To glimpse the future of social networking, don’t look to MySpace or Facebook. Turn on your cell phone instead. That’s the platform Ben Roodman is using to help on-the-go hipsters gather the latest information about concerts, movies and other forms of entertainment in their communities.
Roodman, who graduates this May with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, is the CEO of ImThere, a social networking service that connects subscribers to information about events – such as concerts, CD launch parties or indie film festivals – via text messages over their cell phones.
Subscribers to the free service also connect to one another in a mobile community where they can promote new bands and venues, share recommendations about music, art or restaurants, or discover new music and performers. Think of it as a mobile MySpace – a virtual place to connect with a community of like-minded people and exchange information.
“ImThere is a user-driven site that allows people to find things to do – by using your cell phone or the website,” says Roodman, who grew up in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, Mo. While X-ers might be more comfortable surfing the web to find out what’s happening on a Friday night, and Baby Boomers might flip through the latest alternative weekly, Roodman sees the mobile phone as the medium of choice for his peers.
“We want to be on the forefront of mobile Internet technology,” Roodman says. “Text messaging is the medium that’s going to allow us to get to that point.”
ImThere is the first service launched by Ramped Media, the company Roodman co-founded a year ago with David Gorman, a friend from middle school. The two lost touch in later years but were re-introduced in early 2006 by a mutual friend, Tess Baklor, a UMR computer science student who also works part time for Roodman. Gorman “graduated from high school early and never went to college,” Roodman says. By the time Roodman met him again, “he had already started and sold several companies.” The two brainstormed about starting a venture that would integrate mobile and web technology, and Ramped Media was born.
Roodman and company are piloting ImThere in his hometown of St. Louis, where they’ve established partnerships with local clubs, bands and media, such as St. Louis Sound magazine and the music websites Playback:stl and iChannel, whose parent company, Bonneville International, owns four radio stations in St. Louis. Roodman hopes to take ImThere nationwide this year.
The company is nationwide already. Gorman and one developer are based in St. Louis, while Roodman and Baklor are in Rolla, another developer lives in West Virginia, another in Pennsylvania, a designer lives in Portland, Ore., and Amos King, CSci’06, is in St. James, Mo. The employees, like the company, are young. King is the oldest of the group. “I think he’s 25 or 26,” says Roodman. And the company’s headquarters? “We don’t need offices – at least not right now,” Roodman says. “We have coffee shops.”
It’s a fitting work style for a business focused on connecting the world through mobile technology. Roodman sees this type of flexibility as a keystone of the millennial work force. “I think our capacity for change and growth is just immense,” he says. “When we step into the work force, we bring a blast of fresh air. We’re quick to adapt to change.”
If Roodman is any indication, they’re also not afraid to work hard. Last spring and summer, Roodman toiled nights and weekends to launch his venture while holding a co-op job testing software and hardware in Anheuser-Busch’s corporate engineering division. He poured his A-B earnings into his fledgling business.
“I think I’m the first person ever to lose money on my co-op,” he says. Roodman believes the sacrifices will pay off. After all, launching a business “takes your soul,” he says. “It’s your dream, your vision, your reputation, all your time and effort. … It can be extremely difficult but also extremely rewarding.”
His UMR education also helped prepare Roodman for the rigors of entrepreneurship. “UMR has prepared me for hard work and staying up late,” he says, “and just being surrounded by tech-savvy people who want to build great things or solve inventiveness problems, has helped a lot.”
While tweaking ImThere in the St. Louis market prior to a broader launch in other parts of the nation, Roodman is looking for angel investors who share his vision. He’s also cooking up other business ideas, including a mobile news and blogging service and other mobile Internet applications.