An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Brian F. Kathman, the founder and CEO of Signal Vine, which was honored in our:
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Alexandria
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Alexandria
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Alexandria
- 2018 Best Tech Startups in Alexandria
Tell us the origin story of Signal Vine – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
We identified college access and retention as critical issues not only for higher education institutions, but for the success of our economy, innovation, and social function. The opportunity for Signal Vine was inspired by research by Ben Castleman and Lindsay Page while they were finishing their doctoral program at Harvard’s School of Education. The researchers wanted to see if behavioral science, specifically nudge theory, improved college matriculation rates for first-generation and disadvantaged populations.
The results using an early version of Signal Vine’s text messaging platform were an 11% improvement in college matriculation rates and a subsequent improvement of 20% of college retention rates. The research was key to giving Signal Vine (and personalized text messaging) credibility as an overlooked communication channel to engage students. Since then, 100M+ messages later, we have seen the growth and acceptance of text messaging as a student engagement tool.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
The first hurdle was convincing prospective customers that students would welcome communication via text messaging. Email had been the primary way to communicate with students since the 90s, and the only use of text messaging was one-way, mass emergency alerts, not a conversational/engagement/connection channel. I saw this in the early days of SMS in the US when it was primarily used as a voicemail notification until a company I helped build turned it into the most common way to communicate with one another. So, I knew from that early experience that we had not fully tapped the potential for SMS in education.
The second hurdle was to show front line professionals that texting is a viable way to build relationships with students without a significant increase in workload. Advisors, admissions counselors, financial aid counselors, etc. are such a critical part of a student’s success in navigating institutions’ unique rules and nomenclature. Easing the student’s and the professional’s ability to communicate through that learning curve via text has tremendous potential.
Students and professionals love texting, and I hear stories every day of how it has literally changed and saved students’ lives. We are continuing to refine our technology in response to customers’ unique needs and the challenges their students face (i.e. COVID and the need for faculty to have an easier way to communicate with the students in their class – stay tuned for faculty texting in 2021)!
What does the future hold for Signal Vine?
We’re still in the early days of schools mastering the use of SMS as a student engagement channel and a driver of meaningful, positive outcomes for the students and institutions. We’ve led the way, incorporating AI and automation into the use of text messaging, while keeping it authentic and personal to each student. We believe the future of AI is humanizing it, and in our case, leveraging AI to maximize the effectiveness of communication that still feels genuine. Going down this path of AI and data, I believe the winners will use “streaming data”, such as active communications or changing status and context, as a key differentiator. For us, this will only improve how we support students and help ensure success on their education journeys.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Alexandria?
There are some amazing companies in Alexandria following in the footsteps of their predecessors, such as Motley Fool and Fishbowl. Alexandria is unique to the DC area, with a mix of culture, history, creativity, and influencers, while still being part of the larger DC ecosystem. In EdTech alone, we have a group of CEOs and founders who meet regularly over breakfast in Del Ray, so there’s a lot of like-minded entrepreneurs to draw from. With Amazon’s HQ2 and Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus coming into National Landing just down the street, I expect the startup scene to grow in ways we’ve never seen before. It’s an exciting time to be a startup in Alexandria.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
I have a long list of advice from my various adventures, but if I had to boil it down, I would say talk to as many people as you can. Use your network. It applies to every stage of building a business, whether it’s trying to figure out whether to start it, how to grow it to the next level, or how to overcome challenges. It goes without saying that hard work and passion are required, but I’ve learned more from others than I could have figured out on my own. Sometimes, others will help you validate what you thought and give you confidence; other times, they will spark a new idea or help you think about something differently. And fellow entrepreneurs are always willing to share their experiences and thoughts, which makes it such a great pursuit – we’ve all been there before.