They've got nothing against college cafeteria cuisine, say former frat brothers Scott Sassoon and Laurence Rubin, both 24. "[It's just that] most students are no longer satisfied with the quality of food at the institutional level," says Sassoon. So after graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1996, the two set out to build a meal-plan business for starving students in the Boston area, based on a debit card system they'd seen friends use at their alma mater.
"[We] thought it was a pretty sexy concept--innovative and unique," says Sassoon. They launched VersaComm Inc. in 1997, offering university students a choice of meals from 37 restaurants in the Boston area; the debit cards can also be used to have food delivered from another 64 restaurants. Parents buy Swipe It Meal Cards at the start of each semester; all purchases, from an order of fries to a steak dinner, are then debited from the account.
"We really had no idea how to go about it," recalls Sassoon of their start-up. "We were at square negative-one!" Turning to the Yellow Pages, the partners located a software developer they hoped could set up the operating system. The fledgling entrepreneurs were amazed to discover he was the same developer who'd designed the software for the meal-plan company at UMass-Amherst. "From that lucky break, things started to snowball," says Sassoon.
Financial backing from family and friends (and a small commercial loan) provided the roughly $45,000 required to purchase the hardware participating restaurants need to use when debiting the Swipe It Meal Cards. Next, the partners found a list broker and purchased a home address list of students for the upcoming semester, then timed their advertising mailer to coincide with the tuition bills parents received.
"We really didn't plan. We just had a good idea and went with it," says Sassoon of VersaComm's trial-and-error early days. But first-year sales of more than $100,000 seem to indicate the duo learned their lessons well. "Our concept is marketed to kids, but parents love it," Sassoon says. "They sleep better at night knowing their kids are well-fed and aren't blowing all their money on things like CDs. They enjoy the control."
Muscle Truck Co., (310) 657-6944, firstname.lastname@example.org
VersaComm Inc., (617) 332-3638, email@example.com