We’re sitting in a coffee shop in Evanston and Austin Asamoa-Tutu is telling me that his new business, SweetPerk, is not the same thing as Groupon Now!…even if it appears that way at first.
I believe him, though, because we’ve just spent 45 minutes sharing stories about how hard business school can be when you first arrive on campus: how everyone appears to know exactly what they want, leaving the rest of us feeling isolated and misguided.
Austin tells me that his father was an entrepreneur and he knew he had the startup bug, too. And despite a first quarter of business school that “felt like hell,” trying on different recruiting possibilities, Austin managed to find his way back to the entrepreneurship track.
His goal? To be Kellogg Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year in five years, and give back to the Kellogg entrepreneurship community. He tells me he spent two weeks doing every exercise in the widely read career-changer manual, What Color Is Your Parachute?, and realized that what fit him best was attempting to launch a technology-based social enterprise.
So he got to work.
Austin enrolled in the two-quarter NUvention Web course at Northwestern, ranked among the top 10 entrepreneurship classes in the country in 2011, found a group of students to work with, and presented his idea to them. After a long and painful process of prioritizing and deliberating other startup options, the group finally landed back on his original idea for a web-enabled rewards system for local businesses. After numerous pivots and many iterations, the team launched SweetPerk: a custom, branded mobile app for local shopping districts, or in other words, a “technology-enabled, mobile billboard.”
SweetPerk’s first product, “Passport to Downtown Evanston,” focuses on the downtown area of Evanston, just a hop-skip from Austin’s alma mater, Kellogg and Northwestern University. Here’s how it works: a user downloads “Passport to Downtown Evanston” to their iPhone or Android device and is shown a series of “perks” (e.g. an event, loyalty card, discount, announcement) at many of the local merchants nearby. This user can shop at a store or eat at a restaurant, and with their camera phone, s/he can scan a unique QR code given by SweetPerk to the merchant, activating the perk.
Simple as that.
SweetPerk’s been live for two months. In the first 60 days, there were almost 1063 downloads of the app, more than 650 “favorited” merchants, and more than 255 “perk” redemptions – SweetPerk does indeed drive foot-traffic!
From the beginning, Austin has fervently pursued this model because he believes enabling local businesses to leverage technology to increase business is crucial to helping revive the economy. In true MBA fashion, he also said he believes SweetPerk helps these businesses move up the “efficiency frontier.” He hopes to take this model back to his native Ghana where he feels passionately that economic development is rooted in small business development. That’s where the social enterprise piece of his personal mission comes into play.
Austin says that SweetPerk differs from other “local” app offerings because his firm has developed a turnkey solution in which the incentives of merchants, the community, and SweetPerk are rightly aligned. That is to say, unlike other business models, SweetPerk doesn’t take a commission from each transaction – they’re more interested in driving foot traffic to the stores than anything else. Instead, they charge subscription fee to community partners and merchants who pay based on the views their perks get and the foot traffic sent to their locations.
At the end of our talk, I ask Austin what his best advice for aspiring MBA entrepreneurs might be: “Do something. Get something launched while you are at school,” he says. “You will get in touch with what you want, and it’s a good exercise to figure out whether or not you’re an entrepreneur.”
He pauses for a minute and adds, “If you don’t fail, you might be a success.”
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