Business students at Stevens learn early on that an important component of innovation is keeping the customer concerns at the forefront, to ensure they pursue the right solution for the market.
Sometimes, that’s very easy. At the Innovation Expo — the Stevens Institute of Technology’s annual parade of game-changing senior design projects — presentation teams usually are limited to students, sometimes their advisers. At Slash DB’s table, their customer was on hand and eager to discuss the “enormous impact” the student team has had on his business.
Victor Olex, the founder and CEO of Slash DB, had a team of students work as consultants on a project to better market his business, which creates APIs for small and midsized companies. APIs, or application programming interfaces, are the software by which websites can communicate with each other; for instance, how Travelocity can get flight times and ticket pricing from United.
The students created a manual to help explain how business owners could use and benefit from APIs, and also built a marketing campaign to generate interest in Slash DB’s products. They also developed and extensively tested a landing page for the company.
“I’m pleased with what we learned,” Olex said. “Now, I think it may be time to talk internships.”
Here’s a summary of some of the Howe School stories at Innovation Day.
The Slash DB team, as mentioned previously, built the company’s marketing efforts. Beyond a homepage, that included Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter pages, as well as the manual they prepared. The team got thousands of impressions with a very limited budget to help the company determine the best engagement strategy to interact with businesses and consumers.
It started with none of the team members understanding what an API is.
“If you walk into a meeting where you know nothing about APIs, well, you better read up on it, you better know about APIs,” said Jerrin Chesnut, who worked on the product manual.
Then, you need to be able to communicate what you’ve learned well. “Here at Stevens, we really focus a lot on presentations and group work, and I think that really attributed to our group’s success,” Chesnut said.
They also learned how to manage expectations, said Gino Mazzarella and Kevin Weng, who worked on the website. Their client had an engagement strategy for his team that Mazzarella said was complicated.
“The project was going in so many directions that we thought it made the most sense to break it apart and pick two deliverables to focus on,” he said.
The results speak for themselves, Olex said.
“A lot of our online presence would not have been as successful if it wasn’t for these guys and their hard work on these efforts,” he said.
Stevens Consulting Group
Nicholas Guarriello, an Emerson native, was recruited to Stevens to wrestle. But when he told friends and classmates at his high school he’d chosen Stevens, he got a lot of blank looks, even though the campus is so close to his home.
“But since then, two or three kids come here a year,” he said. “It’s started to be the kind of school our guidance counselors would recommend, whereas in the past, maybe they didn’t know about us or didn’t know enough about us.”
That gave this team the idea to build inroads to guidance offices through the athletic fields.
R. Julian Gallo used the example of Foothill Ranch, Calif., student Jayson Yano, who was placed among the top 30 pitchers of the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League. The Stevens Consulting Group crafted a press release that could be sent to his alma mater, to raise awareness of Stevens.
“We’d also encourage him to put something on Facebook, maybe call his high school coach once in a while, and talk about himself, about Stevens,” Gallo said. “The challenge is, sometimes they find it uncomfortable posting about themselves.”
It’s important, Gallo said, because athletes have a lot of recruiting power for schools, but it’s largely untapped at Division 3 universities like Stevens. “But athletes in D3 programs — they’re approachable, they have good grades, they go to challenging schools, so they make good ambassadors,” he said.
Yo, Money Matters
The team behind this online quiz could have simply called it Money Matters. But that “yo” is important to their strategy.
The online platform teaches high school seniors about personal finance through a series of well-crafted videos, quizzes and narratives, and does so with a healthy dose of slang, which members said helps differentiate their product.
“Our competitors don’t use it, don’t know it, so we thought it might be a way for us to stand out,” said Sarah Sheikh, a Business & Technology major. “Investopedia has this kind of information, but we’re presenting it in a more playful way, to have a stronger impact.”
That is reflected not just in the language, but the design. The presentation of the site is simple and intuitive, with a younger, yet technologically sophisticated, audience in mind.
