Ben Rhodes-Kropf ’24 has a message from his father. In order to receive it, he’ll have to travel to Spain.
That’s because his dad left the message through Trace, an app Rhodes-Kropf and classmate Benjamin Siegel ‘24 developed throughout their junior and senior years at Milton. The location-based service combines the functions of a messaging app with the thrill of an in-person treasure hunt, allowing users to “leave a Trace” wherever they are in the world. Messages for other Trace users (or their future selves) are delivered only when the recipient is physically close to the location where the message—in video form—was recorded.
Frustrated by the passive nature of existing social media, which users can idly scroll through for hours on end, Siegel and Rhodes-Kropf set out to create a different kind of messaging service that would foster more-meaningful connections and inspire users to travel near and far.
“You can scroll indefinitely without interacting with the world. It’s not a very healthy relationship that people have with existing social media,” says Siegel. “We were thinking of how we can shift the paradigm of social media so it’s more about exploring and getting outside.”
Check out Ben and Benjamin’s pitch for Trace
Trace, which the students are continuing to develop, gives users an opportunity to connect with others while they’re out in the world, and the ability to make a mark—digitally—on places and in communities. It’s an innovative delivery system for an ancient human desire: to leave one’s impression in a meaningful location. Think rock cairns to denote burial sites or assist in wayfinding; messages in bottles; initials carved into tree trunks; postcards from faraway trips; spray-painted tags on city walls. Trace is a way for a user to say “I was here” or “I was here and I thought of you” with no impact on the environment.
Currently, Trace users can leave messages for others anywhere in the world. Users can set their Traces to expire or remain indefinitely. They can also leave a messages for their future selves—a memory on graduation day to be revisited at reunions down the line, for example. Recipients can leave voice memos or comments in response to Traces. There’s potential to create communities on the app as well. As of late 2023, Milton Academy was the first and only Trace community, allowing visitors to leave general messages to be received by others in a specific location. If they’re in a Trace community, users can leave a message for unknown future visitors. Imagine moving into a new dorm room or apartment and finding a message from a previous occupant.
See Trace in action
The idea for Trace came to Siegel and Rhodes-Kropf, friends since they met in Milton’s Middle School, while they were hiking on Cape Cod in the summer after their sophomore year. They volleyed ideas about how they could share the experience with friends or preserve the memories in a more active way than simply posting a photo or a video on Instagram or TikTok. What if they could leave a message, tied to the specific location, for the future?
“There’s a long-term payout,” Rhodes-Kropf says. “Everyone has a box of pictures and papers in their attic, but it’s hard to interact with that history. With Trace, you’re out and about living your life and able to interact with what other people have shared in the past.”
Building things for the sake of building them has always been a hallmark of the pair’s friendship, whether it’s art, or a welding project, or some kind of tech hardware, or a not-quite-seaworthy boat made from recycled water bottles.
They split their responsibilities for the development of Trace, with Rhodes-Kropf building the app’s infrastructure and Siegel handling the front end of the platform, including its appearance.
They launched in beta with about 1,000 users in the summer before their senior year, collecting valuable feedback to improve the platform and uncover any glitches in the user experience.
Rhodes-Kropf has been interested in programming and coding since he was in elementary school, honing his skills through a combination of self-teaching and formal classes. He started with Scratch, a block-based coding platform for elementary students, at the age of 10; in his freshman year, he enrolled in a summer program called Coding Dojo at Colorado Technical University, an intensive dive into full-stack development.
By his senior year, Rhodes-Kropf had taken most of Milton’s computer science department offerings. He has been inspired by the department faculty, who champion creativity and exploration. Department Chair Chris Hales often connects current students with successful alumni in the tech industry. He put the duo in contact with young graduates who had launched apps and businesses while attending Milton or college.
One such example is Benjamin Botvinick ’21, who created a payment platform for entrepreneurs called Hyper when he was just 17. Hyper took off, bringing in millions in capital investment and propelling Botvinick to Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2022. Another connection was to Jono Forbes ’07, an innovator in augmented and virtual reality. “The alumni community is so inspiring,” says Rhodes-Kropf. “It’s incredible to be able to talk with someone who’s been where you are.”
For now, Trace’s vast marketing potential is mostly untapped. Rhodes-Kropf and Siegel partnered with a musician who left Traces at venues on his tour, allowing users to pick up exclusive videos of new songs when they arrived at his shows. Moving forward, other businesses could register as communities and offer deals or provide a platform for reviews; nonprofits and schools could use Trace for guided tours.
Siegel and Rhodes-Kropf have already had some practice pitching the app to interested partners. Representatives for the musician they worked with contacted them after seeing a TikTok about Trace, which led to the tour project. So far, they have built the app independently, but they plan to seek investors this spring. They’re adding users in batches, hoping to home in on product market fit before launching it broadly.
“We’ve made a pitch deck and we’ve gone on some calls, which was a great experience,” says Rhodes-Kropf. “What we realized was that the money would be helpful, but at the same time, we’re so busy with school and didn’t feel like we could really do it justice. If you’re venture-backed, it’s a big commitment. We’re hopeful that when things calm down a bit, we’ll be able to accelerate development.”
This story appears in the spring/summer 2024 issue of Milton Magazine. Story by Marisa Donelan, photos and video by Evan Scales ’17.