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 … Next Page »

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