Usually being in the dog house isn’t considered a good thing, but Jeffry Harrison and his co-founders have created a company whose bark is as strong as its bite. RoverTown is not only providing 1.4 million college students with real solid discount programs on their campus, but they are being recognized as a growing Midwest startup and gaining the support to back it up.
I had the chance to talk with Jeffry about his journey as a student turned entrepreneur. And on top of his own company, he sparked the entrepreneurial spirit at his alma mater by helping launch his college’s CEO Chapter! Below is an interview with Jeffry about his growing startup, his entrepreneurial start in college, and lessons he’s learned along the way.
Co-Founder Name: Jeffry Harrison
Business Name: RoverTown
Business Description: RoverTown is the leader in distributing mobile student discounts to college students. From Hawaii to New York, RoverTown serves 1.4 million college students by supporting discount programs at 68 colleges and universities.
Number of Employees: 5
Year Founded: 2009
Twitter Handle: @RoverTown #rovertown
Katie Sowa: Congratulations on the growing success of RoverTown! How did the idea come about?
Jeffry Harrison: Thanks, Katie! It’s definitely an exciting time for our startup. The idea around what RoverTown is today comes from the many late night white board sessions between myself and Co-Founders Mike Philip and Mike Rzeznik. I met Mike and Mike in 2011 during a tour of the SIU Research Park. I was extremely interested in the idea of providing students with an easy way to access all the student discounts in their university community.
Mike and Mike were students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC) and I was attending Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE). We thought this would be a great opportunity to partner as sister schools, and I brought RoverTown to the SIUE campus where in became a huge success in 2012. That’s when we knew we had something special.
Katie: Working to develop a tech startup, what has been your biggest lesson learned along the way?
Jeffry: Wow! Tough question, Katie. I would say to listen to your investors and advisers very seriously. We have been fortunate to assemble a fantastic advisory board along with experienced angel investors. If you surround your company with these people right from the start, they will give you advice and guidance which will help you avoid dangerous pitfalls. So be sure to listen to these people. There is a reason why they were successful in the past.
Katie: What major roadblocks have you experienced? How did you overcome them?
Jeffry: Two main roadblocks come to mind. The first was implementing a sales structure last summer which failed and having to quickly recover. And the second was building a solidified sales structure with accurate metrics and processes to accommodate rapid expansion. Metrics and processes make any company successful.
Katie: Congratulations also on having been recently awarded with an Arch Grant. Tell us about this experience. How is it changing the future of RoverTown?
Jeffry: Thanks! Arch Grants has been a game changer for our company. We actually applied for the inaugural Arch Grants class in 2012 and failed. Every entrepreneur is too familiar with the word failure, but like always, we dusted ourselves off and came on top this year.
The timing is just so perfect for us right now. We have just finished relocating our headquarters to downtown St. Louis and are able to hire talented individuals from the area. One of the most intriguing aspects of being an Arch Grants recipient is joining over 70 start-up companies in the T-REx community. We have already begun to form mutually beneficial partnerships with similar minded companies.
As far as the experience of the Arch Grants process, it is certainly one of the most nerve-racking, but exciting challenges I have come across. The opportunity to pitch in front of some of the most recognized entrepreneurs in St. Louis and around the country was worth the experience in itself. I highly recommend any CEO member with a business or even an idea for a business to apply for the Arch Grants competition. Regardless of the results, you will become a stronger entrepreneur.
Katie: Now that you’re an up-and-coming startup in the Midwest, how do you view the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Midwest? How do you think it compares to the more popular regions more traditionally known for launching successful companies?
Jeffry: You can’t beat the people from the Midwest. I’ve been fortunate to travel coast-to-coast and people from the Midwest are simply the friendliest. This is essential for our company as we build relationships with universities, small businesses, and students. Another benefit is the geographically central location of the Midwest.
A challenge for the Midwest is providing access to capital for entrepreneurs. There are too many companies who leave the area not because they dislike it, but simply because they have to follow the money. Once St. Louis and other Midwestern areas begin to grow access to investment funds, the Midwest will only continue to grow as an entrepreneurial hub.
