In early April, the world changed. The COVID-19 crisis completely transformed the ways we spent time with others and learned. We felt helpless sitting at home, not being able to go out and physically volunteer, donate, or do anything to help remedy the situation. But, we were optimistic. Having volunteered at nursing homes when we were younger, we had developed a deeply rooted fondness for the stories and bits of wisdom seniors were ever-willing to share. Also, we knew that if we were feeling lonely and isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was likely much worse for them. Meanwhile, we craved their advice and wisdom, hoping for a mentor amidst the uncertainty. From these two observations, we created Big & Mini, a platform connecting young adults and seniors to create new connections and learning opportunities for both parties. Not only did this help us find a way to make a difference during an unprecedented time, but it also gave others who may have had the same restlessness and urge to help a way to do good from their own home at any time. Although our idea was born of the COVID-19 crisis, its potential for good extends long beyond the constraints of the pandemic.
What it does
Big & Mini is a platform that creates meaningful, authentic connections that link generations together virtually to share stories and combat loneliness. Through dynamic group activities and one-on-one matches between seniors (Bigs) and young adults (Minis), we create a community working together to spread wisdom, end social isolation, and make the world a little better.
Imagine sitting at home, unable to leave the house even for groceries, with virtually nobody to talk to or help with daily tasks. For many seniors, this situation is a reality, with the percent who feel socially isolated topping 40% (over 12.5 million in the US). COVID-19 has had devastating effects on their ability to stay connected and find resources while wreaking havoc on their ability to communicate with others.
On the flip side, the lives of over 30 million younger adults have been turned upside down. Instead of continuing to thrive within their jobs or school environments, they’re trying to find new employment, transition to new learning environments, and succeed without the guidance of traditional mentors. With no one to turn to for advice, having someone to help them get through this difficult time is invaluable.
Big & Mini seeks to provide this missing connection, regardless of background or geographical location. By pairing seniors with young adults through video and phone calls, Big & Mini combats the loneliness exacerbated by COVID-19 while providing mentorship and resources to both parties. We match seniors with young adults based on mutual interests and similar goals and provide a virtual resource packet to both parties, ensuring that there is already a connection and pre-built avenues for advice-giving and receiving.
Existing services helping with this problem are incredibly localized and only help a small fraction of isolated individuals. Big & Mini is a platform that is accessible everywhere and simple to use, ensuring that everyone is able to get connection and mentorship during this trying time. Additionally, our inclusion of group events foster a sense of community and connection on a larger scale, showing our users that we value their input and helping them find many different people to connect to. The matches we create end up becoming an integral relationship for both the Bigs and Minis, making our platform the first of its kind to create true, lasting connections that span borders between generations. In a nutshell, we build community while boosting the mental well-being of vulnerable senior and youth populations.
Currently, the Big & Mini platform is established (bigandmini.org) and has already benefited over 500 individuals. However, in order to grow our platform further, we need mentorship and funding. With the support of more mentors, we hope to gain advice on how to maximize our social impact and better reach the more vulnerable populations of nursing home residents and at-risk youth. Additionally, we hope that we’ll be able to hear different ideas about how we can achieve sustainability and make this platform a forever resource for anyone wanting connection or advice. Finally, we’ll be able to offset our software costs that have thus far been supported mainly by our own money and continue to form partnerships with organizations that can help us spread our mission.
How we built it
As a group of college students, we also realized that in order to help as many people as possible, we needed to reach out to mentors within our community to advise us on how we could maximize the platform’s safety and value. We started small and within our own community, contacting advisors who worked with older adults in our college itself. From there, we branched out to several aging organizations, having their directors try out our service and forming solidified partnerships that helped us find Bigs and Minis who would benefit from our service. Over time, as our users began sharing us on their own platforms and talking about their Bigs and Minis, people began reaching out to us, asking to incorporate our platform into their organizations or sign their friends up. Eventually, we recruited some of our most passionate Bigs and Minis to join our team and brought on a few experts to help us in our journey.
As we grew, we decided we wanted to enhance the community that our platform provided to provide connections beyond just the singular Big & Mini pair. Thus, we implemented group activities and socials. Through this aspect of the platform, we were able to host weekly get-togethers in which Bigs and Minis interacted and conversed in larger settings. From activities like Scattergories to speed friending, these activities provided an easy way to experience the group social connection that quarantine had rendered difficult to find. Additionally, this gave care homes an easy way to get their seniors engaged, as all residents needed to participate was a phone and a smile.
Another way we decided to increase connection was through a chat feature that allowed Bigs and Minis to communicate whenever they wanted safely. To make the chat, we utilized Twilio’s programmable chat feature and created channels for each Big & Mini pair. This chat feature immediately became a heavily used feature, with Bigs and Minis sharing everything from daily occurrences to recipes and book recommendations.
Over the course of this hackathon, we worked on developing an app that would make our platform even more accessible. When conducting user interviews, we realized that many of our users were joining from tablets and smartphones, making the website somewhat difficult inconvenient to use. Thus, in order to increase our platform’s audience and ease of use, we worked on developing an app that offered the same features as our website in a simplified format better suited to older audiences. In order to build the app, we use React Native.
Challenges we ran into
The biggest difficulty we’ve faced is our lack of connections with people in the aging industry. As engineering majors in college, finding mentors with experience working with seniors has been a bit difficult. Thus far, we’ve been using the power of our mission and story to reach out to people that we think our platform would provide value to and inspire others to join. We’ve worked hard to develop every connection we have, spending hours making countless cold emails and calls, talking to users, and applying for grants. Additionally, the mentors that this Hackathon was able to connect us with were incredibly helpful and allowed us to clearly see our next steps. However, as students who are constantly learning and growing from this process, having others on board to help guide us and help our platform have an even larger social impact remains incredibly important.
