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Sitting Around the Bonfire with Ben and Michael

By Hamza Saeed     4/16/24 10:26pm

Being a small school has benefits and disadvantages. Some claim that one of the drawbacks of being a relatively small campus and having a strong residential college program is that it is often difficult to find events or activities happening across campus. That’s where Benjamin Liu and Michael Mounajjed stepped in.

Liu and Mounajjed are the cofounders and CEOs of Bonfire, an app designed to facilitate event outreach and attendance. Mounajjed is a Hanszen College freshman majoring in operations research and Liu is a McMurtry College sophomore studying computer science and operations research. 

Bonfire was recently accepted to the Rice Summer Venture Studio, a twelve-week program that helps budding startups develop their ventures, and is one of the top five competitors in the Napier Launch Challenge. They will be pitching at the final round, held at the RMC Grand Hall, on April 16. We got a chance to sit down and talk to them regarding who they are and what they’ve been up to prior to their busy summer.



Editor’s Note: This interview has been cut for length and clarity. 

RT: There’s this cultural phenomenon behind the idea of a startup, right? When you talk about these big tech companies, Amazon, Facebook, Google, whatever, we tend to mythicize that origin story. Would you guys like to introduce yourselves by going through your own origin story?

MM: So, I’m from Madison, Wisconsin, originally, and I spent my whole life there. During COVID, I was able to launch projects of my own, just in my free time. I really loved the learning and quality of building something, the amount of stake you have in a project, and the people you meet. 

When I came here, I quickly realized that something Rice succeeds in is creating a close community. But, through these close communities, like residential colleges, you almost lose the chance of meeting random people or going to events. 

I didn’t want to go to investors and pump up this big idea and say, “How much money can we put on the table?”. If we can just make a few good friendships last, our goal has been fulfilled. And so over the last few months, we’ve really made sure to build a product that we think fulfills this goal more than anything.

RT: Ben, what do you want to add on to this origin story? 

BL: I met Michael about three months ago –  really just random. One day, I’m in McMurtry commons. One of my friends, Daniel, brings up a friend of his that is looking for a software guy to work with him on a startup. At first, I was like, ‘oh you know, it’s kind of a busy semester,’ but there was a part of me that was like, ‘why not?’

So when we met up, I sent him my resume [Michael interjects, “What a Rice way to meet people!”]. We sat down at Audrey’s and had a really nice chat. It was Michael and his personality that was by far the thing that made me want to work on Bonfire with him. 

RT: I need to know this before we continue. When you sent that resume, was it CCD approved, Times New Roman, 12-point font, or-

BL: That was like my official resume.

MM: I was impressed! I think we both bring out an element of each other that isn’t apparent in us as individuals. I was really looking for a partner that I knew could and wanted to spend an unreal amount of time, that would push me to really succeed at my maximum potential. We both push each other harder than anybody I’ve ever been with, and I think that relationship is something that’s truly unique and special. 

BL: Michael has the highest capacity to work hard out of everybody I know. The guy is actually crazy, in the best way possible.

RT: “A tiny bit crazy”. I want to focus on that phrase for a second. You need to be a tiny bit crazy to be great, right? 

MM:  I’ve talked before about meeting people you lost track of time with, and I feel like what you said is exactly true: it takes a little bit of craziness. You need to meet those people that enable the craziness, right? People have come to us and said, “Are you guys the next Facebook? TikTok?,” and I don’t think we’re any of that. I think we’re just Bonfire. We’re two kids on top of old section Hanszen that got kicked out by our roommates around 11 p.m. because we wanted to keep developing, and I think that’s what makes Bonfire special. If it all just failed tomorrow, Ben and I will keep trying something new. And that’s why I love this project. Because there’s no pressure for money, there’s no pressure for all this other stuff. 

BL: As long as I’m working with Michael, I know we’re going to be okay. We’re really driven by a mission to connect people. Supporting people as the world becomes more and more digital and getting them to bike to Rice Village with some friends, or hang out at a poker table. 

RT: Can you talk us through the development process or timeline for your app or maybe apps in general? What challenges have you guys come across during that period or during the rollout process?

