In the fifth most depressing city in America, one former Binghamton University student has given the community a reason to smile.
Dan Berenholtz, 27, from Fresh Meadows, N.Y., created the iOS application SmileBack along with friends and co-founders Venkat Dinavahi and Roy Goldschmidt, and brother Doron.
SmileBack is an app which allows users to send a “smile” to other users they want to get to know. If they send a smile back, the two users will be able to text each other through the app.
Berenholtz attended Binghamton from 2004 to 2005 but transferred to Cornell University where he graduated in 2009. He hopes to bring SmileBack to Ithaca soon.
“We hope to launch it at Cornell soon, but Binghamton is the only city we are focused on right now,” Berenholtz said. “We started with Binghamton because it brought me back to my roots.”
Berenholtz also came to an agreement with Tom and Marty’s and Dillinger’s to offer free drinks to matches that present the voucher on SmileBack. He plans to team up with Paradigm/Flashbacks in the future.
“We went personally to each bar,” Berenholtz said. “I met with Larry Shea [the owner of Tom and Marty’s] … he loved the idea. We also spoke to someone at Dillinger’s. We were only [in Binghamton] for two days and we weren’t able to catch the owner of JT’s.”
However, the app is not a ticket to unlimited free drinks.
“When you match with someone on [SmileBack], you can only match with them one time. So the bartender presses, ‘mark as used’ when the couple redeems the offer, so they can only redeem it once,” Berenholtz said.
Shea said he was excited about partnering with SmileBack.
“While I wouldn’t call their app social media, per se, it runs in the same area,” Shea said. “I love the role social media has now in running my bar. It’s not about simply running ads for specials; it’s about getting to know my customers, becoming a part of their social network and simply having fun.”
Although Shea is enthusiastic about the possibilities, he thinks there might be some problems during prime business hours at Tom and Marty’s.
“So far my one concern is that we probably will have to restrict it during times we’re crazy busy, those two-hour periods or so a night when it takes all our effort just to serve drinks,” Shea said.
SmileBack was officially launched as a mobile app in the spring of 2013 as a small private beta only for iPhones. Berenholtz and his co-founders are currently working on an Android version.
The initial ideas for SmileBack came after the creation of their website whowentout.com, launched at Georgetown University and The George Washington University in Washington D.C. last year while Berenholtz and his partners were living in the city.
“After you went to a party or a bar, you would go onto the website and see who else was at that party and try and find matches,” Berenholtz said.
The site was a success, so they elected to expand it by replacing the website with a mobile application.
“We changed it to a mobile app because we realized that smartphones were the desktop of the future,” Berenholtz said. “We decided to use the app to center it around campuses.”
Students were informed of the SmileBack launch on Sept. 11, through a mass email sent by Berenholtz. They also used Facebook to generate interest.
“Right now about 3,000 people are using SmileBack. In Binghamton alone, it’s about 1,050,” Berenholtz said. “Over 5,000 smiles have been sent out in Binghamton. Out of that 5,000, about 90 percent have been opened by the receiver.”
Berenholtz said that SmileBack’s advantage over Tinder, a popular social dating app with similar features, is that it’s much more intimate.
“Ultimately the best experiences are going to be the real life experiences, not the ones where you’re behind a screen,” said Berenholtz. “By offering free drinks, we’re incentivizing people to get off their phones and computers and go out and have a real night. And get drunk!”
Adam DeRise, a junior double-majoring in history and philosophy, politics and law, said he heard about the app from a couple of freshmen and decided to try it.
“I thought it looked professional, it was user-friendly, and very simple to understand. I liked the limited use of liking people, as opposed to Tinder. On Tinder you swipe right away and match with a bazillion people. But because on SmileBack you only have three choices or whatever a day — it matters more.”
The creators aren’t receiving income from SmileBack; the app is free unless users decide to download SmileBack pro for $2.99 a month in order to receive 100 tokens each month and the ability to see if their messages were read.
“Right now, we’re not really focused on making money off of it,” Berenholtz said. “We just want to help to foster connections in the real world. It can be for romantic love, it can be just for grabbing a drink with someone, it can be … just for getting out and meeting new friends. There are a million different reasons why people would want to meet other people. We’re just here to help those connections be made.”
American culture as a whole might not be completely accepting of this new form of virtual dating as well. Junior and political science major Scott Wisotsky shared some concerns.
“I like it, I think its cool and all, but I’m not a huge fan of meeting significant others over the Internet,” Wisotsky said. “I think a relationship needs to have actual person-to-person chemistry to get the sparks going that can’t be found on the Internet.”
Despite his praise, DeRise still thinks there could be some improvements.
“I don’t see myself using it frequently,” DeRise said. “Maybe because it’s not as mindless … you have to put a little more thought into it than you do with Tinder. I might not use it as frequently.”