Nina Barnett , a rising senior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, thought hard about her personal safety after moving to the campus. From late-night cramming sessions at the library to leaving parties, Barnett wanted to alert her friends and family that she had gotten home safe.
“I realized that safety shouldn’t have that connotation of ‘only used in tragic situations.’ There needed to be something that you could use every day, that didn’t have this negative connotation, but also would be there when you needed it the most,” says Barnett.
Most of the safety apps currently on the market, according to Barnett, are designed to immediately alert the police of a dangerous incident. She wanted a middle ground of alerting friends of her location — similar to sharing your Lyft’s car ride — and give them the peace of mind that she was safe.
That’s the purpose behind her tracking app Grooop, a minimally-invasive platform where you can create groups of friends to keep track of each other’s safety status. Barnett sees it as a “social and safety hybrid app.”
“I’ve had multiple times walking home and I’ve just been a little worried, but I didn’t want to call the police just because. I could just be a little freaked out. Instead, I set off the alert, and my friends have been able to just walk me home from there,” says Barnett.
Grooop allows students to set safe zones, like your dorm or gym, to alert their selected group of friends that they’re good if they’re within that range. Once they leave the safe zone, their status is changed to “out and about.” If at a party, you can hit “Ready to Go” to quickly find your friends without texting and avoid walking home alone. In case of emergency or if you’re uncomfortable, you can do a quick swipe of the lock-screen widget and change your status to “Alert!” to signal your ‘grooop’ that you need help.
“If it’s in-app, it’ll countdown from ten in case you accidentally hit it and basically will pinpoint your exact location, and send it out to your group and say ‘This person set off their alert, do you want to call or text them?’ And this is the only time it will send off your exact location, unless someone requests it and you accept,” says Barnett.
The founder used the summer following her freshman year to gather intel on the need for this app concept and focus its vision. She conducted in-depth interviews with students at UNC-Chapel Hill and Virginia Tech and gathered data on both Grooop’s potential features and its UX design and branding.
She partnered with Durham-based Smashing Boxes developers to build the app in summer 2016 and beta tested it in campuses across the country, including UNC, University of Alabama, Wake Forest University, UC Berkeley and Vanderbilt University, the following winter. The app had a public launch in August 2017.
To promote the safety tracking app among campuses, Barnett reached out to local students to function as campus ambassadors and spread awareness about Grooop, from hanging up flyers to posting on social media and attending events to hand out Grooop-branded swag. Barnett wants to make sure that whoever joins her team is passionate about safety.
“We don’t want just people that are passionate about their resume; we want people that really, truly want to change their campus,” says Barnett.
“I would love to see this app go above and beyond, but at the same time, my main concern is changing how safety is viewed. A huge part of their responsibility is connecting with the campus police, the campus safety organization, or their school newspaper. Anything that really has ties to safety and getting us connected with them, so that we can work with them and see if there’s a partnership available.”
So far, Grooop has active users in 15 schools around the country with goals to get into the major universities across the Southeast in the next few months. Thanks to Barnett’s recent study abroad venture to England, the startup also has ambassadors in Scotland and England to test the app in an international setting.
Currently bootstrapped from a friends and family round, Barnett is prioritizing building a strong foundation for her product before reaching out for outside investment. The app operates on a subscription model with a possible university sponsorship model in the works.
“I think that being a student founder definitely has its challenges, but at the same time it’s a huge propeller in how I change the app, how I can tell if it works or not, and if people are using it. It’s a huge help that I’m a student but there are definitely challenges that come with it,” says Barnett.
“I was presenting at this tech conference in April and I was by far the youngest CEO there. It was one of those things where everyone could tell that I believed in it, and they could tell that I was confident in it, so they wanted to buy into it.”
“But it is a huge leap of faith a lot of times.”