The bold letters “Ufree?” emblazon the T-shirt Stephen Ost wears and the license plate on his car. Ironically, these days he rarely is free as he speeds from one appointment to the next, working to determine the valuation of his company Ufree, LLC.
Ost has spent the last three years creating the Ufree smartphone app, which had its official launch on Aug. 15. Ufree has been attracting a lot of attention lately, and not just from potential tech investors. Entrepreneur magazine has named Ost one of five finalists vying nationally for the “College Entrepreneur of the Year” award. Quite impressive for a guy that only 10 years ago was a Bar Mitzvah at Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Ost, who lives in Tucson, says that he’s been obsessed with computers his whole life. He began his college studies in engineering at the University of Arizona. In his second semester he took an introductory course in computer science and found it so enjoyable that he knew he’d found his calling. “I just really got into it all, especially the coding,” says Ost. “It never even felt like work to me.”
Ost earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science from the UA in May. He interned as a software engineer at IBM the summer before graduating and thought IBM was going to be his career home. “I mean, why not?” he asks with a wry smile. “Pulling in $80,000 a year just out of college isn’t so bad.” But then, Ost says, he realized he had a better alternative.
For most of his time as a UA student, an idea dogged him: How could you communicate your free time schedule to your friends and classmates easily, in real time? The solution he created became the Ufree app.
“Ufree,” explains Ost, “helps people interact face-to-face with their friends.” Unlike the most popular social media platform, Facebook, where users share what they’ve done in the past and remain tied up in the present in front of a screen, Ufree links a user to a small circle of friends, classmates or colleagues and shows who is free to engage in real, person-to-person social interactions. “Rather than texting and calling everyone you want to be with, which is very inefficient,” says Ost, “you just open the app on your smartphone to see a list of nearby friends who are available to hang out.”
As the Ufree concept was developing into a concrete application, Ost knew he had a good business model. He formed Ufree, LLC in December 2011, financing the company with savings garnered from his IBM internship. A loan from a family member gave him the necessary support to hire a team and speed the project to fruition.
As its name might imply, there is no cost to use the Ufree app. It functions on the standard Internet model of “free” online usage supported by advertisements. Ufree’s attraction for advertisers is particularly compelling as they can target ads in real time to people arranging to meet at nearby restaurants, bars and coffee shops.
Ost says that he got support and encouragement from local Tucson organizations Startup Tucson and the McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship at the UA’s Eller School of Management. The UA continues to support Ost with an internship program for students who get credit for working on Ufree, as well as real-world marketing and business experience. Additionally, the university will serve as the initial target market for the app beginning this fall.
Ufree is headquartered at the Arizona Center for Innovation at the University of Arizona Tech Park in Tucson. Its web address is www.UfreeApp.com. The Ufree app is available — for free — at Apple’s app store.
To help Ost win the “College Entrepreneur of the Year” award, readers can vote at http://www.entrepreneur.com/e2013college.
Renee Claire is a freelance writer in Tucson.