Russ Gottesman was on the bus home from a White Sox game when the big idea hit.
“What if a bus stop could be ‘sponsored’ by a local business? My wife and I were two of 100 hungry fans, riding past Chinatown. Why shouldn’t a restaurant reach out with a simple message: ‘The best dumplings in town at Chang’s Restaurant, 50 feet from next stop’? We would have gotten off!”
Gottesman knew he was on to something, but wasn’t sure how to proceed.
“What was my next step, and the one after that?” he asked, and decided he get the answers in the MBA program at DePaul. He started grad school in fall of 2007; eight months later, he won the Launch DePaul competition with a business plan that beat out 53 contenders, and his business — Commuter Advertising — was born.
“DePaul brought it all together for me,” Gottesman says. “All the people I’ve met — teachers, alumni, students — are real-world and downtown smart; they’ve given me the right advice, support, and resources.”
For example, one of his first assignments in the MBA program was to write a business plan. “I reached out to the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center with my 80-page plan,” Gottesman recalls. “Raman Chadha, the Center’s executive director, took out a red pen and scratched out 50 pages. That was an education in a nutshell.”
Gottesman continues counting the ways DePaul was instrumental in his success:
“In my first-quarter marketing class, I sat next to a classmate named Ashfaq Mohiuddin, a project manager at IBM and a great example of the smart people in the classroom who share their real-world experiences. Ashfaq became my first investor. Then, in a different class, I met a guest speaker — Brian Rosen, a DePaul alum and grandson of the man who founded Sam’s Wine and Spirits; he became my second investor.”
The day after Gottesman won Launch DePaul, he quit his job with a local radio station and started his business. “The competition was a growth experience, professionally and personally,” he says. “Without Launch DePaul, I never would have had the opportunity — the insights and perspective, the seed money and the legal services — to start my business.”
Gottesman spent the next six months proving the concept, than sold his first contract to the Greater Dayton RTA in Dayton, Ohio. He moved there with his wife (who’s also his business partner) in February, 2009. Now, he takes most of his classes on line and through video conferencing, but does drive 500 miles round trip to participate in Raman Chadha’s New Venture lab class, where young entrepreneurs share ideas and experiences.
Since winning the new contract to sell audio ads in Dayton, Gottesman has entered into contracts with the cities of Champaign IL, Kansas City MO, and Toledo OH. Most recently, his team took first place in the University of Dayton’s business plan competition, beating 81 competitors and further validating his business idea.
“We now reach 48 million riders per year — all with an idea developed in graduate school at DePaul,” he says. Commuter Advertising sends the local transit authority 15-second, wireless audio commercials that play when a bus passes a store. A sample announcement might be “Next stop Main Street. Did you know Starbucks is only a quarter block from this stop? Come in for a latte today.” In addition, the same message appears in a text scroll on the LED screen announcing stops.
“Our business model is dual-facing,” says Gottesman. “We have to sell the idea to both transit authorities and local businesses. But it’s a win-win. In most towns, the transit system is desperate for operating funds, while our research shows a boost in sales for participating retailers. At the same time, on-board surveys of riders show that 89 percent are okay with the advertising. There’s just no downside.”
When Gottesman won Launch DePaul, he gave back five percent of his winnings — even though he was pinching pennies to get his business off the ground.
“My dream is to support DePaul even more in the future,” he says. “I do not think I would have had experiences like these anywhere but here.”