This article first appear in the St. Louis Beacon, June 20, 2012 - Like a lot of Washington University undergraduates, Raymond Gobberg and Mark Sawyier found it difficult to locate a decent apartment off campus -- a problem that's not particularly unique.
Their solution certainly was.
Today, Movingoffcampus.com, the website the pair created, helps about 2 million college students every year track down suitable housing.
But the duo came away with more than a successful business experience. They also learned a lesson.
“What we realized from Moving Off Campus … is that that wasn’t an isolated incident,” said Sawyier, 27. “In fact, college students have very different problems and search for information differently than everyone else.”
And that epiphany marked the birth of a new concept, Off Campus Media, a unique “bottom-up” approach to marketing that provides media strategy, feedback and product development to clients so they can tailor their wares to meet the needs of an increasingly mobile university audience.
“We work with clients to really help them understand how their products and their tools can actually help college students and create value for them,” said Sawyier.
The pair said that if a company doesn’t create value, they won't take it on as a client.
Or as their website puts it: “It’s not about college students supporting your brand; it’s about your brand supporting college students.”
Gobberg, 25, said Off Campus Media knows how to connect students "with the brands they care about" and create "a feedback loop" to help clients develop their programs.
Much of OCM’s heavy lifting is done by its “ambassadors,” a cadre of students, spread across more than 100 campuses nationwide, who advance client interests while learning to create effective campaigns to promote products.
They do all the traditional stuff like guerilla marketing, event planning and social media. But in deference to its roots of helping college kids find apartments, the company, tucked behind Interstate 44 in a comfortable 6,500 square foot office along Shaw Boulevard, sees itself as a service as much for students as for clients.
Gobberg and Sawyier wince when the word “promotions” enters the conversation. That implies a “push,” they say and OCM doesn’t push students to buy products. Rather, it provides ways for products to solve needs that students have.
Sawyier posits a hypothetical suit maker as a client.
“What our ambassadors would help us achieve is developing a program around helping college students better prepare for the interview they will wear the suit for,” he said. “Through that process of education and saying, ‘Here are tips to land the job,’ you are going to be creating value for college students and achieve your objective of selling more suits.”
In some ways, the pair represent the new breed of marketer who, in the age of the internet when everyone is a content provider, sees marketing not as a message but as a conversation.
It's not "the gimmicky marketing tactics you see on a lot of college campuses, handing out flyers or throwing around product. We are able to leverage our connections in our hiring process on campus to build programs that connect in credible and authentic ways.”
Sawyier agrees. He said that students who lack the “social capital” that authenticity brings aren’t going to be of much use to anyone.
“A big brand can run an ambassador program and mandate, ‘OK, update your Facebook status 20 times a day with our 25-percent-off special on whatever it might be,’” he said. “That is going to reduce and erode an individual’s social capital because they are just spamming their friends. We put value at the center (and) that enables our ambassadors to build social capital on campus."
That can also mean teaming up with student groups or charities.
“We do a lot of partnerships with philanthropies where we can bring a big grant to the local level to support causes students care about at that particular campus," Sawyier said.
And now OCM is generating buzz in a different way. The company just closed a $750,000 funding round for its latest project, Bonfyre, a location-based app launched last year. Sawyier said that in the first few months nearly 18 percent of the Washington University campus signed up. Today, a quarter of all Wash U students have an account.
Reserved exclusively for a college audience, Bonfyre allows users to put together events online instead of mass texting or calling dozens of individual invitees.
“Our mission is to be the best tool for college students to better organize and share the best experiences of their college lives with the people they care about, and no one else,” Sawyier said.
A “what’s hot” map shows popular locations based on check-ins; local businesses can target special offers to the younger demographic they hope to attract.
“Merchants knows exactly to whom they are talking,” Sawyier said. “What that achieves is this wonderful harmony with both college students and merchants.”
So far, that harmony has been kind to Off Campus Media. It doesn’t release specific numbers, but Gobberg and Sawyier said the company is profitable and recently tripled its office square footage. This year, it’s nearly doubled its staff, going from seven full-time employees to 13.
“What we are really focused on now is building a model we can scale,” said Gobberg.
Gobberg, who spent time on active duty in Afghanistan, is a native of the Chicago area and Sawyier is from Manhattan. Though neither were born here, both say St. Louis is a great place to start a business. Gobberg notes the support the pair received from Wash U’s Skandalaris Center.
Sawyier said the community is ripe for innovative ideas.
“One of the best things about St. Louis is the depth of talent that exists here,” he said. “There are a number of huge companies that call St. Louis home and hire some of the best and brightest. When you combine that with the burgeoning tech/entrepreneurial community bubbling up over the last year or two, there are some exciting things happening and we’re proud to be a part of that.”