Another challenge we’ve faced is balancing our ratio of Bigs to Minis. As college students, most of the people we see and interact with regularly are college students. Our normal communication channels, such as social media, have a younger audience. Thus, getting information about Big & Mini to Bigs has been somewhat difficult and our ratio of Bigs to Minis has always leaned more towards the Mini side. We’ve tried to counter this by reaching out to several aging organizations and focusing on using print media to help spread our message. However, finding a steady stream of Bigs remains one of our challenges. To counter this, we are in the process of developing a platform within Big & Mini that is specifically designed for senior living communities (e.g. master dashboard for supervisor to track resident matches and comments from Minis to share with the resident’s family, simplified sign-up process, tailored and fully-planned group activities for all residents, etc.). We are also constantly working with aging organizations to formulate partnerships and further grow our platform. We hope that through these measures, we can even the ratio and make Big & Mini as helpful as possible.
Accomplishments that we're proud of
First and foremost, our greatest accomplishment has been the positive impact we’ve been able to see among our users. We still remember the first email we got from one of our Bigs stating how much she loved meeting her Mini and how it was the most fun she had had all year. Since then, we’ve received countless other emails and phone calls telling us about the stories they’ve shared with their matches and thanking us for the platform. Just yesterday, we received a video from a Big and Mini talking about how the relationship they had formed was akin to a granddaughter-grandmother pair. These moments, these thoughts, and these words are what make Big & Mini so worth it. In terms of more tangible accomplishments, we have over 500 users currently on our platform and a churn rate of under 10%. Over 95% of our matched users strongly agree that Big & Mini has made a large positive impact on how happy and connected they feel on a regular basis and 100% believe that their match is someone they will form a lasting friendship with.
We’ve also seen significant media coverage, with a segment in the TODAY Show coming up this week and features in The Houston Chronicle, Parade Magazine, SoulPancake, and over 20 other news outlets. Finally, we’re the youngest team (in both company age and our age) to be accepted into the Blackstone Launchpad and Techstars Startup Fellowship and have raised over $5,000 in grassroots donations.
Our final accomplishment that we’re incredibly proud of is our drive and passion for creating social good within a difficult time. Surprising even ourselves, we’ve worked countless days and nights to make Big & Mini a success and learned the basics of running a successful social impact venture along the way. We’ve never lost our relentless passion to make the world a better place and brought joy to several people’s lives, something that will forever remain our biggest accomplishment.
What we learned
The entire process of creating and bringing Big & Mini to life has taught us more than we could have ever imagined. Whether it be developing a business model, forming partnerships, or creating a matching algorithm, we’ve truly learned so much.
From an entrepreneurial standpoint, this project has taught us how to scale a platform, measure key metrics, and optimize the value we provide to both parties. Starting out, we had little experience bringing a successful company to life and knew that we needed to find mentors to guide us as we grew our platform and developed a business model. So, we cold emailed several people within our college who worked with older adults on a regular basis and were willing to provide us with mentorship and resources. After making these connections, we were able to use warm introductions to get in contact with aging organizations that had regular contact with the groups we were targeting. Through this initial outreach period, we learned the value that mentors and connections brought to an organization trying to grow and were able to create a more concrete plan for how we wanted to make BIg & Mini a sustainable venture. Additionally, we learned basic and senior specific UI/UX to make our website as clean and easy to use as possible and what metrics we needed to measure in order to make sure our impact was positive. We also learned how to create meaningful partnerships, develop a concrete business model that allowed for sustainability, and maintain our existing user base.
When it comes to the technical side of things, we’ve learned how to use various facets of Amazon Web Services, including DynamoDB to store information about our users, Cognito for user authentication, and Node.js Lambda functions to access all these resources securely. Aside from AWS, we learned Next.js from building our website and React Native from building our mobile app. While these technologies describe the fundamental backend and frontend frameworks of the site, we also expanded on the frame using multiple Twilio services, including Programmable Chat and Sendgrid. In addition to web programming, this project developed our skills in algorithms, as we had to come up with an algorithm to match people based on availability and interests, using a weighted graph.
What's next for Big & Mini
Our next focus is to bring Big & Mini to senior living communities, environments that are especially vulnerable currently due to the heightened risk COVID presents and lower levels of outside connection many residents experience. Thus far, our Bigs have mainly been from independent living situations as our platform is better adapted for those who have the technology. We want to create a modified signup flow that would make it easier for organizations to sign up and track the progress of many residents. With this system, groups could track their participant’s engagement in Big & Mini activities and overall satisfaction while efficiently signing up hundreds of users.
In addition to adapting our current platform for senior living communities and other organizations, we plan to expand our platform to make it more accessible; while the mobile app will certainly allow us to reach a larger community of Bigs and Minis, other features, like integrated video calling, real-time translation, or a version of the app with a simplified visual interface, could help us reach people with all levels of technology experience. Finally, looking into how we can increase the pool of potential users is important. We’ve come across matches where either a Big or Mini has really poor internet connection which prevents them from video calling. Also, tech training and lack of technology is a potential problem for Big & Mini to consider in the future, whether by working with other organizations or funding our own solutions.
Looking into the future, we expect to have thousands of users by the end of the summer, tens of thousands by 2021, and even more in the years to come. We believe that having someone to talk to makes all the difference. As such, we will do everything we can to advance our mission and help as many people as possible.