Good Life

Fighting ‘FOMO’ with an algorithm, Penn State sophomore’s startup starts small

Penn State sophomore Joseph Kitonga founded What’s Poppin, an event and ticket platform for the college crowd.
Penn State sophomore Joseph Kitonga founded What’s Poppin, an event and ticket platform for the college crowd. Photo provided

Like many of his peers, Joseph Kitonga, a sophomore at Penn State, spent the summer looking for something to do. His freshman year, then fresh in the books, was spent in a similar fashion.

“The challenge I consistently had was finding events that were of interest to me,” he said. “I did not intend to found a startup or even build the website out completely.”

But when you’re an enterprising 19-year-old with a mind for computers, “something to do” can quickly become a website, an app and a fledgling company.

Once upon a time, it happened to another college sophomore with a knack for coding. Why not him?

“I had a couple free weeks in the summer and I started working on it,” Kitonga said. “I was surprised by the feedback I got.”

While spending the summer in State College, the computer engineering major created an online hub called What’s Poppin, which helped friends find local events that catered to their interests. While bigger draws such as Penn State football games or Bryce Jordan Center shows are well-known, he said, smaller events — things like an improv show or an a capella group — can often provide just as entertaining of a night.

But the problem, he said, is not enough students hear about them. During the fall semester, Kitonga’s five-person team participated in the Happy Valley LaunchBox, a State College business accelerator, and as part of the experience surveyed hundreds of their peers about how they find — or miss out on — events on campus and around town.

“Students had the most trouble finding the smaller, more-intimate events that inspired them to think and connect with other students and become more engaged members of the community,” Kitonga said. “For instance, open-mic nights, slam poetry, debates, theater plays and local music shows — these are the type of events that students often hear about a day after they occur and express regret for missing out.”

What’s Poppin, which plans to launch its Android and iOS apps early in the spring semester, fights the dreaded “fear of missing out,” a bane among millennials and increasing numbers of the general population. In an era where a world of entertainment options is constantly at one’s fingertips, “FOMO” has become pervasive enough insofar as it’s become a part of the language: The word was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013.

“Students who were doing research here at Penn State from other campuses kept telling me that they wished they had something like What’s Poppin on their own campuses because it was difficult finding events for them,” Kitonga said. “That’s when I knew that What’s Poppin could solve a real problem that was prevalent at most universities.”

Through an algorithm, the platform matches users with events based on their interests. The company says it can provide targeted advertising for organizations through user location and preference data.

For college students, meanwhile, FOMO is a no-go. Kitonga, for instance, missed Penn State’s Involvement Fair his freshman year, and with it, the slew of organizations and activities that often serve as the launching pad for students’ social lives during the next four years.

“I had wanted to join a dance club so that I could learn different dancing styles,” he said. “But after missing the involvement fair, I didn’t know how else to (get involved).”

Kitonga said he is still trying to learn how to dance. But with What’s Poppin, he said, he’s learning a different kind of choreography.

Along with the launch of its app, for instance, the startup plans to host featured events each month to build its brand. Competition in the find-local app space is fierce, but Kitonga thinks his startup’s focus on hidden gems will help it stand out.

“I still have a lot to learn if What’s Poppin is going to be what I believe it can be: a community of people looking to connect with new people, explore different experiences and discover their place in their community,” he said. “The challenge, however, is finding these events that are often ignored by local media and drowned out on Facebook and other event platforms by larger events with bigger budgets.

“The platform finds that needle in the haystack.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy