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Pocket Points: A Community-Based App to Encourage Less Cell Phone Use and Increase Student Engagement

Pocket Points was launched in 2014 with my friend and fraternity brother, Rob Richardson (right).

  • Volume: 1
  • Issue: 3
Mitch Gardner | @pocketpoints
February 7,  2020
InterACT Online

“There is no way you will be able to keep students off their phones!” Professors had given up, but Rob and I knew we had a great idea.

Odd as it may sound, the decision to combat cell phone addiction started with a text. In the spring of 2014, when I was a Junior in college at California State University, Chico, I was approached by my friend and fraternity brother Rob Richardson who was sick of seeing so many people in class distracted by their mobile phones. It was something I felt strongly about, too. In fact, I worked on a video project in my sophomore year of college that took a humorous look at the awkward obliviousness that occurs when people refuse to put down their phones. We’d seen far too many students bump into each other while walking glued to their screens. More alarmingly, we felt that some minor incidents of distracted individuals crashing into bicycles had the potential to become much more serious. For instance, we had a scene where a student on their phone walked right into a pile of dog poo. Another one was when a student distracted by their phone walked into an oncoming biker (I promise it was funny and harmless!). In the video project, we also included scenes of students hanging out in the dorms having the blandest conversation – whenever a student would say something, the other students would look up from their phone and say, “wait, what?” The video was funny, mainly because it was so true. The reality is that 70% of teens feel they are addicted to their phones, and one in four car accidents occur due to texting and driving. Today, more teenagers die from texting and driving than they do from drinking and driving. The problem was obvious – we just needed to work on a solution.

A screenshot of the app.

Rob had created apps in the past, and given his entrepreneurial spirit, he knew that there had to be a way to incentivize students to set aside their phones and stay engaged in class. At the time, we didn’t worry about the irony of using a mobile phone app to help solve this problem; all we saw was that Rob’s idea presented us with the opportunity to help those students who were struggling with it themselves. Late that night, I sent Rob a text message that read, “I can’t stop thinking about the app. Let’s make it happen.”

Rob and I were young, only 20 and 21 respectively, but we knew we had a good idea,  and we had to find a way to make it happen. The motto of each day became “what do we do next?” and with the guidance of professors who saw our passion for this project, slowly,  the Pocket Points app began to take shape. The concept is simple: open the Pocket Points app while on campus and then lock your phone. As long as your phone remains locked, you are earning points that can be turned into discounts at your favorite businesses. We felt that an app that was positive in nature and rewarded students for disengaging with their phones in key learning moments would create a compelling cultural shift from the generally punitive and consequence-based disciplinary systems we had seen in most schools.

Pocket Points rewards students with points for locking their phones during class, which can then be redeemed at local businesses.

Although students were our focus, we thought it would be wise to reach out to professors and colleagues for additional feedback. Some teachers were wholeheartedly on board. Others didn’t like the idea or didn’t think it was needed. Undoubtedly, some just didn’t think that two inexperienced college students could make it happen and that it would be a distraction from our regular schoolwork. But as students ourselves, we knew that there was a demand for something like this within the student community, and it was our goal to fill that need. We wanted to give students a way to opt-in that would improve their classroom experience while also providing perks to help them save money. And when the student uses the app, the end result benefits everyone. The students can focus in class and earn free food. The businesses increase their student foot traffic, and the teachers can finally teach without half of the class scrolling through cat videos on Instagram.

In the beginning, I put in a lot of legwork, reaching out to local businesses to try and get them involved. So many of them were already paying to circulate coupons, and the problem was that most of their marketing channels were outdated. The business owners knew how difficult it is to reach the coveted high school and college demographic, and we were able to connect them with a number of business owners and managers willing to take a shot on something new that might connect with students. I knew we could offer them a better way to reach the students, and as more and more local businesses opted in, it became clear that we were on to something big.

In September of 2014, we launched the Pocket Points app at Chico State. We started by announcing the app within our fraternity and a few other Greek organizations on campus. One night, the janitor was working at around 2 a.m., and the doors to the classes were all unlocked. The next morning, Pocket Points posters covered every class’ whiteboard. To this day, I still have no idea how they got there, but word continued to spread from there, and within the first few weeks, 50% of Chico State students were using the app – which equaled about 7,000 students.

Teachers who sign up for the app are able to reward students for staying off the phone.

The Chico State newspaper, The Orion, printed an article about Pocket Points that caught the attention of Chris Friedland, founder of the Chico-based e-commerce company Build.com. He met with us and, impressed with the spread of Pocket Points at Chico State, became our first investor. He also kept us moving forward by providing us with our next goal. While Pocket Points had been a huge success at Chico State, Chris’ concerns related to whether or not we could have the same results elsewhere, he told us, “this is great, but I just don’t know if it will spread beyond Chico.” We left the meeting determined to launch Pocket Points on five more campuses.

Rob and I, intent on proving to Friedland, our professors, and to ourselves that Pocket Points could succeed, launched the app at Penn State in February of 2015. Within a few weeks, we had 40% of their 40,000 students using the app. By the fall of 2015, we had launched at the 60 largest universities in the United States. We watched users across the country become fans of our product. It was apparent that we were doing something cool when we saw a picture of a student in Missouri dressed up as a Pocket Point Logo for Halloween! Our user base had surpassed the 100,000 user mark by this point. We continued to improve our business model and expanded to new cities between 2016 and 2017. In 2018, we worked to make Pocket Points available at all colleges in the U.S.

Up until this point, Pocket Points was available for primarily college students.  By the end of the year, however, we were receiving countless emails from high school teachers asking if they could use Pocket Points in their classroom. As students started to receive smartphones at a younger age, and the draw to the screens continued to increase, the problem of digital distraction started affecting students, teachers, and parents across the country. Staying true to our mission from the beginning, we decided to build a product that allows the teachers to offer their own unique rewards – this product has been a major hit.  It is now available to all high schools and colleges in the U.S. We have had over 10,000 teachers sign up in the last couple of months, and we have had over 2 million students sign-up for Pocket Points!

After initially rolling out the app at universities, we have started engaging with high schools and have already had more than 10,000 teacher sign-ups!

We have been able to sustain a high rate of growth because students, teachers, and parents are becoming more and more aware of the negative effects that technology addiction has on their lives and are seeking ways to change their habits. Rob and I witnessed this struggle daily at Chico State, and that has fueled our desire to bring Pocket Points to as many people as possible. Studies continue to show that increased technology use correlates to increased anxiety and depression, and people want help putting down their cellphones. Research compiled by The Lancet found that teenage girls who use social media the most, meaning more than five hours a day, had a 50% increase in symptoms of depression. Pocket Points provides incentives and tools to help them create healthier technology habits. We are thrilled to have had a positive impact on lives across the country. Technology isn’t going anywhere, and we wouldn’t want it to, but we do hope that we can be a part of the solution as individuals find a healthy balance that works for them.

Mitch grew up in Newport Beach, CA, with one brother and two sisters. Mitch was the captain of his high school football and baseball team. After high school, he headed north to study business marketing and play baseball at Chico State. In his Junior year of college, Mitch and his business partner dropped out of school and went after their dream to build a great company and product!

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