Tom Hatton and Ian Forshew founded RefME in March 2014. Tom, a history of arts and music student at Oxford Brookes, hated referencing and felt that technology should automate the process. He was introduced to Ian, ex-Birmingham University student and the founder of BeachBreak Live, and the RefME vision was born.
RefME is a one-click free and easy referencing tool for students. It’s available online or via iOS and Android apps which enable scanning of book and journal barcodes. It saves and syncs in the cloud, so work can be accessed across multiple devices from anywhere at any time.
Despite its success (the app has overtaken Spotify and eBay in the download charts and grown faster than Twitter and Pinterest did in their first year), RefME has been criticised for encouraging student laziness, as at many universities citation is regarded as a part of the essay-writing process, with students receiving additional marks for correct referencing.
Where did the idea for the app come from?
We both found the whole referencing process tedious but vital at university. There were tools that could help in creating references but the quality of output was either poor, incorrect or there was a big learning curve to use them which meant less drinking time! We knew that if we built a tool that was easy to use but with a high quality of output, we would win. RefME is it.
We have added over 500,000 students in just under six months and are looking to hit 5-10 million users by the end of next year.
How did you develop and promote RefME?
We started developing RefME in August 2013 and we are still working on making the tool the best it can be.
We have an amazing, ever expanding team and have kept making the referencing part to our tool the absolute focus but over the next couple of months we will start to add some really cool features.
We have a bottom up marketing strategy targeting students that has really made them connect with the product. We started by testing 50+ channels trying to answer “how do we make referencing sexy?” We’ve been campaigning to get Emma Watson and Harry ‘Referencing’ Styles (as we like to call him) to promote it but in the end we found students really hate referencing and that has pretty much been all our message needed to be!
What's the best thing about running an app?
We are very lucky that cloud computing and mobile technologies are the future and we can help define that by being the early adopters. We’ve reinvented a product that we know there is always going to be a demand for, whilst having the chance to innovate through its data and working with an amazing team is also really exciting. We have one of the best technical teams in London with people who have joined from Google, Apple, ZipCar, and even NASA - so working with this type of talent is pretty cool.
You've faced criticism for encouraging students to be lazy, with some suggesting that your app is a glorified cheating device. How do you combat this criticism?
It is funny as the criticism never comes from the people who are sat there at 2am trying to figure out where to put a comma. It tends to be from people who think you shouldn’t stand too close to a microwave, so we just ignore it. What we are doing is automating a very important process but the reason for referencing is what a student must understand and we shout about this non-stop. Validating where you find information is the future, inside and outside of academia, and we want to be the primary tool that does just that.
Sure, scanning a book barcode with our app or simply copying in a URL into RefME.com seems a little easy but you still have to read the content and determine its importance. It is also absurd not to embrace technology as the whole point to innovate is to make a process more efficient. What you then choose to do with your new found free time is up to you.
What advice do you have to other young people wanting to develop an app?
Find something good, really, really good. You need to be not sleeping because you are so worried someone else may do it before you start developing anything. Ask your friends what they think, ask the internet, ask people in the industry, just get some validation that you are not crazy and then go for it. Basically whatever you end up with will almost 99% of the time not work, but you’ll learn everything you need to and whatever you do next will have a much better chance of success.