By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
The winner of this year’s “What’s the Big Idea 48-Hour Launch” (WTBI) is a University of Tennessee (UT) Knoxville student who is not a newbie when it comes to entrepreneurship. Car detailing, selling on eBay, and marketing lumber are three ventures he launched before graduating from high school.
Michael Newton is also an individual who is willing to listen to the advice of others. So, when it was suggested that his business plan and the name he had chosen for the idea he was pitching were not well-aligned, he changed the name.
What was once called Volfluence is now known as Swarm. The initial focus – using social media and recognized campus influencers to market apartments to students – has not changed. More important, however, this is just the first step in a bold plan to build the most powerful Gen-Z marketing platform in the world.
“The original name suggested we were focused only on UT and Knoxville,” Newton explained. “I want to be in every SEC (Southeastern Conference) city except Nashville by the end of 2018.”
So, Newton and his team of weekend advisors, led by Jeff Gotcher, Co-Founder of Medicapps, came-up with the name Swarm. What’s the meaning, you might ask?
“We’re a central controlling company,” he explained. “Metaphorically, it is a beehive.”
Newton was born in Morehead, KY, but now calls Murfreesboro his home. He started his first entrepreneurial venture at age 14. It was a car detailing service that he sold three years later.
About the time he started the detailing venture, Newton told us he went to an exotic car show and was captivated by several vehicles, particularly a lime green Lamborghini Murcielago. He met the owner who friended Newton on Facebook. When the owner posted that he was going to sell a large lot of car parts on eBay, Newton volunteered to work with him to catalog the inventory.
“Since then, he’s been a mentor to me,” Newton says.
His many ventures while still in high school also produced an important realization for the young entrepreneur.
“If I wanted to build something substantial, I knew I had to work for myself,” Newton concluded. Thus began his entrepreneurial journey as a freshman where, soon after arriving on campus, he connected with Jonathan Sexton of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center.
“I had already planned out (Volfluence) before moving here,” Newton explained. “Jonathan made me aware of the (WTBI) competition.”
And, as they say, the rest is history.
The idea for Swarm is fairly simple and straightforward. The paying client owns one or more campus housing facilities and wants a better tool to market to students. The target residents might be those most interested in academics or it could be athletics or Greek life. Regardless, the approach is the same.
Swarm leverages social media, particularly Instagram, by identifying and recruiting the most influential students on campus, based on the target market of the development. Those students, in turn, regularly post about their experiences at the apartment development.
“We generate brand exposure through the social media audiences of normal people who have massive influence over their friends and acquaintances,” Newton explains.
Identifying the right students who are influencers is time intensive, particularly as Newton expands to other cities. To bring more efficiency to the process, he plans to raise $250,000 to build an algorithm that will automate the identification process.
The company has three clients already in a market that is growing and evolving.
Since 2016, Newton says the amount of student housing being developed has doubled. In addition, a market that used to be dominated by individual developers now boasts three publicly-traded companies that are building as many as 30 complexes each every year.
“One of our clients has six or seven complexes although he is an individual developer,” Newton says. “What we are doing is pretty new in this space.”