Spotivity: Connecting Students to After School Activities
“I wish I knew about that back in high school” is not a phrase Spotivity users will have to use. The impact startup that launched in 2018 is a double-sided marketplace to address the issue of access for all teens. Spotivity fills the gap in high school students' out-of-school time, while also providing key administration SaaS support for programs that provide opportunities. Through this free tool, 13-17 year olds can be connected to meaningful after-school activities that cater to their individual interests through a mobile and web application.
The discrepancy in achievement between students is largely based on the availability of opportunities and the knowledge of the opportunities that are available. This communal knowledge barrier portends how the students spend their after-school hours: the time when they can truly set themselves apart from the crowd and develop their passions, or continue on their current trajectory.
Founder and CEO Montana Butsch is a living example of how pivotal the formative high school years are on one’s future trajectory. By a stroke of luck Butsch (FI Chicago graduate) joined the only high school rowing team in Illinois (at the time), which led to offers from Ivy leagues. Without that opportunity the inner-city Chicago native, who grew up near the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing, may not be in his current position positively impacting the futures of thousands of teenagers. Butsch wants luck to play less of a role on students’ futures:
It dawned on me at an early age -- and being from the city -- that a bunch of the kids in the neighborhood were focusing on the wrong things. They were basically trying to be the next Michael Jordan. The film Hoop Dreams was hugely influential for me.
Joining the NBA is a popular goal because the sport is well known and it’s relatively easy to practice or join a team. But not everyone wants to be a professional basketball player, nor are they talented enough to pursue that dream. The chances of playing in the NBA is roughly 3 in 10,000. That’s a lot of work, and even more luck.
Designed for all teenagers
All students benefit from using Spotivity, regardless of their socioeconomic status because it provides students with a solution to the question “How do I find something that I can truly belong to that solves a need I have?”
Spotiviy partnered with Utah State University (Dr. Travis Dorsch and Dr. John Edwards) to create an evolving algorithm that empowers students to find activities that fit their personality insights and given location based on what they call the "Personality Insight Tool." This upstream approach gets rid of the guesswork and put students on paths that will statistically lead to more success.
Given that there are currently 3,000 searchable programs within Chicago alone (which is home to 2.7 million residents), there are no shortage of options for the 13-17 year olds to take advantage of within their vicinity. This app aims to eliminate the lack of information blind spots students and their communities may have.
The activities are split into 10 categories (in order of popularity as of March 2020): education, arts, sports, camp, mentoring, health, internship, jobs, volunteerism, and virtual. Participating in after-school activities during the school year and summer break can help narrow the achievement gap between wealthy and poor students. Butsch believes that a variety of options is essential to Spotivity’s success because
I think all teens--depending on how you engage them--would ultimately admit that they all want agency.
They all want control over their future.
They all want to make decisions that matter to them and to be the author of their life (this is the one assumption I make).
Butsch believes that all teens want to find something, and that not all will find interest in the same thing -- sports appeals to some, while other Spotivity categories like art, volunteerism, and mental health interest others.
To keep students engaged, Spotivity has a point system. Currently the points create value via social status and recognition in the form of digital badges and leaderboards. In future iterations students will ultimately be able to transition their points to tangible discounts at leading retailers; for example, getting to buy running shoes with a discount via their Spotivity “wallet.”
Points are earned in a number of ways. The first and primary way users earn points is by checking in to an activity, which is time-stamped and geo-fenced by location. Second, users can refer other students to the utility app. And thirdly, a user can share Spotivity on social media to earn points. Users can be students, or parents or guardians.
Montana pointed out that in this era of digital engagement, the ability of a parent or guardian to be optionally "tethered" to their teen also provides meaningful connections among families which can have many positive outcomes. This also helps address safety concerns as teens become more self-sufficient over time.
As the product develops, so do Spotivity's goals. "Our plan for the app is to continue to build the algorithm such that we can help the users when they move to college, and then help them on-board to careers by their mid-twenties."
