A Virtual Community
App Helps Users Connect With Favorite Businesses
It was at the dinner table several years ago that Amanda Arthur and her family came up with the idea for what would eventually become the mobile application OptTown, aimed at helping local businesses communicate to their customers.
Her father, Tom, has led five different companies over his business career, taking one from startup to IPO. Amanda (Class of ’11) was a history major at Santa Clara University, but says that even though she wasn’t studying business, she picked up on and relished the campus’s Silicon Valley vibe.
“Being in the heart of Silicon Valley,” she says, “the job and networking opportunities were pretty rich. Even in the City (she’s now in San Francisco), it seems like half the people are Santa Clara alums.”
When Arthur graduated, her father had just left a company, and they decided to try taking the OptTown idea and making a concern of it. Working from home (plus in the occasional Peets and Starbucks), they got a first round of venture capital funding in 2012. That same year in February they launched OptTown at Santa Clara, much as Mark Zuckerberg tested out Facebook at Harvard.
The concept behind OptTown is that students and others at the university could download the app free and use it to create a virtual town of their favorite businesses. Once a user adds a business to the virtual town, the user becomes part of a network in which that business can communicate news, loyalty programs and special offers via mobile device.
“Facebook lets people network with friends,” Arthur says, “and this is a network where you can see what’s going on with your favorite businesses. You love your favorite places, and communicating through the app lets them access you when you’re in the right frame of mind, instead of pestering you with email, Facebook, snail mail, etc.”
As co-founder and vice president of sales, Arthur says she began by trying to get at least ten of the businesses she knew were most popular among Santa Clara students to sign up for the app, then use their presence to leverage others into signing up.
For OptTown’s February 2012 launch, 25 of Santa Clara’s favorite businesses participated, with the number growing to 150 from the greater Santa Clara region by the end of the year. After Santa Clara, the company targeted UC Davis, where the college atmosphere and demographic provided an even more receptive audience. By June 2013, 250 businesses were signed up and 20,000 unique users had downloaded the app.
To participate in OptTown, businesses pay a monthly fee, prorated according to their number of followers. After that it’s up to them to provide content, though Arthur says she worked with business owners to help them develop engaging, high-quality content and to remind them of the importance of continuous communication with their customers.
“Marketing today is about an ongoing relationship,” Arthur says, “but a lot of small businesses are still stuck in their old newspaper ad ‘one and done’ ways. Either that, or they’re overwhelmed by the daily tasks of running the business and aren’t thinking about marketing at all.
“I’d try to coach them to take a step back — to take 20 minutes a day to think about marketing. Running a business and having great relationships with your customers doesn’t just happen within store walls any more.”
Dan Aguirre, executive director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Leavey School of Business, was highly supportive of OptTown, providing numerous opportunities to increase its visibility on campus and with investors. The CIE also used the startup as a case study of alumni entrepreneurism.
In late 2013 OptTown realized it wouldn’t be able to secure enough funding to take its business plan all the way on its own. It is currently in serious talks with multiple prospective buyers who might be able to provide the capital needed for expansion.
Arthur moved on and is now working as an account development representative for San Francisco-based MuleSoft, a company that provides software and system integration for large businesses. Down the road she would love to get into education or educational administration, but for now she’s staying in the business/tech world and credits Santa Clara with giving her the confidence and support to go after something outside her comfort zone.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is not being afraid to fail,” she says. “I was a perfectionist in school, but in business I don’t always have control, and I have to be able to learn the market from the customers.
“Startups fail 90 percent of the time, so if you’re going to start a company, you have to be OK with that. But I feel that Santa Clara, with its well-rounded Jesuit education, gave me the confidence, compassion and competence to succeed — whether it’s OptTown, other business endeavors, or just life in general.”