“We get up everyday thinking about how to make small to midsize local businesses successful at what they do with their local digital marketing. We believe if we can do that, we’ll have a great offering to provide local consumers as well. We believe that it will work for both groups,” explains Nathan Haila, co-founder of Shoplr, a mobile application that connects the offers of local businesses to local consumers.
Haila, an advertising graduate from Iowa State University, and co-founder Sam Schill, a communications graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, had been friends for some time and shared an entrepreneurial spirit. Previously, they had dabbled in some minor ventures when they opted to take the plunge into the start-up sea. With the help of the Business Innovation Zone and Executive Director, Mike Colwell they navigated those waters to a successful launch in 2011.
Haila had been serving as a marketing advisor to a local business district in his native Ames and fielding questions on the trend toward mobile marketing when, as he recounts, “I began to realize there really wasn’t a mobile technology solution for these businesses given their size and resources.” While his clients were thinking about traditional web advertising, Haila, in tune with current trends, knew there was a significant opportunity to, as he put it, “build a common mobile channel to reach local consumers.”
Sharing the idea with his friend, Schill, they both began to consider if the time was right for them to start their own business. They had been participating in some of the start-up community gatherings in Des Moines, and had enjoyed the energy and the discussion, but they had been self-professed “idea guys” until that point. Now they decided the time was right to take the leap and Shoplr, named as a union of the words shopping and Doppler (the weather radar), was formed.
Shoplr became a mobile application connecting small and mid-sized businesses with the smart phones of their customers. Haila likens the service to the store flyer that might be delivered within a local newspaper, but is now sent directly to the consumer using mobile technology. The service, currently available in the Ames area, is sold on a subscription basis to participating businesses and is available at a discount to members of the Ames Chamber of Commerce. End users are provided store offers prioritized by their proximity with the most recent offers provided first. The team sees the application spreading to Midwestern metropolitan areas through the course of the next year along with the release of an Android version to complement the existing iPhone application.
That is phase one as Haila describes it, indicating that there are other ideas ruminating that will enhance the content and make it more relevant to local shoppers and valuable to local businesses. “Our idea is that technology should really get out of the way and just facilitate making it easy, simple and fast to shop locally,” he declares.
While the product development was largely the work of the co-founders, and their technically oriented partner Levi Figueira, when it came time to go to market, Nathan credits much of their success with discovering the BIZ and Mike Colwell.
Taking a product to market was foreign to the team and they knew they lacked the expertise. When they became aware of the BIZ, through Sam’s connections to the Des Moines start-up community, it was what Haila describes as simply “a no-brainer, why wouldn’t we do that? We just knew we needed that kind of help,” Haila remembers. “We were relentlessly committed to learning, and we knew that Mike’s mentorship would help us avoid classic missteps.”
The BIZ was able to guide the team through the development of their market strategies and techniques, providing specific advice on how to approach potential clients with a clear statement of the products value proposition. “Mike continues a mentoring role with us, meeting on a regular basis and being available whenever needed for the impromptu Skype meeting,” shares Haila. “He helps us focus and serves as a point of accountability, keeping us on track and on time. His background and experience is saving us time and effort.”
With the innovation and energy of the Shoplr team, augmented by the experience and mentorship of the BIZ, look for Shoplr to be changing the way small businesses go mobile throughout the Midwest in the coming years.