A Q&A with Switchboard, winners of the 2017 SwatTank Competition

8 mins read

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This past Friday, the student-made messaging service Switchboard won the 2017 SwatTank competition against nine other competitors, winning $3,000 in total. Having launched for the third time last Thursday, Switchboard now has 65 users and over 1600 messages sent. The service connects users with others anonymously. The Daily Gazette sits down with founders Michael Piazza ‘17 and Eric Wang ‘18 to talk about the past, present and future of Switchboard. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


IL: This is the third launch of Switchboard, what’s different this time?

MP: From a user experience point of view, it’s very similar to the first launch, so the first launch was entirely text-message based. You text the Switchboard operator, a message and a hashtag and they route your message to someone else. And you just communicate via our phone number. This did really well the first time we launched it. It blew up on campus with 17,000 texts but we had to use a service called Twilio to route all the messages, this ends up costing almost a cent per message, so we were hemorrhaging cash. We quickly realized this was not feasible. This version is similar to the first version – it’s all SMS but we figured out how to cut Twilio out of the loop completely so we’re not paying to route individual messages anymore.

IL: Could you talk more about the second launch?

EW: Just to re-emphasize, it was an iPhone app. In terms of stats it wasn’t quite as successful as the first launch. We also got 250 users, just like the first time, but that was over the course of two months or so rather than one week, and it had 6,000 messages over two months sent rather than 17,000 messages sent in a week. We have some ideas of why it wasn’t as successful as the first time.

MP: Our primary theory is that text messaging SMS versus real-time chat is a psychologically very distinct experience. With SMS you can have a low-pressure conversation that will go on across the day. It’s easier to integrate Switchboard to your regular lifestyle, whereas for an iPhone app it’s when you’re using the app you have the pressure to reply to somebody because it’s real-time.

IL: How do you plan on expanding Switchboard?

EW: We officially launched the night before SwatTank, but there’s just a couple features that are pretty important, notably the ability to report people and we want to be able to end conversations automatically for if a conversation has been dead for 24 hours or so. We’re working super hard to finish those features and we will do a gung-ho all-out launch and blow up social media, talk to everyone we see and try to get everyone on this service.

MP: Potentially we want to integrate this more with student life, like working with the administration to make this a part of your standard Swarthmore package when you come in like you get on Switchboard, you talk to users in your dorm or something and it’s a way to start feeling comfortable on campus.

IL: What added features will we see in the future?

EW: One important one is boards. There’s a lot of potential here. Speak2Swatties for example has expressed interest in making a Speak2Swatties board. This will take a little more engineering on our side. But the idea is that when they drop the hashtag, it’s going to match up with one of their student representatives who have the experience with mental health counselling which is very cool.

MP: If we do relaunch the iOS app, there’s a lot of interesting stuff we can do with location-aware boards. So let’s say you’re trying to get a meal at Sharples, you can just see whoever is signed up with the Sharples board, it happens to be at Sharples at that moment, you can pair up with them as opposed to randomly hanging out with somebody who signed up to #sharples board. With an iOS app, we can have multiple conversations, which a lot of users have asked for.

IL: You mentioned in SwatTank that there will be a ‘freemium’ $5 per semester service. How does that look like in implementation?

EW: To be completely honest, that may or may not happen.

MP: For the SwatTank pitch, we described having this freemium version to cover our costs and basically how that looks like in the pitch is that every regular user has access to the #swat board, which is your general board you can talk to whomever. Paid users will have access to special boards which is basically all the other boards and they will have the ability to create boards as they see fit. What we really wanted to discover for this version, is what exactly the added value of boards is. Basically right now our focus is on providing as much value to the student body as possible.

IL: Do you plan on monetizing Switchboard anytime soon?

EW: We’re not so interested in charging our users per se at this moment. I think it’s so essential that we find the perfect formula for what makes users love us and how we can serve them the best.

MP: They call it product-market fit. Until we have something that’s really sticky that people really want to use, I don’t think it makes sense to cut our usage numbers by charging a paid version.

EW: And ideally if we can get organic growth somehow we don’t have to work or spend money trying to market. And if the group of people advertises itself and it becomes bigger and bigger which is really valuable for a social network.

MP: If you think of all the social networks that people use, you’re not really paying for them. You don’t pay for SnapChat or Instagram or WhatsApp. WhatsApp did take an $1 optional donation every year. If we discover that SwatTank is not enough to cover our costs, we would look at doing something like that, but we’re not revenue focused right now.


To sign up for a Switchboard account, just have to shoot a text message to (510) 338-2679.


Featured image courtesy of Michael Piazza ’17 and Eric Wang ’18. 

Isaac Lee

Isaac is an economics and political science major. He is a Singaporean who grew up in Hong Kong. In America he discovered the wonders of Netflix and Uber. Other than devoting his time to The Daily Gazette, he is probably reading The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal, or skim-reading the hundreds of pages assigned to typical Swatties.

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