Butsch’s background and motivation
Butsch is uniquely positioned for his role. As a varsity rower, he not only deeply understands the mentality of an athlete, but was also unintentionally prepared for the hardships solo founders face and the required perseverance and focus one needs to build a company. His low-to-middle income upbringing in Chicago makes it easy for him to connect with students from similar backgrounds and navigate the complexities of classism and racism. On the other end of the spectrum, Butsch attended the University of Pennsylvania (BA), Oxford University, the Kellogg School of Management (Executive scholar), and Brown University’s IE Business School (MBA), so he can speak from experience of what it is like behind the curtain of elite institutions.
The summation of those experiences led him to create his first startup, the Chicago Training Center, to bridge the gap between the sport of rowing and students who didn’t know about it nor have access to it. CTC’s nurturing environment motivates students to become physically fit, to build teamwork, self-esteem and leadership skills, as well as develop and advance their educational and life goals. The now self-sustaining company occupied Butsch’s time for 11 years before he pursued his MBA. He shared that,
Spotivity was the result of me being frustrated with the role of luck for kids finding meaningful activity.
Challenges building Spotivity
As a nontechnical founder, Butsch had to research and identify partners, peers, and advisors who would help bring his clear vision to life. In time he landed on a technical consultant that allowed him to bridge this gap and guide him on making decisions with whom to bring on to his team.
In regards to funding, Butsch has learned that some investors care about impact, while others are ambivalent. His takeaway is that "the trick is always finding the right fit." With his double-sided marketplace model, Butsch remains optimistic. Spotivity "captures the hard to get teen market," but that is just one sector of their focus. Their target market of high schoolers -- in the U.S. alone -- is 40 million (over 12% of the US population). Paired with the optionally tethered adults in the platform and the after-school program providers which occupy the other side of the market, the startup's impact will benefit people across the country.
Another obstacle is that Spotivity is ultimately a utility. While it is hugely beneficial to use, it is not innately attractive to teens. Butsch compared Spotivity's utility to cell phone provider apps: necessary, but not thrilling. As a result, the usability metrics aren’t the same as a social media app. Once students realize the benefits of Spotivity, they have reasons to return to it and to continually use it -- especially if they decide they want to try out a new activity or be motivated by corporate partners providing incentives for engagement (which a benefit of the internal points system). Because Spotivity is available on both mobile devices and on the web, users aren’t forced to download an app, which lowers the barrier to entry. Butsch admitted,
For us, the scalability is really exciting. The goal is audacious, and that is the point.
On the privacy and security front, no personally identifiable information collected from Spotivity is shared with anyone -- not even with the research partners at Utah State University. For organizations that want to be listed on Spotivity they must meet requirements. To be a starter or pro program (the paid platform with SaaS support) organizations need to provide a mandated reporter and a letter of good standing. Emerging agencies (which have under $200k operational budgets per year) need to supply proof of their taxes from the previous year, and everything is reviewed in-house prior to being accepted.
COVID-19's positive impact
The global pandemic changed the company's model from remaining hyper-local to looking toward going global by adding another category called "virtual" to their list of offerings. As of March 30th, 443 virtual programs were pending to be added to the Spotivity app.
Butsch shared that the Conoravirus has forced him to address his immediate model "for all the right reasons" because "this platform allows us to easily address the new needs of teens and can support those in lockdown by highlighting options that exist virtually. We just had to tweak some of the logic on the backend to address the nuances of virtual engagement." Additionally, in March their website had a banner message, "In response to COVID-19, Spotivity is gifting free platforms to programs that cater to teens either in session or remotely. To redeem, use code spotivityfree2020 at checkout.
Advice for impact startups
Entrepreneurs building impact startups face different challenges than "traditional" startups. In this audio clip Butsch shares his advice to other impact startup founders: be in it for the long-run.