing plant in the world. It is an invasive species from Japan but found mostly in the South. Küdzoo is known to take over homes, crops and just about anything else. This is a metaphor for how we want students to be about their education. That’s where the name Küdzoo comes from.
EBONY.COM: How did the idea for the app and your partnership with Logan Cohen come about?
TW: Logan and I met during my freshman year at a Phillies game and we stayed in touch throughout the years. After graduation I brought the idea to her, and I was originally going to launch it as a Website, but with her being very technologically savvy she suggested turning it into a mobile app. From there, we were able to raise a little bit of money and start building the platform. The idea itself I’ve had since childhood as I saw how crucial rewards were to my academic success growing up. My parents gave my brother, sister and I $10 for A’s $5 for B’s and we actually had to pay them $20 for C’s. This was in high school, but from fourth or fifth grade they would reward us with toys, so that by the time I got to high school I wanted to do well, because that’s what I was used to. I saw these rewards go a long way as I graduated from Princeton, my brother graduated from Yale, and my sister is now attending the University of Pennsylvania.
When I got to college I saw that a lot of the students who were at Princeton were smart, but I didn’t see them as any smarter than the students I had grown up with on the South Side of Chicago. The main differences I saw between my peers at home and the ones from school was the foundation that they had and the support that they had at home. Not to say we can replace a parent in the household but we focus on being that additional support for students. We see ourselves as being able to insert our platform into what students are already doing, while giving them that extra support. If we can be that extra sense of motivation, we feel that we can really make a difference.
EBONY.COM: Can you explain a little bit about how the app works in terms of submitting your report card? Is there an algorithmic component or is it human intervention? And what is the Squad?
TW: Students download Küdzoo for free, Create their profile and then they can upload their grades. They can also answer questions of the day and check into school. They receive Küdzoo cash for all of these things. They receive cash for grades, grade improvement, how well they do on trivia, and also checking into school on a daily basis, as well as for sharing their academic achievements, sharing when they upload, and sharing how they do on the trivia questions. With the Küdzoo cash, they can purchase rewards like gift cards, discounts, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like a shootaround with a Major League Soccer player and scholarship information as well. The amount they receive is based on the GPA they receive for the quarter or the semester. We have members of our Küdzoo Squad internally verifying student report cards every time they submit them and within 24 hours they either get approved or denied.
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EBONY.COM: Did you do any traditional marketing to grow so quickly?
TW: We put our feet to the street and went into schools and after-school programs and partnered with them and spoke there. While we were developing the app, we taught a class for the last two years in West Philadelphia focused on entrepreneurship. Half of the class is focused on entrepreneurship and half is a focus group for Küdzoo. They became our Squad. We wanted to grow the business with those who are actually using it. All of our users become Squad members and can give feedback on the app and what we should change. They send tweets and emails and feel a part of the community. We reward students when they tweet and tell their friends about it. So, we grew organically through social media.
One of our biggest hurdles was proving to students that this was real. That they could get real gift cards and real discounts for their good grades. We saw the power in our Squad and how engaged they were and eager to help us grow. We went from 4,500 students in July to nearly 500,000 now. We accredit it to heavy social media usage and our Squad. Our cost per user acquisition has gotten down to 20 cents and sometimes even nine.
EBONY.COM: Some studies suggest that monetary rewards don’t work long term. The thinking there is that motivation has to be intrinsic vs extrinsic to work beyond an initial hook. How do you respond to that?
TW: To counter that there are studies that show students improving grades and attendance when given these types of rewards. Küdzoo is an “and” not an “or.” We are autonomous from schools. Students opt in on their own. They are taking responsibility. It’s something they want to do and they see how it mirrors the real world. If you do a job, you get paid for it. We feel strongly that engaging students through incentives that are really up to them, is another way that reveals positive results.
EBONY.COM: What’s new in Küdzoo 2.0?
TW: You can now see newsfeeds with students posting there and sharing their academic achievements, which is what students told us they wanted to see. It made it real to them in terms of seeing other students from around the nation and world earning rewards. We also added the check-ins through the Foursquare API, which shows school attendance in real time. There’s an improved grade submission and redesigned shop section, plus integration with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram allows users to share more. We’ll add leaderboards in later versions.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.