CampusConnect is an app which connects university applicants with current students and graduates of their course of interest.

By helping students connect, this results in more enrollments, lower dropout, and more successful students.

The app is used by top Irish and UK universities to help recruit students at home and from overseas. As many classes in third-level institutions move online during the Covid-19 pandemic, community building for students has never been more important. CampusConnect can help with this as it allows students to start their college adventure right now.

“On average, one in every six students will drop out in their first year of college or university and unfortunately this has a really negative effect on the individual, their families, and the wider communities they come from”

“CampusConnect works with top universities in the UK and Ireland to reduce early drop out by supporting new students through pre-enrollment into their first few weeks on campus,” explained co-founder Declan Sweeney. “For universities, like the University of Limerick and Maynooth University, we support their incoming international students while some UK universities —such as Bangor University and Liverpool John Moores — use the service to target new undergraduate entrants across a wide range of programmes.”

Sweeney said he spent a number of years working at a University in London supporting new students through the transition into third-level education.

“It’s an exceptionally challenging period for new starters and I saw firsthand the numbers who drop out either before enrolling or shortly after. On average, one in every six students will drop out in their first year of college or university and unfortunately this has a really negative effect on the individual, their families, and the wider communities they come from. The financial and reputational damage to the institutions is also significant and they are keen to do what they can to provide the right type of support during this critical juncture.

A key part of that support is giving new entrants the opportunity to develop a network of peers early on. While many who choose to leave do so for reasons beyond the institution’s control, peer support has been proven to make a significant difference. Students who make connections early on are three times more likely to enrol and progress than those who don’t.”

Sweeney warned that with Covid19 restrictions, new students this September are particularly at risk of drop out as they have fewer face-to-face opportunities to develop critical friendships and support networks. For us, providing more opportunities for September 2020 entrants has been a key focus over the past six months.

How CampusConnect works

“CampusConnect is a mobile app that we customise for each university team. We work with recruitment, admissions, and student service teams who make the app  available to their new incoming students and It matches and connects them with peers starting on their course as well as with current students, recent graduates and university staff.

“Typically, what happens is a new applicant receives an invite from their university of choice to join their CampusConnect app. They register by creating a profile with information on what they are planning to study, where they come from, their interests, start date, etc. They then download the app onto their phone where we begin to connect them with the best match peers including fellow applicants, current students, and even those recently graduated. There are lots of information groups such as subject groups, accommodation groups, info from staff on welcome week, and a list of recommended connections to help them build out their network.”

University teams normally access through a staff web account where they can analyse uptake, levels of engagement, most active students, staff, and alumni. It is a great way for teams to get important pre-enrolment information to new entrants.

The service has proven particularly important for teams and new students this recent September intake and our work was shortlisted in the international PIEoneer awards under ‘Best new digital innovation’.

“Making the top eight internationally was a tremendous achievement and something we are very proud of,” Sweeney added.

Collegiate and connected

Sweeney co-founded CampusConnect with Daniel Hinkley. “Both Dan and I worked for universities and colleges in the UK and I spent some time working in an international college in Australia. We saw first-hand how hard it was for new students starting out and how drop out was so damaging and prevalent across the sector.

“We actually met while we were working together in a college in Manchester and became really good friends. Through our work we noticed how very little was being done to reach out to support students in the months before they actually arrive and start college or university. We recognised that there was an opportunity to do a lot more to help those starting out, especially as pre-enrolment was in some cases six to 12 months and the first few weeks on campus were so overwhelming. At that time information was being sent to students via email communication and a prospectus. So we began looking at ways to build pre-enrolment communities for students and managed to secure some early grant funding initially to road test the idea.

“I contacted a number of recruitment teams in universities in Ireland and the director of International at UL, Josephine Page got back in touch as she really liked the concept. That was the start of the process and we began building out the solution from there and adding new teams to our early pilot programme.

“It’s been an incredible journey looking back and while it’s had its ups and downs, we are extremely proud of what we have achieved from getting an idea to where we are today.”

There’s never an ideal time to start

Dark-haired man standing in a library.

CampusConnect co-founder Declan Sweeney

Sweeney said that starting CampusConnect actually coincided with he and his wife’s first child Callum and a move back from the UK to Leitrim.

“I am originally from Kiltyclogher, which featured in a campaign recently to bring more people into the area as the local school was in danger of closing. We moved back here as we felt it was an ideal place to achieve a quality work life balance and be close to our parents.

“I initially entered our early concept into the Enterprise Ireland New Frontiers programme at IT Sligo Innovation Centre and we were fortunate enough to be accepted. This was a  great opportunity and platform to road test and refine our business proposition. It really was very loose at the time and in hindsight we had very little business experience and a lot of learning to do. We developed the product and acquired our first three colleges/universities over this period and went on to secure more funding through the Enterprise Ireland competitive start up fund. The support and guidance we got from Michelle Connolly and all the mentors on the programme was invaluable and the friendships we made there are still close today.

“While being based in the north-wests of Ireland did mean a lot of travelling to Dublin and over and back to the UK, it was an ideal environment to start out as costs were low and work life balance with family is superb; living on a farm and only 20 minutes from the beach.”

Apart from some early Enterprise Ireland funding and some small private investment, Sweeney and Hinkley are mainly bootstrapped and have built the business on the revenue they generate through working with clients.

“While this has meant our growth has been slower, it has given us far greater independence to build our business in a way that we feel is right for us, our customers, and students who use the service.”

What gets measured gets managed

Like most founders, mistakes had been made along the way. “Perhaps the one that we learned the most from was at the end of our first contract we really overlooked how important it was for us to measure impact and demonstrate to the customer how much value they were getting.

“We naively left a lot of this on the customer and expected them to understand the value/return on investment they got from using the service. We now know that in this type of enterprise sales context you need to explicitly work with customers to measure and show impact. We discover that they will welcome the approach as they too will have to justify the spend and time allocated to the project so the collaboration is good for both sides.”

Technologies that have helped the team to stay agile are invariably cloud-based. “We’ve always had part of the team work remotely so we have become very used to using various tools and services to help the team work more effectively. We use Asana for project management and it really keeps us on top of priorities and help make sure we don’t miss any client tasks. The Google suite particularly Google Docs is great for collaborating on work and we are frequently on Zoom and Google chat for calls with clients. I’ve also more recently started using Slack to connect with other start up founders for peer support.”

His advice to fellow founders is to be broad-minded and open to criticism and insight. “Avoid absolute thinking would be my top tip and one I wish I had really considered starting out. There is a tendency as an entrepreneur to convince yourself that your idea or approach or process is the right one when sometimes you have to open your mind to the likelihood that you are actually wrong. The trick is to keep testing to get closer to what is right.”

Pictured in main image at top: CampusConnect co-founders Daniel Hinkley and Declan Sweeney

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 20 October, 2020

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