To Dan Shipper, those few lines at the bottom of a digital message offer significant untapped potential. "Companies that aren't taking advantage of e-mail signatures to promote their products and services are missing out on opportunities to connect with their customers," he says.
The 21-year-old junior at the University of Pennsylvania began writing code when he was 10. After creating and selling several successful websites, Shipper was ready for a new project. In 2011 he partnered with Patrick Leahy and Justin Meltzer, both seniors majoring in entrepreneurship at the Wharton School at UPenn, to develop Airtime, a program that creates banners that turn e-mail signatures into branded messages.
Airtime allows brands to develop multiple banners for their e-mail signatures and track the number of impressions and click-through rates for each. After a brief beta period to test the concept, the UPenn entrepreneurs launched the company ( airtimehq.com ) in January 2012. Within weeks the program had attracted international clients.
Without disclosing revenue, the founders report that more than 300 customers have signed on for their free plan or for packages priced at $10, $50 or $150 per month. Further, they say, starting the company cost nothing more than their time, domain purchase and hosting fees. "Our goal was to concentrate on businesses that have minimal startup costs and are profitable from the start, which is something that is possible with software companies," Shipper explains.
Once Airtime was operational, the partners were eager to launch another software project. This time they focused on the screen-sharing model for customer service, which allows brands to guide consumers through websites. With other screen-sharing systems, users have to download a program to a home PC, then allow a service rep to control their computer, which raises privacy concerns. The trio's second business, Firefly, is download-free and limits viewing to the one website the customer is visiting (as opposed to allowing access to the entire computer). "A lot of companies didn't know this was even possible," Meltzer says. "It allows them to [handle more calls] in the same amount of time."
In three months Firefly snagged 150 customers. Users can sign up for a free plan or pay $15, $30 or $60 per month to use the screen-sharing program.
The software also attracted the attention of Dorm Room Fund, a pilot program started by First Round Capital that plans to invest $500,000 in student-run enterprises around Philadelphia by the end of 2014. Firefly received $20,000 in funding.
"They are talented and motivated and one of the best student entrepreneurial teams at [UPenn]," says Talia Goldberg, a Dorm Room Fund board member. "They are going after a proven market with a product that differentiates itself [and] had a very clear way to generate revenue. It embodies the kind of businesses Dorm Room Fund wants to invest in."
The funds will be used for customer acquisition. In the meantime, Shipper says, the experience of running two successful software companies is paying huge dividends for the three students: "Coming up with a concept, building a product, marketing it and talking to investors has been an incredible learning experience."