Islands is a new messaging app aimed at college students.

Islands founder Greg Isenberg (second from right) with members of his team.Greg Isenberg/Islands

  • Islands is a new messaging app aimed at college students.

  • It’s designed to connect people located within five miles of each other
  • Its founder, Greg Isenberg, previously launched a video curation app that he sold to StumbleUpon.

Entrepreneur Greg Isenberg is serious about market research.

He values it so much that when he launched his new messaging app for college students, called Islands, he rented a space in student housing at the University of Western Ontario so he could be closer to his potential customers.

“It was kind of like 21 Jump Street meets Silicon Valley,” Isenberg said last week, in an interview with Business Insider.

The app, which officially launched on Wednesday, is a modern take on group messaging. It’s designed to allow people in a particular geographic area — they have to be within five miles of one another — to chat with each other. Users communicate through topic-specific groups called islands that they can create on an ad-hoc basis.

Hoping to learn from Yik-Yak

Users have been doing a range of things with Islands, Isenberg said. Sometimes they get on the service to ask where the party is that night or to see if anyone’s up for a pickup basketball game. One person recently used the app to see if anyone on the second floor of a campus library had Advil.

Islands permits users to chat anonymously. But it’s hoping to prevent the type of harassment that happened on Yik-Yak, the anonymous chat app that targeted college students that wasshut down earlier this year. So Islands is encouraging users to connect their accounts on its service with their Snapchat or Instagram accounts as a way of identifying themselves, thinking that will make them more reluctant to abuse others.

Additionally, when users create islands, they become the administrators of those groups, with the power to kick out anyone who is harassing other members. User who are booted out of multiple island groups can be kicked off the app entirely, Isenberg said.

The roundabout path to college

Isenberg and his team didn’t create Islands with college students in mind. The original inspiration for the app came from an encounter Isenberg had with a woman in Los Angeles who had been diagnosed with a rare type of cancer. She was part of an email support group with other women who had the same diagnosis.

Isenberg tried to get the group on Slack, even creating accounts on the communications service for members of the email group, figuring it would be more convenient for them than email. But he quickly realized that while Slack can be a helpful business tool, it’s not great for more casual conversations.

“It got me thinking about the state of connecting like-minded communities on the internet, especially within local communities,” he said.

He soon came to the conclusion that none of the current services or communications tools was up for the job. So he gathered a group from 5by, the video curation app he sold to StumbleUpon in 2013, and got to work making a modern communications tool for communities.

Once the team had created Islands, they tried to figure out which kind of community was most likely to use it. The team settled on college kids.

“It’s the single greatest time of self-discovery,” Isenberg said.

College evangelism

That’s when he decided it was time to go back to college and make some friends. Within 30 days of being on University of Western Ontario’s campus, he had convinced 10% of the school to use the app.

“That’s when we realized we had something,” he said.

Since Isenberg and his team can’t spend all of their time camping out at college campuses, they rely on students to promote their app. Typically, they look for ones who are passionate about a particular group on campus, such as the LGBT community or the Greek community, and encourage them to become Islands evangelists to that group.

The Islands app is available at seven US colleges, in addition to the University of Western Ontario. The company plans to make the app available on 75 campuses by September 2018.

But Isenberg is hoping to expand Islands’ service beyond college campuses.

“The goal ultimately is to become the de-facto tool for everyone,” he said. “Once we’ve saturated college we’ll have to figure out what’s next.”

That could mean high schools, cities, or anywhere else that people are looking for an easy and casual way to connect online.