Is DVP’s Quest to Get Startups to Detroit Working? Ask Shawn Geller

[Corrected 2/9/12, 9:05 a.m. See below.] A few weeks ago, Dan Gilbert and the Detroit Venture Partners (DVP) crew welcomed reporters for a tour of the newly renovated Madison Building in downtown Detroit. Gilbert had recently spent $12 million to turn the former theater into a sort of fantasy workspace for budding entrepreneurs, and the results of his makeover didn’t disappoint.

The building features plenty of walls that function as whiteboards, a 150-seat auditorium that seems the perfect place to host an investor pitch meeting, and a stunning rooftop kitchen and deck that overlook Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. Little flourishes, like the exposed brick and the fact that some of the graffiti found in the building during renovations has been preserved, give the space a young, slightly edgy feel. All of it is meant to transform the Madison Building into a destination for startups across the nation—and if the story of Quikkly‘s Shawn Geller is any indication, it’s working.

Geller, a native of Pennsylvania, graduated from Temple University in 2009. While in school, he was bothered by what he saw as a disconnect between the small mom and pop stores surrounding the campus and the students they sought as customers.

“It wasn’t just local stores, but even the national brands would only come on campus one day a year with student ambassadors,” Geller says, noting the cost and inefficiency of that strategy. “It wasn’t a good model whatsoever.”

Geller worked with local merchants in need of promotion to create a simple landing page where students could find coupons and send them to their phones via text message. They would then claim the coupon by showing the text message at the store offering the discount.

Word of mouth quickly spread, and Geller built up a database of about 3,000 Temple students. He then went around to different restaurants and stores and asked them what their slowest times and days were. Armed with that information, he created his first “flash deal,” where he sent a text out to his database offering the first 150 people who responded within a certain amount of time a large pizza for $5. When close to 100 students went in to the pizzeria to claim their coupons, Geller knew he was onto something.

“It was a very cool way of testing the market,” Geller says. “Groupon was less relevant then, so it was exciting to be able to drive student interest in such a short amount of time.”

Geller began incorporating Facebook social gestures into his platform and named his startup Student Coupons. Soon, friends who didn’t attend Temple were noticing the Facebook posts and asking how they, too, could take advantage of the coupons.

Geller starting working with Jason Lorimer, another Philly entrepreneur, to refine and scale up his business model. Lorimer had just begun spending time in Detroit first as a tourist visiting a friend, and then as an entrepreneur scouting for opportunities. Lorimer connected Geller with Josh Linkner, DVP’s managing partner, after he saw some common ground between the national brands Geller hoped to snag as clients and the companies already working with Linkner’s ePrize.

Linkner invited Geller to fly to Detroit and check out what DVP had to offer, including space in the Madison. “I fell in love with the building immediately,” Geller says. “It’s a good culture of people legitimately interested in helping entrepreneurs succeed. It was a good fit, especially since Josh had the existing business with ePrize.”

Geller is now in final negotiations for a first round of DVP financing as he prepares to expand Quikkly futher. (The name was changed from Student Coupons to reflect the company’s mission to eventually expand beyond the student market.) He recently hired an Ann Arbor native currently living in New York City as his chief technology officer, and he expects to have two or three additional employees in six months. [An earlier version of this paragraph mistakenly said it was a second round of financing and had the incorrect title for the chief technology officer. We regret the errors.]

Quikkly’s platform has expanded to push offers from national brands out via text or Facebook. The quicker the response to the offer of a deal, the better the price point. It’s free to sign up for the service, and much of the company’s growth is through digital word-of-mouth—Geller says every time someone claims a deal, it gets posted to their Facebook wall, where an average of five people click through the offers and two register to join. Quikkly is available on approximately 1,050 college campuses despite the fact that Geller hasn’t set foot on most of them.

Geller says that although Detroit wasn’t a place he ever imagined himself, it’s turned out to be a “no-brainer.” The day we talked, he had just put a deposit down on an apartment in Midtown, where he says he’ll get his bearings before deciding on a more permanent dwelling.

“I had never been to Detroit, and initially I was hesitant because of the reputation,” Geller says. “But the more I check out the city, I really do see that everyone seems to be here for a reason and seems part of the movement toward change. I’m seeing [Dan Gilbert’s] vision. There’s an outrageous amount of people involved in entrepreneurial ventures, and that’s more relevant to where I’m at right now.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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