If you’ve ever used EyeOut to check seat availability in preferred sections, or the Grade Analyzer to scope out courses, you are among the many internet customers of UBC Slacknotes. The website, founded by Chris Zhu and now managed by Bea Subion, is exhibiting rapid growth, with over 100,000 site visits and 6,000 users signing up for the EyeOut service in December and January alone.
The project began as a way for computer science majors Subion and Zhu to fill what they thought was an unmet need for students — a tool to connect with classmates, check past grades for courses and get into preferred sections.
Originally, Slacknotes was to be a network of chatrooms for every course at UBC. But Zhu and Subion soon found that the site's most popular element was the Grades Analyzer, where students can look at grade averages in any class between 2009 to 2015.
“The other incredibly popular [service] is EyeOut. Basically, if a course is full, you can leave your phone number or your email, and we send you a notification when a seat opens up,” said Subion.
Zhu, who now works at AirBnB, graduated in May 2016 and Subion is now the sole director of the entire project.
While the website has garnered much interest — and more importantly, page visits — Subion and Zhu have yet to monetize it. In fact, Slacknotes has been costing them a substantial amount of money, so much so that they even considered shutting the website down altogether.
“EyeOut has been free for a really long time, but it’s actually negative profit. [Zhu and I] have spent quite a bit of money to keep maintaining it. Every single text message costs money and when you send like 70,000 text messages, that really adds up,” said Subion.
To offset the costs of running the website, Subion has started a new premium EyeOut service, which offers superior notification times and one-click registration at the cost of $4.99. Since launching in late December, 65 people have signed up for the premium service.
“When you have 16,000 people [simultaneously] signing up for the free service, it can take between 0 and 30 minutes to actually send out a notification from when that course opens up. EyeOut Premium will take 0 to 30 seconds instead. You’re also helping to keep Slacknotes alive,” she said.
Subion clarified that making money or even professional development were never her primary goals. Instead, she claims the project is run purely in the interest of students at UBC. In line with her vision for Slacknotes, Subion promised that as long as she is the woman in charge, the basic EyeOut service will remain free to use.
“I really want to keep the service free — that’s important to me. You’re a UBC student, you want to graduate, our waitlists are kind of insane and I want to help. I want to help you get into that course. Given that I'm the only one working on it right now, I still see Slacknotes as a project and an awesome tool for students, not as a company,” she said.
Subion did not rule out running ads on the website as an alternative stream of revenue, and may hold an IPO if her rent gets more expensive.
With two more years of university left, Subion is looking forward to building a successful software engineering career. Slacknotes has already helped her land an internship at Twilio, the San Francisco-based company that handles EyeOut's automatic texting. Once she graduates, Subion hopes to line up a suitable candidate to step into her shoes and continue to maintain and further grow Slacknotes.
However, as VP Volunteering at the Computer Science Students Society, Subion hears and shares many of the concerns that currently plague computer science students at UBC. Recently, students have been unable to get into required courses, even with the assistance of EyeOut, and CPSC 213 underwent a final exam fiasco.
“The thing [is that] for computer science, it’s very difficult to get professors. And how much could you pay those professors when they’re being poached by companies that can pay much more than the university? People with a PhD in computer science can get paid a lot more [elswhere] than working at UBC, so I do understand that aspect of it, but I feel like the transition could have been a lot smoother. It was too many people being let in versus how much faculty they could hire, so if they foresaw that sooner, it could have been a lot better,” she said.
Subion believes that to deal with the current state of the computer science job market, the department could develop more massive open online courses (MOOCs), offer more distance education courses and raise the pay of TAs to expedite the marking process.