Apps + loyalty rewards = Devotee.
By marrying social media and mobile apps with a rewards program, recent Duquesne University graduate Matt French and current student Kevin Holesh have shaped careers for themselves.
French and Holesh are the creators and founders of Devotee, a company that capitalizes on the growing popularity of social media and mobile apps by providing businesses with the ability to offer loyalty programs on mobile devices. Devotee rewards word-of-mouth advertising to customers by increasing exposure on social networks.
French, a 2010 graduate of Duquesne with a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship and legal studies, and Holesh, who will graduate this week with a bachelor’s degree in entrepreneurship, met in December 2010 after working on a class project together.
“Our professor, Ron Morris, always mentioned that forming a startup was like getting married, you had to go out and find someone with the skills you didn’t have,” French said. “Kevin and I clicked like high school sweethearts. We both knew we wanted to start a tech company and we wanted to do it now.”
Ultimately, the idea for Devotee stemmed from a previous entrepreneurial venture French started his junior year, the Burgh Card, a discount program available for students at local businesses. The Burgh Card brought him good experiences with both loyalty and local businesses, then French gained experience in a tech startup internship. The two young entrepreneurs decided to mix tech with a loyalty program to capitalize on growing trends.
They applied for AlphaLab, a 20-week intensive accelerator program for web and entertainment technology entrepreneurs that is designed to spur startups and technology development, which was just named one of the top 15 accelerators in the country. “We spent late nights at Duquesne after night class formulating our prototype and idea,” French said.
They ended up with an innovative idea that benefits businesses and brands. The Devotee app allows users to “check in” at businesses via social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Each check-in earns users Devotee dollars that can be “cashed in” for discounts and free items.
With this idea, French and Holesh were the first team from Duquesne to be selected for the AlphaLab program, which provides extensive hands-on business advice and mentoring, a collaborative office space, plus a $25,000 investment from Innovation Works, the Pittsburgh region’s most active investor in seed-stage technology companies.
“That’s real money; that’s significant,” said Morris, a serial entrepreneur since 1972. “About 120 companies compete for the six spots.”
With this support, within two months French and Holesh were testing their product in 10 local businesses.
“Devotee is a great example of innovative companies that are making Pittsburgh’s startup community more vibrant and diverse,” said Terri Glueck, director of communications and community development at Innovation Works. “It is a ‘lean startup,’ meaning they have low overhead costs and the ability to nimbly pursue a market niche, which is very hot right now. In the case of Devotee, customer loyalty programs for mobile devices couldn’t be more in demand. And investing in lean startups is a trend being seen across the country.
“We are very excited about the promising outlook for this company,” Glueck continued. “Matt and Kevin are great examples of Duquesne University’s strength in training entrepreneurs and their experience tells a terrific story.”
For entrepreneurs to grow, some mistakes are needed, Morris said. So are creativity, thoughtfulness and drive.
“Kevin and Matt came to me early on with a number of different business ideas,” Morris said. “From day one, I could tell Kevin was very entrepreneurial; he never stopped asking questions.
“Devotee is really the third business that Kevin had, and he had made important mistakes. Success lies in the velocity of plate appearances. The more pitches we see, the more apt we are to recognize that pitch the next time. So I wanted them in the batter’s box as fast as I can get them in the batter’s box.”
After finishing their work with AlphaLab, French and Holesh welcomed a third partner and developed a well-connected Madison Avenue advisory board.
The company is currently looking to obtain further investments to build their vision. They have expanded to three other major markets—New York, Boston and Indianapolis— and have amassed thousands of users on both the iPhones and Androids.
“To our benefit, we have been in a great city that fosters entrepreneurship,” French said. “From the classroom to AlphaLab, Pittsburgh has been a great starting ground for us. One thing we have learned is that startups are about passion, commitment and risk. If you have those traits matched with a talented team, it comes down to execution. We are working on executing and really making a mark on social media marketing with Devotee.”
The two meet the definition Morris uses for entrepreneurs—someone who is “creating a whole new space, a whole new genre and a niche that never existed before.”
Visit Devotee on Twitter at @devotee, on Facebook and at www.blog.devotee.com. To download the Devotee app, visit the App Store on your iPhone or Android.
To learn more about entrepreneurial studies at Duquesne, check out the majors at www.duq.edu/business.
Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation’s top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of more than 10,000 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability.