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How to Market to College Students | Featuring BinStored and ShuttleHome

by Pablo Fuentes | Last Updated February 17, 2017
How to Market to College Students

There are over 21 million college students in the U.S.

Generation Y (or Millennials) is the largest consumer group in U.S. history.

Despite the demographic's size, people often dismiss college students as not having money or they market to them like any other segment of the market.

However, students spend up to $30 billion on college back-to-school purchasing alone. There are huge opportunities for entrepreneurs who know how to reach this generation.

But how do you market to this young tech-savy generation that has grown up with smartphones and everything available on-demand?

To answer this question, we talked with Dean Ginsberg, founder of two successful companies, BinStored and ShuttleHome, that market directly to college students.

In today's episode of Small Business War Stories, we explore how to market to college students and much more with Dean Ginsberg.

Listen to the podcast:

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Dean Ginsberg from BinStored and ShuttleHome is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.


You are the founder of BinStored and ShuttleHome. Can you share a little bit about what those companies do and how you came about founding them?

Dean Ginsberg: Yeah. It’s two separate businesses. BinStored does summer storage for college students, and ShuttleHome does coach bus service for students going home for school breaks.

I started ShuttleHome when I was just a sophomore in college. Actually, the first version of it was called Wilder Lines. I mean, literally, it was like and my partner at the time just couldn't think of a name and we just had to go. The main building in Oberlin College, which is where I went, is Wilder Main, so we were like, "Wilder Lines. Fine."

Our first marketing campaign was a bunch of posters around campus with memes that I printed off the Internet, and the title actually expletive, "F planes, take the bus."

What inspired you to start a business as a sophomore in college?

Dean Ginsberg: Actually, this wasn't my first business. I went to high school in New York City, and in New York there are no house parties. There's nowhere to really party. When you're 16, 17, you're too young to go to a bar. I wasn't the only one who did this, but I would rent a loft on Craigslist, get a bouncer, DJ, and then a ton of drinks, and we'd throw huge parties. The crazy story is that got really big, like, bigger than I could really control it. At some point I ended up running out of lofts in the city to go to.

And then I started Good Karma, where would split the proceeds. Half the money would go to me; half the money would go to charity. We raised tens of thousands of dollars for non-profits, but the parties were super illegal.

I had the entrepreneurial itch, and then when I got to college I was like, "I want to start a business. I don't know what it is."

So, my friend and I would hang out and brainstorm business ideas until we found one that stuck.

At Oberlin College, 85% of students are from out of state. A large percentage of those students are from New York. Our thinking was, "We have a bunch of friends from New York, everybody's heads down for midterms and finals, and then you buy a $400 plane ticket.” Then you have to take a cab. There's no really transportation to the airport.

It made no sense to us that everybody was separately paying a lot of money to separately go from one place to the other place, all at the same time.

So we asked ourselves, "How can we bring everybody together to get home? How can we make it fun?"

So we rented a bus, just a charter bus, put up these posters, and we printed tickets out on Microsoft Word.

That sounds similar to renting lofts for parties. Do you feel like you already had the blueprint?

Dean Ginsberg: It's actually weirdly similar. When you rent a loft you are putting money down on an actual space, and that space has a capacity. And if you hit the capacity your numbers are x, and if you hit 50% they're y, and if nobody comes to the party you're screwed. It's the same thing with the bus. We put the money down on the bus, and then we had to sell one ticket at a time to sell it out. And the truth is it's much harder to sell the first five tickets than the last five tickets.

The buses fit 55 passengers. So, yeah, we just hustled. We printed tickets off Microsoft Word and we sold them one at a time at the cafeteria. It got pretty popular. So, now 15% of Oberlin College takes the bus every break. It's just the way that people get home.

How do you brand and market the trip? Do you have your own buses now, or do you rent them?

Dean Ginsberg: No. And it will never make sense to buy our own buses, because we only do four trips out of the year. But, yeah, that's sort of the story. We did one bus just thinking, "Oh, we'll try it. It'll be a fun way to get home with friends."

I ended up making everybody brownies for the first bus, and it was a fun trip home, a little more homey. And that stayed the vibe of the company since then.

We do bagels now. I was very homesick when I was at school. I missed New York City. I went to school in rural Ohio. So, as I was getting on the bus, I was like, "I want my last New York bagel before I go back to the bagel abyss. So, I got a bagel, and I was like, "How could I just have a bagel? I should get everybody a bagel." And then that became a huge part of the company.

You also have another company, BinStored…is that one more tame, or crazier?

Dean Ginsberg: I mean, BinStored is definitely crazier. BinStored is the other company I have. It's summer storage for college students. So, at the end of the year, the kids have all this shit that they've compiled throughout the whole year.

They think their dorm is really small, but somehow they acquire a lot of stuff. They don't have cars, so we solve the problem of getting their stuff from their dorm to the storage unit that they're sharing with eight people and only have one key for, without a car, the day after they finish their last finals.

Imagine you had to move out of your house, tomorrow morning, but you didn't have a car, and everybody else around you also had to move out. It's a nightmare. And these kids, I don't know if you remember finals week, but they don't look good. They're coming off of a really stressful period of their life.

So, what we do is we give them these bins, they pack it up with all their stuff, and then they just drop it off at the station right outside their dorm, and then we take care of everything. And then when they come into their new dorm at the beginning of the year their stuff is just sitting there for them on their bed.

How does BinStored work? What are things like behind the scenes? What are some of the crazier things you have seen?

Dean Ginsberg: BinStored is great from the customer’s perspective. Behind the scenes, it's terrible. This is the lesson I learned from BinStored. If you think that something is really horrible in life, and you're like, "I want to solve this problem for other people," recognize that when you solve that problem for other people you are taking on the horribleness.

If you think moving out in one day is difficult as one person, try moving out 600 people all at the same time.

Operationally, it's a really difficult thing. And it's difficult because it's seasonal, and so you only have one shot. It's like throwing a festival. You just get good at the operation. You learn every year and you make and adjustment.

We do see some crazy stuff. Literally, I've had kids come down, after we're already closed, and nobody's supposed to be in school. They were supposed to leave their dorm. They're already getting fined for staying late, and they come down in no shirt and pajama pants, and they're like, "What is this?" And I'm like, "Where have you been, dude?" He's like, "Oh, I have a bunch of stuff in my room. Can I just bring it down?" I think to myself "How do you survive in life?"

It's a lot of that. I've actually had to build that into the business.

How do you market the service to college students?

Dean Ginsberg: When you're selling to college kids, instead of getting angry about the fact that they can't get their shit together, you have to build the business model to make that actually a positive. So, I recognize how stressed out kids are at the end of the year. I love the fact that we can do something to help them out. Once you start providing the service it becomes the thing that they expect.

You have to avoid getting into the headspace of, "They're ungrateful. I only asked them to do, like, three things." But, in the end, if you could wow them in that moment, right when they're super stressed out, it's such a memorable experience. So our retention rate is like 85%. Everybody comes back.

The beauty of small liberal arts colleges is you don't really have any competition. There are no movers. There was nobody doing this before. The reason why I started it was because I was one of the only kids who had a car on campus, so at the end of the year I would get lots of calls of friends asking for help.

The marketing has always been linked with the fact that it's a very needed service. So product and marketing has always been very clearly linked, and then it's about the fact that we're local. We're community focused, and that we give a Web 2.0 style experience. If you were to hire a mover you have to call some dude named Joe, who only works from noon to 2:00 and takes a lunch break.

These kids are moving from New York City, where they can get an Uber with a swipe of their finger, and they can order their Chinese food. And then they have to figure out their storage for the first time in their life, and they've never even interacted with services like this.

How is it different than marketing to other folks? What's a marketing tactic or strategy that worked really well for college students that you're pretty sure wouldn't work for other segments?

Dean Ginsberg: College students are in this in between space where they think they're adults, but they also understand that they need handholding throughout a whole process, and they have very short attention spans, and they're very sheepish. If something is cool, everybody does it, and if something isn't cool nobody does it. So the benefits are there if you understand the right messaging.

With BinStored, our posters all said, "Should have BinStored", and it's a picture of a Volkswagen that was just crammed to the top with stuff, cluttered everywhere. It was a double entendre. That was one type of ad, and then another type of ad was just very simply, "Step 1: Pick up your bin. Step 2: Fill it up with your stuff. Step 3: Drop it off at the station. Step 4: Go enjoy your summer."

Very simple. Image-focused. One line to represent the whole process.

And then in terms of pricing, it’s important to be super transparent, which was a lesson we learned the hard way. So no fancy pricing. Be straightforward. It's all about referral and retention.

If you have a product that really works, you have to be willing to put up the time and energy to lay the groundwork. That is what it takes to get to that threshold where a group of kids make it the cool thing that first year. Then you just have to kill it in the execution, and then you have to understand your retention marketing. And then you're set forever.

Tell me more about the retention marketing. What are you doing on that front?

Dean Ginsberg: It's more focused on email. The key is to get the parents' email. If somebody buys something, the billing address is usually their home address, so you do direct mail to their parents. If somebody signs up for something you can just ask, especially if it's a very needed product, and it's very time sensitive, you can ask for a phone number or email. You can ask for more information.

I'm not selling an app. If I was selling an app and I asked them for their phone number there'd be a blocking point. But if you understand what data you're taking in and you understand exactly why you're taking it in, and you have campaigns set up around that.

Once you're actually operating, and you show the numbers of the amount of kids who love the service, then you can leverage that to get a contract with the school.

It sounds like the cool factor is a double-edged sword there, because any early on operational hiccups or marketing hiccups can really cost you a lot more than they would in other businesses, is that true?

Dean Ginsberg: Yeah. But hiccups can hurt you at any stage. We had one bus that broke down in Pennsylvania, because we've run over 250 buses from the school, and buses break down sometimes.

Literally last week somebody was like, "Oh, what do you do?" I was like, "Oh, I'm the founder of ShuttleHome." And she was like, "Oh, isn't that that bus that always breaks down?" I was like, "What… are you kidding? One time?"

We did everything right after that, but issues like that are forever sensitive, and kids just talk a lot. They have never actually had a real job. So it's very easy to judge from the outside. Also, it's a very small community, so there is a risk of other people counting money that they don't know how to count. People think that I'm making so much money from this company, and meanwhile, I haven't taken a dollar out in years, because it's so hard.

Let’s talk about the college market. A lot of people when considering businesses to start think that college students don't have any money. It's both a compelling and an overlooked segment in some ways.

What has been your experience? Does the money for all of this come from the parents directly?

Dean Ginsberg: So, the interesting thing is ShuttleHome does really well because it is a cost saver. It's a high-ticket item. We're talking about, for some routes, $180 round trip. Which, for a kid to drop $180 on their credit card in one swoop is, for some people, a lot. But they have to see their mom for Thanksgiving.

So it's either the $180 or it's two $60 cab rides plus a $400 plane ticket. So, they love it.

We ask them, "What's your favorite part about ShuttleHome," and everybody says, "The price."

So, yes. They still have to buy things. No matter how much money they have, they have needs. That's why all the services are very need focused.

If you had to start a business from scratch today, would it also address the college market because it's something that you know, or would you do something else?

Dean Ginsberg: Good question. I think there's a lot of opportunity in the college market. Nowadays people like to talk about scale and size, and looking at large markets, and I think there's genuinely a benefit in taking a big risk and swinging for the fences. But for me, personally, now I can take this model and apply it campus by campus, and slowly build up a nice living for myself.

You're a standup comedian, you're a rock drummer, and then you also work with Daybreaker, which is a really cool idea. I'll let you explain what that is. But can you tell me a little bit more about how your experience doing these things have helped you with your other businesses?

Dean Ginsberg: So, with the standup comedy, I would say that it's the hardest thing that a person can do, and I'm not saying I'm good at it, at all. It's so bad. Like, I don't let my friends go, because I'm just that embarrassed.

I do public speaking sometimes, like, different events. And getting up in front of a group of people is not something that I'm very afraid of. But when you get up in front of a group of people, and make them laugh every 30 seconds, it's terrifying. Especially when you get up there, you're super confident, and you tell a joke that you think is just going to kill it, and nobody laughs, and you're like, "I have three more minutes of stuff that's not as good as that. So this is going to be really enjoyable."

From a public speaking perspective, I think stand-up is the best challenge, because everything is easier once you can do standup comedy. From a business perspective, I think it helps having the mentality of “if you are afraid of something, dive into.” It’s a mentality that is helpful not just for business, but for life in general.

Daybreaker is a morning dance party, and I was their Director of Marketing. People wake up on, like, a Wednesday. It starts at 6:00 a.m. with yoga, and then it's the most insane, epic dance part you've ever been to, and then there is a 15-minute cool down with local artists. Sort of like a Tiny Desk style concert. They just did a huge party with IBM Watson, where the whole dance floor was smart, and picked up on your energy. It's growing fast. When I started I think we were in two or three cities. Now we're in 16 cities, just launched Hong Kong, and it's just a perfect mix between health and wellness, nightlife, except now morning life, and it’s just a fun activity.

Is there anything else you want our audience to know about your business, and where can people find you?

Dean Ginsberg: The websites are ShuttleHome.com, BinStored.com, and Daybreaker.com. ShuttleHome is expanding to multiple campuses. We hired campus managers who are students. I train them daily, weekly, on how to be functional humans in a professional setting, with the goal of getting a job at a startup after they graduate.

So my commitment is, "You work with ShuttleHome, I will turn you into a rock star, and then I'll also help you get summer internships."

So if anybody wants to hire some rock stars I trained, please email me at dean@shuttlehome.com.

Final Thoughts

The college market is a massive opportunity for entrepreneurs that know how to reach it. There's a lot of young people with money and real problems that need to be solved.

Dean has been able to leverage this knowledge into two successful companies. His advice is to not get angry about how they are unorganized or ungrateful but instead use these as opportunities to provide a service that uses a business model that actually makes these things positive.

Once you're solving a real problem for the student, they come to expect it and the retention rate will be very high. 

If you have any question or comments about marketing to college students or about this episode of Small Business War Stories, please leave a comment below.

Topics: small business war stories, podcast

Pablo Fuentes

Written by Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes is the CEO of Proven. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner and a blues guitar player and builder.

 

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