Anatomy of a startup

Sarah Binder and Mackenzie Nading

With new apps and businesses launching every day, “startup” has become a huge buzzword.

“Technology has definitely changed things,” said Judi Eyles, assistant director of the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship. “It has [sped] things up, and it makes things easier, and I think there’s a lot of sharing that goes on.”

Although Iowa and the Midwest may not be seen as a technological hub, several startups are starting to make a splash. Sam Schill, co-founder of Shoplr, said all the companies that make up the “silicon prairie” are cheering each other on and hoping for a big success story.

“Once you start researching who’s doing what, it’s a pretty small community,” he said.

The risk factor

Eyles reminds students that any new venture includes elements of risk, but taking the plunge with a company no one has heard of yet can seem especially intimidating.

After hearing about Zaarly at Austin’s South by Southwest, Sarah Davidson, an ISU graduate, moved to work for the company within a week. She is now Zaarly’s marketing and communications coordinator.

“It was a big risk, coming from a secure job that I actually loved,” she said. “I just thought the idea and the concept was so unique and exciting.”

The rewards

“I absolutely love my job,” Schill said. “It’s stretched me a long way in developing different skills.”

He said he applies those skills to his day job — few startup founders have the luxury of giving up steady paychecks right away.

“It’s not for everyone. You have to be willing to be 100 percent dedicated to what you do. It’s not a clock-in, clock-out job,” Davidson said. “But with high risk comes high reward.”

She said she would recommend getting involved right out of college, when a personal life can take a back seat.

Adam Hofmann, director of marketing for Zaarly, said most startups would be willing to create an internship for students if they were willing to work for free. He suggested researching companies of interest, and reaching out to them with specific, actionable questions.

“When you’re young, why not give it a try,” Eyles said.

Here’s a look at three startups appearing in the area:


Zaarly was named after the tradition of outdoor bazaars, where anything is for sale if the right price is offered. The app puts the buyer in control of the agreement.

“Basically, if you’ve ever thought, ‘I’d pay blank for blank,’ Zaarly is for you,” Davidson said.

The app, available on iPhone and Android, can be used to secure almost anything legal — everything from textbooks to late-night food from a place that doesn’t deliver. Davidson said a KU student offered $20 to ride around campus in a car with loud speakers.

Davidson said so far, about 40 percent of requests have been for services, 43 percent for stuff and 17 percent for access to events or experiences.

The buyer just has to specify what they want and what they’re willing to pay, and they can get offers in real time from people nearby. Would-be sellers aren’t allowed to offer anything up, but can quickly make money by fulfilling requests.

After the idea was pitched at LA’s Startup Weekend, the app launched nationwide on May 18 — taking Zaarly from concept to launch in less than 90 days.

Zaarly representatives are scattered around the country, but the marketing team is based in Kansas City. They also have “campus CEOs” creating more focused groups at 20 universities nationwide, and Iowa State may soon be added to the list.

“I keep thinking, gosh, when I was in college, this would’ve been amazing,” Davidson said.


Shoplr is an app that allows users to find deals at nearby businesses and share their favorites.

“We’ve made it really simple for folks to broadcast and share with people the things they like,” said co-founder Nathan Haila.

The app can sort offers by most recent, most popular or closest to the user’s geolocation.

The co-founders said Shoplr stands out because it is convenient for the user. They don’t have to purchase a coupon in advance, wait for it to download or remember to bring it along. And they don’t have to check every day to see what the offer is, since the app shows what offers are available at that exact moment.

Haila, an ISU graduate, said he wanted to find a way to give small and midsize businesses quality advertising options. With Shoplr, the businesses are in control of what offers they send out, compared to sites like Groupon, which require discounts of 50 percent or more. Nearly 20 Ames companies such as Fighting Burrito, Dogtown University and Wheatsfield Cooperative have signed up.

“Many businesses don’t have a mobile strategy,” Haila said. Shoplr allows them to send out offers within five minutes. “If you can do email, you can do this.”

Several ISU students are working with the company on everything from marketing to logistics to computer science. After a larger launch in Ames, the company hopes to expand to Ankeny and Des Moines by late fall and farther after that.


Headquartered in Des Moines and set to launch on Oct. 15, Locusic is a music-streaming service dedicated to bands within the area of the listener.

“It’s basically Pandora for local bands,” said CEO and founder of Locusic Jake Kerber. Locusic has a simple purpose: to get local bands noticed.

“I’ve been a fan of local bands for a long time and I was frustrated, as were some of the bands, because they weren’t getting bigger and things weren’t going as well as they hoped. Even though everyone says how great the bands were they weren’t getting any action or listeners,” Kerber said.

Locusic is designed for people who don’t have time to go check out the music scene themselves. Now instead of going around to different bars, coffee shops and open mics, listeners can go to a website and have the new music of their area streamed to them.

“One big goal of mine is to help a local band really make it big or at least expand regionally or nationally,” Kerber said. “The other thing is to increase the general public’s awareness of local music. Since I’ve been working on this project I’ve been surprised how many local people don’t realize how much music is being made locally.”

Their launch will include all areas within 50 miles of the city, including Ames. After the Des Moines launch, the company will expand to the Twin Cities area and then Austin, Texas.