When I was in college, back in the 1990s, new students curious about what their university’s town had to offer relied on the local alternative weekly newspaper’s annual guide to places to go and things to do.
Published in late summer, some of the information in it was already outdated by mid-semester as restaurants and venues opened or closed. And if you started your college career in January, you were basically out of luck until the fall campus guide made its yearly appearance once again. The Internet wasn’t much help at that time either, unless you wanted to e-mail someone who was in the know or join a usergroup.
But oh, how times have changed. Instead of waiting for that static yearly newspaper issue, students can now go online and find a plethora of information about where to spend their limited cash and downtime hours. However, to some degree, they still need to know what they’re looking for.
Yellowpages.com provides addresses and phone numbers, Yelp offers reader reviews, and Foursquare can tell people who is checking in where, but there isn’t an easily accessible directory of all the information a college student might need in one place: where to eat, where to shop, where to see live music, which bars have the best happy hours, and even bus routes and movie times.
That is exactly the void Detroit-based startup Guidesmob is looking to fill. Guidesmob offers instant, hyperlocal college town guides delivered through free apps for iPhone and Android devices. Guidesmob is the brainchild of Dan Kerbel, an international student from Costa Rica who says he was completely lost when he first arrived on the campus of Michigan State University.
“I didn’t know where anything was,” Kerbel admits. “I would discover things randomly, like the Night Owl bus that runs across campus after 2 a.m., or that Big Daddy Taxi wasn’t the only cab company you could call.”
Kerbel did some research to see if an app like the one he had in mind existed and says he found only Campus Special, which is limited to food offerings. So he spent a year and a half teaching himself to code and then built the Guidesmob app.
Naturally, he started with MSU and created the Spartan App. He included not only restaurant and nightlife listings for East Lansing, but also bus routes and pick-up times, click-to-call taxi listings, events happening on and around campus, custom maps to things like ATMs, a guide to local fraternities and sororities, dorm cafeteria menus, a listing of movie theaters and show times, and directories of service providers like dentists, doctors, and dry cleaners.
Kerbel, who studied economics, applied to the Detroit-based Bizdom startup accelerator and was accepted. It was then he officially decided to relocate to the Motor City and launch his business instead of going back home to Costa Rica to work in finance.
Kerbel says he’s had “great support and traction” from Michigan State and its students, with more than 10,000 downloads of the iOS version of the Spartan app so far. (The Android version is in beta development now.)
Launching this summer are the Wolverine App (University of Michigan), the Buckeye App (Ohio State University), and the Chip App (Central Michigan University). In 2014, Guidesmob will release apps for the rest of the Big Ten universities and its first city version of the app for Detroit.
Kerbel plans to hire brand interns from each university getting a Guidesmob app to help supply and vet content. He recently struck a partnership deal with Ordr.in to offer app users the ability to order food right from Guidesmob apps, and Guidesmob is working with backend software company Apigee to make the app’s platform “extremely scalable,” Kerbel says.
Kerbel’s goal is to launch Guidesmob nationwide in 2015, and he just hired a chief technical officer to help him carry out that mission. “I could easily go home to Costa Rica and get a job,” he adds. “But I’m committed to staying here and seeing this grow. I see a real opportunity here, and I’d do it part-time no matter what.”