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Student-founded business earns startup award

June 04, 2013, Christi Mathis | University Communications

${image-alt} RoverTown co-founder and College of Business alumni Brad Miller (far left) pictured with Mike Philip (second left) and members of the American Marketing Association.

A growing business founded by three former Southern Illinois University Carbondale students and grown through assistance from the University is a winner in the Arch Grants 2013 Global Startup Competition.

RoverTown will receive $50,000 in funding and free support services.  The business is one of 20 selected this week from 707 applicants from 40 states and 15 countries.  The business, Rover Enterprises, LLC., was launched in 2009 by then-SIU Carbondale students Mike Philip, and co-founders Brad Miller and Joshua Freeman

Philip, from Wheaton, was at the time an information systems and applied technologies major.  Freeman earned his finance degree in December 2009, while Miller completed his management degree in May 2010. Freeman and Miller are both from Rantoul.

“It is very gratifying to witness the evolution of an idea by three former University students into a scalable venture.  Their passion and drive is to be commended,” said Kyle Harfst, executive director of the Southern Illinois Research Park and executive director of Economic Development.

Initially, Rover Enterprises produced a $20 plastic RoverCard that students could purchase and use to get discounts and special deals at participating area businesses.  Businesses could change their deals on a daily basis.

Philip, the company’s chief executive officer, is a 2009 graduate of Operation Bootstrap, a collaborative program between the SIU Carbondale Office of Economic and Regional Development and the Delta Regional Authority set up to help new or potential businesses.  The company earned $3,000 in start-up funding through the program. 

They made a small profit their first year and soon moved the company to the Southern Illinois Research Park’s Small Business Incubator at SIU.  The company evolved quickly.

RoverTown is now a mobile marketing company that allows area businesses in college towns to reach students through mobile devices, which enhances their business traffic by offering students special discounts and deals.  Students can also scan table displays to participate in a loyalty program, similar to a paper-punch card.  The company motto is “Throwin’ you bones,” and the bones, of course, are discounts. 

The popular discount program, a client of the Small Business Incubator and the Illinois Small Business Development Center at SIU, has expanded extensively in just a few years.  According to Philip, 1.4 million college students on nearly 70 campuses now have access to the RoverTown student discount program in dozens of states from Hawaii to New York.  He said more than 2,000 businesses reach college students via smartphones, with 12 businesses gaining exposure to students every 60 seconds on the platform.

Participating businesses pay a $50 monthly fee to the company to receive “Roverlink,” software developed by Rovertown that allows businesses to manage their discounts on students’ smartphones, view analytics and track their return on investment.

Philip notes that the company has proven successful in a number of ways, as evidenced by the significant growth and expansion and by the fact that it has raised more than $100,000 in capital before winning the Arch grant.  In February 2011, RoverTown was Southern Illinois’ only downstate participant for the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center’s CAP 20 program, a component of the Cluster Acceleration Program. The program fosters growth by connecting startup businesses with statewide resources over a five-year period. 

Currently joining Philip as principals in the company are Michael Rzeznik, a 2012 SIU Carbondale graduate in information systems and applied technologies from Lake Zurich who serves as chief technology officer, and Jeffry Harrison, a 2012 SIU Edwardsville business administration finance and entrepreneurship graduate from Red Bud and former student trustee on the SIU Board of Trustees, who serves as chief operating officer.  RoverTown officers say SIU Carbondale and the Office of Economic and Regional Development have been instrumental in their success.

“The University and its Dunn-Richmond Economic Center programs and staff have been a critical support system that we have relied on as we expanded RoverTown across the United States,” Philip said. 

In conjunction with the Arch Grants competition, designed to help grow businesses and entrepreneurship in St. Louis, Rover Enterprises will relocate to St. Louis this summer.  To learn more about RoverTown, visit the website at www.rovertown.com or follow it on Twitter at twitter@rover_mike. 

For more information about the Office of Economic and Regional Development and the many programs and services it offers to businesses.