I first met Gianluca Segato at the Italian of the year 2016 award ceremony, at the Italian embassy in Berlin. It is customary, on such occasions, to give extremely formal and not necessarily engaging speeches. However, this 23-year-old from Veneto had the Italian-German audience in his thrall in a matter of minutes, as he focused not on his own extraordinary achievement, but rather on the importance of the European contexts that allowed him to succeed. Gianluca is the founder and managing director of Uniwhere, a revolutionary app for university students, whose customer base currently comprises over 100.000 users. Having moved to Berlin in 2014, Segato and his associates work tirelessly at making Uniwhere an international success.
In your acceptance speech at the Italian of the Year awards, you mentioned the importance of belonging to the Schengen Generation. Why is this particularly significant to you?
I am staunch idealist when it comes to Europe. I found myself in front of a distinguished Italian-German audience, in an institutional context: it was too important an opportunity to waste it by simply boasting. I find it particularly significant that we are living in a city with such an important history, at such a pivotal moment. All the populist movements that we thought had disappeared have emerged again in 2016. Berlin has an important lesson to teach the world, about the consequences of choosing segregation against connection. We care deeply about this and wanted to make it clear in that speech, because we could not even be here now, if not for the fact that I can go back and forth between Berlin and Venice every three weeks with no visas and no passport. It’s no harder than visiting a relative in another city. And it’s not true that the younger generations are not interested in these issues, it’s more than we tend to take them for granted. I have observed how the cultural differences, for instance, between Italians and German, are more evident when there’s a relevant age gap between people. If I talk to a German person who is my age, there’s no real contrast. Of course we assume that there will be cultural and historical differences, but they are never the focus of our discussion. We keep our identity, we talk, we find common ground and each of us understand how the other thinks. That’s what led me to think that my generation has assimilated the idea of Europe so much that it takes it for granted. There are two conflicting philosophies: isolation and communication. Both reactions are understandable. Isolation is a normal response to fear, but there are times when it’s just wrong and counterproductive to go with your gut response.
Let’s talk about Uniwhere: how does it work and what brought you to Berlin?
Uniwhere is a smartphone application, only available on mobile, that allows students to connect to one another. We realised that there was unfulfilled demand for a tool that was specifically designed for university students. There are a myriad of individual tools that are used by, but are not meant to cater specifically for this community of users. If I need accommodation, I can use Airbnb, if I want entertainment, I might browse Facebook, but no app specifically tackles my needs as a student. We created that app. From a practical point of view, what Uniwhere offers students is the possibility of keeping their whole career under control, tracking their performance and grades with the aid of a range of statistic tools, evaluating options and managing their schedules and deadlines. Most importantly, we allow students to connect to others who are taking the same classes or share the same interests. It’s not like joining a Reddit group or subscribing to a Youtube channel: we focus on connections among students that attend the same university. One of our future goals is connecting students of different universities. This kind of communication is currently impossible. This is one example of how we shaped our product to needs that we experienced directly, specifically the need of overcoming national borders. We came to Berlin because we felt the need to expand past the Italian market: we needed to grow, to access an international market. And we knew that in Berlin we would find the right capitals to allow our idea to evolve. Also, as I have said before, we had a choice. Milan, Rome or Berlin? We never felt that we were choosing to “emigrate”. It sounded more like “ok, so Berlin offers better opportunities and the cost of living is cheaper than in Milan, therefore Berlin is where we’ll go”. It wasn’t always easy, nothing is, but we are convinced we have made the right choice.
Did you use a startup accelerator, aggregator or bootcamp?
We entered a WestTech Ventures acceleration program called Project Flying Elephant, which helped us find our feet. Accelerators are meant to help startups grow up, which to us was doubly challenging because we needed to do that in a different Country, building our entire network from scratch and acquainting ourselves with an entirely new context. In that respect, Project Flying Elephant was essential, as it connected us with the right people.
How are universities responding to your project?
Our app is currently used by students at 52 Italian universities, which means we are a fairly established platform. We are also in the process of starting interactions with foreign universities, even though we haven’t launched the app internationally yet. At the beginning, however, the universities we approached all reacted in the same way: with diffidence. They found it odd that an application meant for university students should not be created by the university itself. Fear is a common, self-referential response to anything that might alter the status quo. At some point, however, albeit with the slow-pace that is typical to large institutions, those same universities turned around and actively sought us out, wanting to work with us. They had realised that what we were doing not only did not create any problems, but it solved some, it helped and it made their students happy, which is ultimately our shared goal. Once they understood that, everything came easier. We are now at a stage where universities approach and support us.
Did student feedback influence your choices and the nature of your product?
I am convinced that we owe our “success” partly to the simple fact that our app works and it is appealing and user-friendly and partly to the fact that we offer support to each and every single student. This is a massive effort for us: we cater to 100.000 users, which means that even a mere 10% of them needing assistance translates into 10.000 open support tickets. Managing them is an incredibly complex and time-consuming task, but we do it because we know that, when a user feels heard and supported, they will spread the word about the product. This is how we expanded. Collating product feedback is a slightly different matter: we did that to some extent, on a small-scale. I have designed individual features for the app after talking to my friends from university. Once I was sitting in the cafeteria with a friend, and she was busy calculating the impact on a grade on her average performance results, using pen and paper. I thought we should be able to do that for her. That same evening, as I got home, I created the first prototype of what is currently one of the app’s most popular features. In that respect, it would be wrong to ignore user feedback, but it is still important to maintain our vision, which is what drives us forward. Balance is essential.
What’s your personal background?
My background is… weird. I started coding at the age of 12 or 13 and I worked my way through high-school as a programmer. After school, I didn’t want to study IT: I wanted something that would give me a wider perspective. I considered history, philosophy and political studies and ended up picking something that was a mix of the three: economics. It was the right choice, in that it provided me with excellent mathematical and statistical tools and a sound managerial background. I kept on working as a developer during my university years and Uniwhere was born at that time. I wrote the first version for Android, which was later polished to be able to cater to a much wider user base than I had originally envisioned. To this day, I do my best to expand my skillset constantly, because I enjoy studying, learning: if I could, I would do little else. Recently I branched out into machine learning and AI, which are impressive terms that are often used inappropriately. So far this particular interest has not yielded any professional results, apart from the satisfaction of winning a Hackathon, but I still enjoy it.
Tell us about your team. How do you balance skills in order to make your project grow?
This is no easy task: on one hand it is essential to have the pulse of what the student community wants, which could prove beyond the scope of a normal agency, because they would not be close enough to that particular community. On the other hand, three students on their own would probably not go far, because Uniwhere is an enterprise with a wide target and managing it requires a certain degree of professional experience. We are a well-balanced team: I started the project and graduated last year, which means that most of my friends are still at university, while Giovanni [Conz] and Federico [Cian], the other founders, have the necessary experience and know-how to manage such an ambitious project competently. Giovanni provides technical support: he is a project manager with ten years’ worth of professional experience that included, among other things, coordinating international teams to develop smart tv for the EMEA market for Toshiba. Federico is our product manager and he knows the product and its specific backwards: he takes care of UX, UI, specs and deploy. Between the three of us, we have an excellent working balance. We also work with other people, even though they are not yet full-time employees: business developers, IOS developers and backend developers.
What’s your next challenge?
It will be raising awareness about our product as fast as possible. This is the aspect in which we have the least experience. Strictly speaking, it is not so much about marketing as about internationalisation. Is the way in which we communicated our product in Italy also viable for other student communities in other countries, such as France, Germany or Denmark? This is what we need to find out.
How will you go about it?
Right now we are in the process of raising funds and we haven’t really focused on it yet. If an investor were to ask me this question now, however, I would certainly point to one incredible asset: Erasmus students that have used Uniwhere in Italy. We get a lot of messages from students asking why they can’t use Uniwhere in their university abroad. They are our entry point. The best thing about student communities is that they are incredibly vibrant: if you ask a student’s opinion on something like this, you will end up with a lot of incredibly useful information. We don’t need to guess and speculate: we start from a hypothesis, we talk to people and test it, we get back and we get to work. That’s why I don’t worry about our future, even in relation to the challenge of internationalisation.
Gianluca Segato is the founder and managing directorat Uniwhere, a mobile app for university students that currently counts over 100,000 active users in over 50 universities in Italy. He has a degree in Economics and Management from the University of Padova and is an expert in Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and Mobile Development. He founded Uniwhere in 2014 and moved its headquarters to Berlin in 2016. The Italian Embassy in Germany and the Committee for Italians Abroad (Comites) awarded him the title of Italian of the Year for 2016. Over the past two years, Uniwhere has featured on the most prominent Italian media and on industry-related publications.