When Sobrio's co-founders gave their business pitch at Connecticut's Innovation Summit a year ago, they were a bit intimidated.
After all, Tom Bachant and Nadav Ullman were both undergraduates at the University of Connecticut. Sobrio, which uses a mobile phone app to match partiers with designated drivers, hadn't made a dime although they said it was providing hundreds of rides a weekend.
"We saw all of these companies that had big revenues, that were much further along than us," Ullman said.
Still, they made their pitch at the innovation summit and started driving back to Storrs. "I had an accounting exam that night," he remembered.
Then, one of their mentors called, saying: "Turn around! Turn around!" They had made the top five, and ultimately, won the competition for best pitch.
Sobrio launched as an iPhone app and a drinking-and-driving prevention system a year ago. Within a few weeks, the system had racked up hundreds of ride requests. Riders generally pay $2 to $3 a head for a ride to a party and back home at the end of the night.
At first, Bachant and Ullman and a former roommate of Ullman's did a lot of the driving themselves. If the founders drove, they were paid, but when others drove, they didn't get a cut. The only outside money for the new business was $33,000 in seed money from state funds, not enough to pay themselves or their employees anything.
"We'd figure out how to make money later," said Bachant, 22, who graduated with a biomedical engineering degree in May. Ullman, who's 23, graduated in December 2012, and majored in consumer behavior.
This fall, they started taking a 20 percent processing fee, or 40 cents on a $2 ride, and there's also a couple-cent credit card processing fee. All rides must be paid with credit cards, rather than the all-cash system that ran last year.
This year will be a major test for the young company. Their first expansion outside UConn wasn't a bang-up success.
When they tried to launch Sobrio at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Bachant said, the number of students requesting rides was less than half the UConn level. The busiest UConn weekend last year was 300 round trips, with most cars holding three or four riders. This fall, the busiest weekend was 500 rides.
Ullman said they learned how critical it is to get motivated campus ambassadors. They're going to offer both academic credit and commissions based on performance this year.
In September, Sobrio expanded to the University of Rhode Island and State University of New York-Stony Brook. At URI, there were 500 riders the first weekend, Ullman said. He declined to say what kind of revenue Sobrio is realizing in the first few weeks of the school year.
"We get emails all the time now" from students who want to bring the driver-rider matching system to their schools, Ullman said. Just on one day this summer, he had requests from Ithaca College, Galludet University in Washington, D.C., and Virginia Tech. The University of North Carolina is a likely expansion spot next semester, he said, with more than 60 driver applications already filed.
Behind The Wheel
You might think that students in big cities like New Orleans and Washington, D.C., could use cabs or mass transit to get home from parties, but Ullman said students expect getting rides in this semi-informal system will be cheaper than a taxi and more reliable.
"The rides are a good time," Ullman said.
"Nadav and I drove for a while," Bachant said. "Everyone's really fun to talk to."
Joseph Martínez, who graduated from UConn the year before Sobrio got off the ground, decided to commute 45 minutes from his parents' home in East Lyme every weekend to drive customers. He did 140 runs over the course of the fall and spring, with four to five passengers on most trips.