“We were able to draw on so much of what we learned in our other classes,” Sheikh said. “But not everyone has that kind of benefit. If you don’t have a parent who knows about finance, or take a class, you’ll never learn it, never be comfortable with it. It’s such a taboo subject at home, so you can graduate high school and know nothing about it until the damage is already done.”
In doing their research, one of the surprises the team found was that freshmen tended to outperform upperclassmen, said Jorge Rivera Reyes, a Business & Technology major.
“It says a lot about the kind of students being admitted to Stevens now,” he said. “They’re getting better and better every year. They come in knowing stuff that sophomores, juniors and seniors wind up learning on the way.”
That improving reputation may be why three students on the team — Reyes, Jane Malasig and Melissa Matos — are returning to Stevens to pursue graduate degrees.
Monmouth Medical Center
Employee surveys can be a useful tool to gauge how your mission and goals are communicated to the staff — but only if they’re understood.
That’s why the three fluent Spanish speakers on this team — seniors Alex Aguero, José Gomez and David Rendon-Vasquez — decided to create a Spanish version of the survey for Monmouth Medical Center. That innovative idea is credited with the high return rate the survey received.
“There was a wave of people asking for the Spanish survey, because they felt more comfortable taking it,” Aguero said.
“A lot of the survey is thought and perception of things,” said Jennifer Camisa, another member of the team. “And so it’s important — if you’re reading something and translating it in your head, you might not get the same approach to really capturing their input.”
Diann Johnston, vice president of patient care at the hospital, was pleased with both the results and the turnout.
“I was thrilled to hear that our staff really do put our patients first,” she said. “It was beautiful to see that validated.”
Assumptions are dangerous.
That’s the biggest lesson for the senior design team charged with drumming up interest in a software program designed to battle Internet censorship in foreign countries.
When the team took up the project, members Lindsay Stoll and Melissa Loria said they expected they’d easily collect 500 email addresses from the general public as they marketed their cause.
As things wound down, though, they were closer to 50, but had plenty of information to pass along to Brave New Software about the attitudes surrounding Internet censorship abroad
“Don’t assume that people are going to care about something you care about, because that more than often is not going to be the case,” Loria said. “You have to seek out the people who care about what you care about.”
But the team got plenty of traffic from passers-by, possibly because of their proximity to other defense-related projects at the Innovation Expo.
“We didn’t think to market this to a defense kind of audience, but we’ve had a really good response today,” Loria said.
The team created additional promotional materials they had been handing out, and recorded a few more signups from the many people who wandered past their booth.
The project’s adviser, Dr. CV Harquail, said Brave New Software got a federal grant to help people in other countries evade online censorship, but even with that kind of backing, it’s “such a hard sell” to get people to sign up.
At least part of the reason was a fear for safety, Harquail said.
“People here are afraid of unfamiliar software, of the potential geopolitical consequences of letting someone in another country access censored content through their computers,” she said.
Mid-Atlantic Resource Group LLC
When an online search for your industry puts you on the seventh page of Google, it makes you wonder why your company even needs a website.
“What’s the point of being on the Internet, at that point?” said senior Diana Demianczuk.
Her challenge, with the rest of her team, was to create an online presence and strategy for Mid-Atlantic. The team researched who was coming to the site, their occupations and their interests, and then narrowed their focus on retirement planning. That was deliberate, said Andrew Meszaros, “since it’s the kind of thing you start thinking of really when you take your first job.”
The company did a lot of its marketing through brochures, but senior Matthew Buccheri pointed out they are “hard to track — you give them out and they’re gone. With a good social media presence, you can help them stay engaged and be committed.”
The challenge, though, is the subject matter. While people might interact with companies over Twitter when it means getting a deal at a favorite retailer, “we realized that kind of engagement doesn’t work on Facebook or apps,” Meszaros said. “This is personal stuff. People need to feel comfortable.”
But by turning to a blog, they found a way to direct search traffic to Mid-Atlantic. The team wrote posts presenting advice on retirement planning, and was able to capture information while improving traffic to the main site. That’s created both more clients for the company — and a vastly improved presence on Google.