Katie: How did being a college student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) help you as an entrepreneur? How did co-founding the Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization (CEO) Chapter at SIUE impact you?
Jeffry: Attending at college taught me two important lessons. First, I do not want to work in the corporate world. I felt constrained on my ability to achieve and also on potential promotion.
The second is that life is all about relationships. Genuine relationships. Not how many speed networking events you can attend. But instead committed relationships from business partners you can work with (without killing each other) and mentors who can guide you. I am proud to say my business partners and our investors are all graduates of the SIU System.
During my sophomore year of college at SIUE, I wanted to find a way to bring together all the “go-getters” on campus. We looked at multiple venues to achieve this and ultimately decided starting a Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization (CEO) Chapter at SIUE would be the best route. The decision couldn’t have been any better. We received over 140 member applications our first semester and decided upon 44 members after conducting in-person interviews. Yes, we took our CEO Chapter at SIUE very seriously J
Being a part of the CEO Chapter at SIUE helped me discover my true passion for entrepreneurship. Not only did I enjoy starting a business on my own, but I loved hearing and helping others with similar dreams. I still keep in touch with several former CEO members from SIUE and am so happy we made the commitment to establish a chapter on the SIUE campus.
Katie: Since attending the 2009 National Conference in Chicago, how has this affected your entrepreneurial journey or your company?
Jeffry: Our CEO Chapter at SIUE had the opportunity to attend the CEO National Conference in 2009 during our first year of existence. One of the highlights included participating in the Elevator Pitch Competition during the Conference. Even though I did not win the competition, the experience of pitching in front of a panel of judges and crowd with standing room only taught me a great deal as a 19 year-old.
Another memory which comes to mind is meeting an entrepreneur named Ryan would owned a mobile marketing company. Back in 2009, mobile marketing sounded like the most futuristic technology…kind of like hover cars. I attended Ryan’s break-out session and was impressed with his passion. I am excited to return four years later as a breakout session speaker at this year’s CEO National Conference as an entrepreneur with a mobile marketing company and hopefully inspire CEO members who are in the crowd just as I was.
Katie: So what’s the typical day-in-the-life of a college entrepreneur like? Having studied entrepreneurship in school, is it what you thought it’d be like or is the actual experience different?
Jeffry: Haha, I remember answering work e-mails on my iPhone during my Finance 430 classes senior year. As your company grows, your priorities change. You attend fewer parties, put your school work second, and make your business your baby.
College is all about helping you find your passion and set you on your future life path. Once you find it, school is difficult to stay focused on. There’s a reason why you hear about so many college drop-outs who leave school to pursue their business. I was almost one of them, but luckily was close enough to graduation to finish.
There are many lessons you will learn about entrepreneurship in the classroom which will help you run a business. There are equally as many lessons you will not encounter. Most of this comes from raw experience which includes countless failures. Two specific items I wish I would have learned while studying entrepreneurship were how to effectively use QuickBooks and what the heck worker’s compensation is.
Besides these, the most important lesson you will never learn in the classroom is what hard work really is. It’s not spending a few extra minutes cleaning up and it’s not staying late. It’s giving all of yourself to what you and your business can become. Once your survival depends on the survival of your business, you will have succeeded.
Katie: What do you contribute as being most valuable to your success?
Jeffry: My team. RoverTown’s employees, investors, advisers, and supporters are the ones who make everything possible. If you bring the right people together, anything is possible.
Katie: Any words of wisdom that you live by?
Jeffry: “You can delegate authority, not responsibility.” -Dion Joannou (RoverTown Investor)
Katie: What is your advice for other aspiring college entrepreneurs?
Jeffry: Just do it! Not to buy Nike gear, but to start your own business. Once you do, you will understand the sacrifices necessary to make your company survive…and thrive!
If you’re interested in joining this student community to get access to exclusive discounts and rewards, enroll in RoverTown at rovertown.com. Or meet Jeffry in person and hear him speak live at the legendary 2013 National CEO Conference in Chicago this November! Check out [email protected] for more info.