When you work in a startup community like St. Louis, which you might consider a big, small-town, you’ll find an almost overwhelming sense of community. You seem to run in to startup entrepreneurs around every corner, frequenting the local coffee shops, walking to and from co-working spaces on Washington Avenue, and attending the many different meetups around town.
The entrepreneurs, though, that I seem to see more than others are Michael Philip and Jeffry Harrison, who along with their other business partner Michael Rzeznik, are responsible for building the popular mobile student discount program RoverTown. They’ve attended nearly every taping of our flagship web series, The Domain Tech Report, and have been great friends of the show and Techli.com.
So, when they surpassed 100 Universities not long ago, it was high time I heard the full story of how RoverTown began. “We manage discount programs. Do you know that?” joked Harrison. Of course, that’s not nearly the half of it…
I spent an hour with the two at their offices, listening to their stories and insights into growing their company. Like many startups, it hasn’t always been a smooth road. They’re not an overnight success story, and it’s taken years of hard work to get to this point. Now, they’re finally seeing the beginnings of success, and believe it or not, these 20-somethings can credit the start of this adventure to beer.
It all started on the campus of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where Philip was enrolled in classes. At the beginning, he had two different business partners and it was a student discount card as opposed to a mobile application. “So, basically we started in 2009, and the idea,” Philip explained, “we were in college and broke, so we needed to get something to get into the bars for free.”
In the small college town, there are several bars in the area that charge anywhere from $1-2 to get in. “So, $1 saved on cover, allowed us to get a $1 beer,” said Philip. “It was a couple of buddies in my fraternity, they asked if I could do the website and a text message system. I built it, and they went to businesses.”
In just 30 days, they had signed up 50 businesses for the Rover Card, and they’d sold around 200 cards. Next year they sold 400, then 600, and it went up from there.
By 2010, smartphones were starting to permeate college campuses, and Philip set his sights on going mobile. “At the time, BlackBerry was at the top of my list,” laughed Philip. “So, 2011 early, we released a mobile website and at first it was just me building it.”
Then, his other two partners graduated, they moved on, leaving him with the company. But, he wasn’t alone for long. He met Michael Rzeznik, their other largest equity partner who is based in their Chicago office, in class. “You could just tell this guy knew more than everyone else in the class,” said Philip of his unusual courtship of his future business partner. “So, for days, weeks, I tried to figure out his name. I was doing all kinds of things. Eventually, I was like [forget] it. I went up to him and asked if he was interested in an internship.”
The two expanded into Lexington, Kentucky, thanks to a contact at their local bookstore in Carbondale, and things started to come together. That’s also when Philip met Harrison, who was attending Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, a sister school to Philip’s SIUC.
Harrison was in town as a student representative on the Board of Trustees. He toured a few businesses, including RoverTown. “Yeah, he was in sweatpants or something, and I was like suited up,” laughed Harrison about meeting Philip for the first time.
“Something had hit the fan at that moment,” Philip defended himself. In spite of that meeting, Harrison and Philip kept in touch, and Harrison was convinced he could take that program to SIUE. “People tell you that all the time when you start a company,” said Philip. “You learn to take it with a grain of salt, but he was always very adamant he was going to make it happen, and he did it. He made it the biggest school on our program actually.”
Today, the team is based in St. Louis, which was an easy decision for them after winning an Arch Grant in 2013. “Obviously, Silicon Valley is a thought of every tech entrepreneur,” said Philip. “We haven’t gone out there because we’re finding what we need in St. Louis. The decision to move here was the right decision. We were at the point where we were driving to Chicago, and we could get $50,000 if we turned the wheel left.”
It doesn’t hurt, either, that Rovertown hasn’t had trouble finding the resources they need to grow and push forward. They recently won the $100,000 Arch Grants follow-on grant as well as graduated from the Capital Innovators Fall 2013 class and ITEN Mock Angels program. “It’s been great,” said Mike. “We’ve doubled our staff, tripled our user-base, and it’s just been awesome. So, that’s kind of where we’re at today.”
They also just added Nick Kellermeyer, the former VP of Sales at GrubHub, to its advisory board. “Adding Nick to our Advisory Board is a game changer,” said Philip. “His experience in sales and scaling GrubHub from 100 restaurants to over 21,000 will help us think strategically as we grow.”
This is just another step toward the big plans that RoverTown has for its future, and they’ve learned a lot along the way, including the necessity to keep going through difficult times. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve sat there, it’s three in the morning, and we want to kill each other,” said Philip. “It’s clearly not working, and we’re losing money, and everything is going wrong. But you find a way to get past it, and find something that might work, and then eventually it starts working.”
“The cool thing right now, the needle is moving and everything I imagined happening is finally starting to happen,” said Philip. “It took five years and finally this is happening. This is exactly what the whole point of this is. So, it’s exciting. But, we’re not done. We have a lot more to do.”
And their big goals are not something that they just talk about, either. You could argue RoverTown is one of the hardest working startups in St. Louis. Their typical day begins around 9 a.m. and doesn’t wrap up until around 3 a.m. the next day.
From the time I’ve spent with the pair, their passion and work ethic is a main contributor to their success. But, probably their greatest asset is their honesty about not knowing everything and their ability to continue learning.
“Weird things happen that you don’t expect. I thought I knew exactly what to do in every situation,” said Harrison. “But looking back, I knew nothing, and that’s not even a joke. Even at this point, I feel pretty comfortable, but I realize there is so much to learn, so much to grasp, so much experience yet to have, so there is some truth really to becoming mature and seasoned as an entrepreneur. That’s something they can’t teach you. You just have to do it. It’s about diving in and staying focused.”
“Yeah, it’s staying focused with a bullet proof vest,” Mike added.
While only time will tell whether RoverTown will meet its lofty goals, things are looking quite promising for the St. Louis startup, and they’ve come quite a long way from when we first covered them here at Techli. We were still based in Chicago, and Harrison hadn’t even met Philip yet.
“I think it’s cool we had an article written about us before I joined,” Harrison reminisced. “I remember I didn’t even know what TechCrunch was, but I knew what Techli was. I was like Techli… This sounds so cool! I thought it was some sort of insane new karate. And that’s how I learned about RoverTown. Because of Techli.”
Not bad for a few 20-somethings… Check out their program, and download their app available on iOS and Android here.