I am running a few minutes late as I enter into HQ Raleigh. The building is full of thinkers, tinkerers and world changers. I swim my way through all of the clutter and make eye contact with the subjects of my piece, the co-founders of Bulletin Mobile, Nick Cioffi and James Long.
These two young entrepreneurs have set off on a journey to change the way information is communicated between teachers and students, starting with the hundreds of classes each day at NC State, and they have tests underway to disrupt other industries that require regular conversation too.
It takes a few minutes to get settled and we make small talk until I can get my notebook out. I say, “So I want this to be more conversational and I want to start from the beginning of your journey as an entrepreneur.”
A few seconds pass by and Nick, a 2014 graduate of NC State and ThinkHouse Fellow
, takes the lead, “It really began in our Practical Arts Entrepreneurship class in the fall of 2012. James and I were constantly uncertain about what was due and when. There was this constant back and forth.”
James, slated for graduation next month, jumps in adding, “For us as students, there are so many mediums like email, Blackboard, Moodle, etc. that teachers expect their students to use and keep up with. We knew there had to be a simpler way that made it easier on us.” The two look at each other, in almost a reminiscent moment, noting that Bulletin Mobile spun out of a class project.
Practical Arts Entrepreneurship, also known as EMA 370, teaches students about the startup process and the social impact of art and artistry on the entrepreneurial decision-making. James and Nick grew up together and built up a rapport, so teaming up was natural. The co-founders worked on their business plan for the next couple months and, in the spring of 2013, with the help of a local development firm, Nick and James finally had something that they could present.
Bulletin Mobile (screenshots pictured above) is a plugin for Moodle, an open source learning management system that allows teachers to communicate important information about their courses and students to quickly check current assignments, grades, notes, etc. In other words, Bulletin Mobile is an add-on to an existing learning management system. But it’s an important one. Bulletin Mobile integrates with the Moodle database, automatically sorting students into their respective classes and allowing teachers to compose messages within Moodle that are then delivered through the private network to students’ smartphones; ensuring that Moodle becomes a one-stop shop for students and teachers.
From an analytics perspective, teachers can see who opens up their message and in real-time. That makes the plugin different than, say, an email. Teachers have the ability to send out information to specific people and know whether or not they received it. The main goal of the plugin is to completely eliminate uncertainty in one-way communication.
Turning a cool tool into a product critical for classrooms
Later in the spring of 2013, the two were able to take more than just an idea of their startup to California for the annual Entrepreneurship Initiative spring break trip
, for which about 15 students are selected to visit both young startups and more established business like Apple, Google or Facebook.
After experiencing the entrepreneurial culture on the West Coast, the two came back invigorated and ready to get Bulletin Mobile off the ground. During that spring semester, the co-founders beta tested Bulletin Mobile in seven classes at NC State. That summer they went back to the drawing board and refined their processes. Then, in the fall, Nick had a chance run-in with the Chancellor Randy Woodson and pitched him the idea.
“He got really interested in it because he saw what Bulletin Mobile could potentially do,” the founders told me. Soon after, they began working on a standalone software, which allows individuals to use all of Bulletin Mobile’s features without having to work through a preexisting medium like Moodle. They can import users, set up bulletin boards, send bulletin notifications and see analytics without requiring Moodle.
Their target is any industry or organization that needs direct one-way communication to large masses of people in a closed network. The medical, construction and supply chain management sectors are just a few markets they’ll target.
While it is still in the development phase, the standalone is already functional. They hope to service those who want to use the plugin, without having to depend on other technology.
A bootstrapped team
The co-founders have a few NC State students helping to code the software. Nick and James, sports management and sociology majors respectively, have some experience coding, which helps them to oversee processes and implementation.
As they finish up explaining the inner workings of their startup, I flip back in my notepad looking for questions I had quickly scribbled down. It was time to shift the discussion to their plans to expand beyond NC State. The two in a systematic, almost rhythmic pattern, take turns answering and pausing for one another.
Nick starts, “Right now, Bulletin Mobile is in 20-25 classes at NC State and it can be considered our soft launch.” They say students and teachers have responded well to the simplicity and seamless integration of their plugin.
Their immediate focus is getting all of NC State to use Bulletin Mobile, and they’re in negotiations now for the 2015-2016 school year. But the next steps involve actively marketing to other schools that use the Moodle platform.
Because hundreds of thousands of teachers and students use it, the men want to focus on that base before developing plug-ins for competing communication platforms like Blackboard. “We want to help students, but in order to do that, we first need to reach teachers and to convince teachers we need to talk to Chancellors”.
I scribble that down drawing arrows and, in an unspoken silence, it is mutually understood that there is a chain of command that has to be followed in order to sell their product to an entire school.
Moving forward, the two realize that a big step in growing Bulletin Mobile is sales. By the end of the year, they hope to have a few employees specifically devoted to acquiring new leads and helping to promote the offered service. Funding will be a conversation too—they’ve bootstrapped the company so far with Cioffi providing private tennis lessons on the side and Long coaching tennis and teaching Chinese.
I want to get to know more about them, so I direct the conversation towards their biggest influences on their entrepreneurial journey. Both think and silence fills the room until Nick answers, “For me, it was the entrepreneurial classes that I took at N.C. State. I mean, I had worked for other people in the corporate world and these classes really helped me realize that I could be on the other side of that world. They inspired me to do more and I had this huge mind-flip. After that, there was no going back to the way I was.”
James, after taking ample time to digest the question, says, “For me, I was always an inventor and tinkerer. There is just a level of freedom that entrepreneurship gives. It affords you the ability, really the option, to make your own path.”
The ThinkHouse program has also been critical. As part of the living-learning community for young entrepreneurs in Raleigh, Cioffi has had mentors, advisors and workshops who’ve guided the product’s development and its go-to-market strategy. Cioffi says help from them and HQ Raleigh’s team “has changed the way we are running Bulletin Mobile and given us the tools and development to be much more successful entrepreneurs going forward.”
As the meeting wraps up, a comment one of the two makes stays with me, even after they have left me with just my thoughts and a notebook full of newly scribbled ink, “At the end of the day we just want to build the business. That is the biggest thing for us and that, right now, is the biggest focus.”