MM: It was a long process, I won’t lie. It wasn’t an overnight success. At first, Bonfire was going to be a way to meet one-on-one with people. We initially thought the best way to be able to meet with somebody was a matching service, kind of like [Screw-Your-Roommate]. We kept refining and refining the idea. It had to be fun, it had to be something you wanted to keep checking, and that took time. I think around September or October, I wanted someone to hold me responsible, help develop me, and then I found Ben. We launched the website around December.

BL: One of the features that we thought was really important for the app was the creation of friend networks. Not like on Instagram or Facebook, where you have like 1000 friends or followers, but actually friends. Imagine if you had your 20 closest friends on Bonfire. Every single time they like an event, you see their profile photo pop up next to an event. We want to create that group chat feeling. 

Another cool thing we’ve built is a location feature. Life360 is a parent surveillance app and Find My was meant for finding iPhones. There really isn’t any kind of an app that's trying to create a social location aspect of checking in on your friends. 

MM: My favorite example is [Rice] Poker Club. We always had this very unofficial view of Poker Club, right? We had these private games that no one on campus really knew about. I think my first moment of “Oh, this could really work,” was when we posted it on Bonfire and had 35 people come up to Wiess Commons. We had to set up four different tables; we were asking people from all around the college to spare us an extra chair. That was a really special moment in my mind, because it signified that this has value. We now had a runway to keep on building something that has meaning. 

We initially started with the website to really test if we had a prime audience at Rice that would be cohesive for our product. We were able to get 900 to about 1000 students in the first few weeks. Then we realized, “Okay, now that we know this is a real problem, let’s just make the website even better.” 

RT: There’s also a cost associated with app development. Not just a monetary cost, but things like time, effort, and maybe something else I’m missing. Would you guys be willing to share some information on what funding and cost looks like for you? 

MM: Initial funding, development-wise, isn’t going to run you as much as incremental costs as you amass more users. [Our tools] cost around $20 to $30 a month, and we have about four to five platforms we use consistently. This was all mostly funded out of our own wallets right here. We didn’t want to charge users, so it ran us about $600-$700, maybe around $800 with the actual founding of the company. That entails everything we did ourselves. We didn’t hire graphic designers or outside software developers. I think the hardest part about software development is the emotional costs.

Ben and I have gone through so many failures. This didn’t work out, we have to go remake this, this just isn’t working, we go to bed, and it’s not great. 

RT: Being able to market your app is really important for continued and sustained growth and development. Do you guys have a game plan going forward on how you want to market this app?

MM: I think the key thing to takeaway here is we’re a people company, right? Success as a company is not going to be through these large campaigns of treating people like numbers. I think referrals and word of mouth is the number one way you can build a strong product. I want people to find value in the app. 

Rice is our first campus, and we really benefit from being students here, having great friend networks, and other connections on campus. Going forward to campuses like Chicago, Dartmouth, Yale, UW Madison, for example, it is going to be challenging to build those networks, and those challenges are going to look different from school to school. From the outside looking in, I bet they have very similar problems. When we call our friends at these universities, we hear the same thing over and over again. 

RT: Let’s say I’m a club leader. How confident should I be in the scalability of this app? What features are you guys planning to bring to this app launch? What should make me feel good about this app?

MM:

Right now, it just feels like a game of who shouts the loudest. We’ve all been in Seibel, and you see 40 posters on the wall, you see messages in the GroupMe and in your email. It’s impossible to just look in one place, right? With the one hour they have outside of classes, students should not have to go through six different platforms just to be able to find information.

RT: Is there anything you want to say to our audience, something that you guys feel is essential for them to know?

MM: Bonfire is for everybody, and we are here to stay. Bonfire is not just a project that’s going to fade away in two months, three months, we’re here to make this a product that people will use when we graduate. We are here to build it as best we can. That’s our motivation.

BL: Michael and I, we’re driven by this mission of trying to connect people and trying to support people in this digital age really try to facilitate human connection, lower that friction, lower that barrier to actually doing things in the real world. That’s what Bonfire is all about.



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