John Barton has learned firsthand that successful entrepreneurs sometimes have to abandon the plans they worked so hard to develop in order to move ahead.
Earlier this year, with the help of the Cal State Fullerton Startup Incubator, Barton launched the Point ‘N Save app, which gave students discounts at about a dozen local businesses. The idea came out of his desire to give something back to students who are struggling financially, he said.
But over the summer, Barton’s mentors at the incubator advised him that his student-discount app wasn’t sustainable and recommended that he drop it and find a more profitable model.
So after some brainstorming with his mentors, the 25-year-old Chico State graduate came up with a new model that licenses the app to hotels or property management companies for use as a concierge application that provides rewards and discounts to their customers.
His flexibility appears to be paying off. On Oct. 1 he got an investor willing to give him enough to sustain the business for six to nine months. He is also doing test runs on the app for a Diamond Resorts hotel in Dana Point and is in talks with other hotels, including one near Disneyland.
“It’s a way that is totally different than what I envisioned to start out with,” said Barton, a resident with the Startup Incubator, part of the CSUF Center for Entrepreneurship. “But I think that is what makes an entrepreneur and a business successful, being able to pivot to something you haven’t done before and take that advice from the incubator.”
At the incubator, each entrepreneur is paired with an experienced mentor and assigned a team of business or entrepreneurship students who support and collaborate with the startup founders. The incubator charges tuition for six months of residency.
Barton works out of both incubator offices, in Placentia, which opened in 2015, and one at the university’s Irvine center that opened last fall.
He is joined in the venture by his cousin, Hunter Humphrey, 23, whom he credits with seeing the benefits of licensing the app sooner than he did. Humphrey moved to Orange County from Sacramento to help with sales and promotion for the student-discount app and is staying on in the same role for the new version.
The two envision the app as a blank template that can be customized for each customer and powered by Point ‘N Save. They are focusing on smaller, independent boutique hotels. Some of the larger chain hotels, like Hilton Hotels and Resorts, hire tech companies to provide similar services, Barton said.
“They can put their own logos on it and have pride of ownership,” Barton said of his potential customers. “And I just have to worry about the technology.”
With the app, hotel guests could check in to see their exclusive discounts and be rewarded for going to the hotel bar or restaurant, Barton said. Or they could use a messaging function to tell the front desk they need fresh towels, he said.
Jim Forde, real estate agent pre-license trainer for Diamond Resorts, has expressed his support for the idea to potential investors and Barton’s mentors. He and Barton are working together to test the app licensing template for the Riviera Beach Resort in Dana Point.
The app is a great way to show visitors what the area around Dana Point has to offer, Forde said. The timeshare resorts don’t have restaurants on the property because the rooms typically have full kitchens, he said.
“You have someone arriving in California for the first time,” Forde said. “In Dana Point I would tell them about the trolley service, the different things to do. John could reach out to these vendors and try to get discounts for them.
“For us it is a conversation piece. It adds value for our clients.”
Deb Ferber, Barton’s mentor at the incubator, said she was impressed with his willingness and ability to make the pivot to a more profitable model.
“That was a big pivot but it showed us that he had the insight not to go in the direction that didn’t get noticed,” she said.
As part of her mentor role, Ferber gave him the opportunity to pitch his vision to members of the Tech Coast Angels, which provides startups and mentoring to promising early-stage entrepreneurs. One of those members was impressed enough to invest, she said.
“He is a wonderful, coachable young man,” said Ferber, who teaches entrepreneurship and finance courses at CSUF and is a member of Tech Coast Angels. “He is very personable, a great salesman with a great vision.”
Still, Barton isn’t ready to give up on working to help students. He has been meeting with Chapman University to discuss ways the app could be used there. One possibility is to use its messaging capability as a real-time substitute for email, he said.
“Some mentors are steering me away,” he said. “They fear I wouldn’t get paid quickly enough dealing with the bureaucracy, going through the red tape.
“But I still believe there is something there with education.”
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