words and photos by Grant Morgan
They didn’t know each other before starting a business, but now they say it’s like having another family. That is, if your idea of family is meeting up to hand-punch thousands of business cards at a time.
This family also does more high-profile things of course, like giving presentations to a room full of 200 people or pitching to potential investors. But the behind-the-scenes grunt work is what make it so special.
You may have seen or heard about it around Akron. It’s an app called “HungerPerks.” It was started by a trio of University of Akron students (one being a recent graduate) this summer. As they look to expand to other cities in Ohio and maybe, they hope, other states, they are also seeing how difficult and how freeing it is to be student entrepreneurs.
It works like this: take a survey, pick up free food. On the app, there is a list of venues around Akron, each offering some sort of edible reward in exchange for a one-minute survey. For example, on October 17, Urban Eats gave away a $5 veggie sandwich for a survey with questions like, “Have you ever heard of Urban Eats?” and “Which ‘coffee drink’ is your favorite?” The deal lasts for three days and is one among a variety not limited to Diamond Deli, Subway and the Stray Dog Tavern, with such rewards as cookies, drinks, ice cream, sides and appetizers.
Kyle Flynn, a senior studying marketing and sales, came up with the idea for the app while working on another difficult project. He switched to HungerPerks after realizing just how well the fast and quick food industry was suited to survey-loyalty programs. The idea itself was very straightforward: restaurants get feedback and new customers. Customers get food and discover new restaurants.
Since its July 4 launch, HungerPerks has climbed to include eight restaurants and more than 1,000 users, with around 200 people using the app every day. More than $675 in food has been redeemed and the average perk gets around three times the number of surveys for every redemption. Downtown Akron’s Main Street Subway and Diamond Deli are the most popular locations so far, Flynn says.
Because of the success of the app, one may not see the amount of effort that has gone and continues to go into it by its small team of three current students and a recent UA graduate.
Sam Borick is a senior computer science major who does the software development for HungerPerks. For him, balancing school and work is not as difficult as his partners because he can often merge HungerPerks with his class assignments. But he does not recommend running a start-up, even for someone in his situation.
“I usually tell [people] don’t start one, because, if they want to, me telling them not to isn’t going to change anything,” Borick says. “If you need to be encouraged to begin a startup, it’s probably not for you.”
Flynn, who first had the start-up idea and does most of the design work for the app, says his job is “making what Kyle does pretty.” He has a more difficult time reconciling his studies and his job.
“School is almost irrelevant,” Flynn laughs. “That great quote, ‘don’t let school get in front of your education,’ is very true. Don’t let [it] deter you from taking opportunities.”
But besides college work, the team’s greatest barriers to expansion come in a variety of forms. First is development.
“We only have one Sam [Borick],” Flynn says.
Borick does the bulk of the software and the load is getting larger by the day. And though a short staff is not uncommon for any start-up—especially if it is expanding and doing well—HungerPerks’ problem is not so much how to fund new staff; it’s how to make sure the funds are not wasted. Which is the second barrier.
Borick says that when they first started out, anything they could do to expand or improve the app was a success. Any way they were able to spend money and achieve something new was great. After a few months of growth, however, the team has to be more careful: it is now more crucial to make the right decisions, rather than any decision. In the beginning there was much less to lose on the wrong ones.
“You have to make sure you are not wasting your time,” Borick says.
Flynn, agreeing, says it is not the day-to-day tasks of a start-up that are so difficult. It’s “getting over the anxiety and fear of bad outcomes.”
Another difficulty with any start-up venture is communication. Julia Mallinak, a recent UA grad who does most of the marketing for HungerPerks, says what’s most important is finding a good team and getting rid of enough pride to work well with that team.
“It’s critical to having a good start-up company,” she says. “When you talk to investors, they’ll tell you they’d rather invest in an A-team with a B-idea, rather than a B-team with an A-idea. The A-team will figure things out and pivot to the A-idea if they can work well together.”
Recently HungerPerks hired one more member to the team, a UA marketing senior named Nick Neral. Neral, who is only 20 years old but already has one start-up under his belt, does social media for the app.
Besides expanding to other cities and states, HungerPerks’ goal is to get bigger contracts for its offers, like working with franchises instead of individual venues. All the team members and their numerous mentors have high hopes for its success.
Regardless of the future, these young entrepreneurs are at least enjoying the benefits of running their own business. Unlike the corporate world, in which they all have had experience, a start-up gives autonomy and flexibility. It makes the effort worth it, they say.
“You’re your own boss,” Mallinak says.
“I can code from bed,” Borick laughs.
“It’s freedom,” Flynn says.
Grant Morgan is a University of Akron student. He studies politics, economics and philosophy but only cares about English.