Rising StarRising Star: Sean Thorne of Hallspot Unlocks the Coveted College Demographic

Sean Thorne, Founder of Hallspot
Hallspot co-founder Sean Thorne recently presented at OEN’s Angel Oregon Spring 2014 Showcase.

College students don’t tend to have a lot of money, but what they do have, they’re likely to spend. Though they may be making minimum wage at the campus pizzeria, without a mortgage or children to worry about, their income is largely disposable.

That makes students a coveted demographic for local businesses, big chains, and national brands, who not only stand to benefit from their disposable income, but also from their word-of-mouth marketing power. The question is, how do you get them in the door?

Hallspot has an answer. Here, we sit down with Sean Thorne to learn more about how Hallspot helps both students and businesses, and how the company has evolved since he and Adam Tirella co-founded it last year.

What was the spark that inspired the birth of Hallspot?

It was November 2012, and I was sitting in my marketing class at University of Oregon. I was bored so I went on my phone and checked Facebook and Twitter, but all I saw was a lot of content that wasn’t relevant to my life. I was a college student—what mattered to me was what was going on at my campus and school.

Initially, Hallspot was a social network for college students. We had 1,100 users in our U of O network. Then last November we launched deals, and that resulted in astronomical growth. We were sitting around with two sets of metrics – one from our social network and one from our deals. The deal metrics were off the chart. We knew we had to pivot even though that wasn’t our initial focus. Clearly, the deals were the fastest path to scale Hallspot nationwide.

Problems aren’t problems, they are opportunities to improve.” (Tweet this.)

What problem does your business solve?

The college demographic is one of the most coveted demographics. Every business/brand wants to market to it. The problem we solve is two-sided – businesses want in, and our demographic is looking to save money. Students are eager to get deals, and businesses are eager to send students deals.

Hallspot offers real-time deals that are directly relevant to students’ lives.

How are you different from other deal services, like Groupon or LivingSocial?

We represent a more modern marketing tool than Groupon or LivingSocial. Businesses who want in with Groupon or LivingSocial are forced to discount 50 percent, which is rather insane. Both Groupon and LivingSocial have seen a huge pushback from businesses. With us, when a business offers a deal it’s not so much a discount. Businesses are willing to view 5-20% as an implicit marketing cost to bring students in their door, and by doing this we are putting the ROI back in deals for businesses.

Our deals are also much more targeted. If a business wants to work with us, we ask, is this place popular amongst college students? If not, we turn them away. If yes, we welcome them with open arms, and this keeps our app full of valuable content, not ads, which in turn makes students excited to keep checking our app.

How did you decide on the name ‘Hallspot?’

It was quite the long process. We were making mockups and prototypes, and we still didn’t have a name. We wanted to use real words and to emphasize the local nature of the service. We were thinking of names like Crowdcorner and Local Circle. Finally we landed on Hallspot. ‘Hall’ refers to a college campus, like a dorm hall. ‘Spot’ refers to a cool local hangout spot.

What has been the biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date?

The best surprise is in realizing how many awesome, talented, helpful people there are who really want to help you in your journey and make you a better person. So many people are willing to grab coffee and help you solve a problem.

A more negative surprise has been the roller coaster nature of the journey. When you build a product, you initially think, “This is going to be the perfect product. We’re going to have 100 million users in the first month.” Then you launch it and you go, “Oh, that’s not quite how it works.” Maybe that’s how it works for 1 out of every 10,000 startups. And the other 9,999 go through the roller coaster.

Here’s Hallspot in five minutes. Sean presented at OEN’s Angel Oregon Spring 2014 Showcase

Video produced by SpykerMedia

As an entrepreneur, what keeps you up at night?

There are so many moving parts—so many teams and departments, it’s like a massive 100,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. There are always thoughts in my head: “Oh, did we do this? Did we get moving on this? We made headway on this, but oh crap, what about this other front?” There are always things to be doing, always next steps that need to be taken. It’s hard to turn your mind off.

What is the best entrepreneurial advice you have received?

Problems aren’t problems, they are opportunities to improve. A lot of mentors have instilled that attitude in me. In the course of a day, 10-100 things go wrong. If we were to get depressed 100 times a day, that wouldn’t be productive, so we look at the problems that come up as opportunities instead.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Very early on, I wanted to be a baseball player. Going through high school, Twitter was just getting started, and Jack Dorsey has been my idol ever since. I wanted to be like him, creating simple products that add value to people’s lives.

You dropped out of college to found Hallspot. How did you parents feel about that?

Actually, my parents were the ones who told me to do drop out of college. As soon as we raised our first round of funding, they asked me, “Why are you still in school?”

Even though my dad did graduate from CAL, he never physically went to pick up his diploma – he’s always told me that a piece of paper doesn’t matter, but a skill set matters. I’ve seen it firsthand, interviewing people for Hallspot. One applicant came in and bragged about his GPA. I thought, that’s great, but what’s your real-world skill set?

Do you think Oregon is a good place to start a business? How has it helped you, and what challenges has it posed?

U of O has been a perfect beta campus for us. Like many college towns, Eugene’s epicenter is University of Oregon. Getting started in Eugene has been advantageous in that we’ve been able to get more attention than we would get in a bigger city. There are more mentors wanting to help.

Of course, the drawback is the talent pool – particularly in engineering and mobile – which is why we’re in the process of moving to Portland. There are also fewer people with the experience that’s necessary to take this to a world-class level. There are tons of genuine people who are doing amazing things, but there is a little more expertise in our space in bigger cities.

What’s on the horizon for Hallspot?

On July 1, we’re launching at six additional campuses—Oregon State, Washington State, Portland State, CAL Berkeley, Gonzaga, and University of Portland. On each campus, we’re going to hire campus manager, a business or marketing student, whose job is to recruit campus businesses. We want to get at least 20 of the top 50 local businesses on board, and then launch to the student body. We expect to grow a lot this year.

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