UT Student Startup Wheelist Helps the Automobile Industry Ramp Up for future years
Longhorns Connor Phelps (communications, 2018) and Javier Huerta (government, 2021) co-founded tech company Wheelist to help car dealerships better manage and move their inventories. The duo met simply a few years ago as early supporters of the Delta Upsilon fraternity revival. Huerta (COO) was raised in Brownsville and completed one year at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley before transferring to The University of Texas at Austin. He was originally pre-law but ultimately decided he was better fitted to a business career.
“I view entrepreneurship as an opportunity to not only pursue a thing that I can build by myself but also in an effort to provide value and help other persons run their business and in a far more efficient way,” Huerta says.
Similarly, Phelps (CEO) considered pursuing a law degree before switching to communications. In senior high school, he opened a business along with his brother restoring wrought iron fences, which earned him enough money that he had a need to work only two days weekly, rather than every day after school. Phelps’ desire to work for himself, his give attention to profitability and his imagination around working smarter have driven him through the years.
“I think Javier and I both share a sense of drive and self-determination. We'd to make sacrifices early on in college. We often stayed in and worked when our friends were venturing out. We devote long nights and early mornings to get things done that some persons might find boring, nonetheless it has paid to get us where we are today,” Phelps says.
Phelps developed the theory for Wheelist during his senior year at UT Austin. In those days he regularly bought and sold cars, and he recognized the necessity for a much better solution to selling cars privately online. The first iteration of Wheelist was a platform for individual consumers (B2C: business to customer) to market their cars digitally with the promise of a sale within a fortnight of listing. Although Wheelist did get some interest from private sellers in its early days, the startup struggled with scalability. Following the first year, Wheelist pivoted to focus on car dealerships (B2B: business to business), an industry with a long history of inefficiencies. Dealerships also sell a huge selection of cars a month rather than once every four years, which may be the average timeframe for private sellers in the U.S. This pivot allowed for higher customer retention and lower acquisition costs.
In the summertime of 2019, Phelps and Huerta applied and experienced Student Entrepreneur Acceleration and Launch (SEAL) - UT Austin’s selective nine-week summer accelerator that picks the most promising emerging startups across campus and helps them confront their next market-driven milestone.
During their time in SEAL, Wheelist had a breakthrough moment with its go-to-market strategy. After running into brick walls with direct selling to individual dealerships, the team learned a channel partner strategy that provided usage of hundreds of dealership decision-makers simultaneously: wholesale auctioneers. Wholesale car auctioneers sell a large number of used cars each week or month, and hundreds of dealership executives show up for these events - streamlining Wheelist’s efforts. “Connor and Javier’s demeanor changed overnight from weary to full tilt forward entrepreneurs,” remembers Bart Bohn, founder and director of SEAL. This was Wheelist’s second major pivot as a company.
“My advice to other student founders is to really know your market,” Huerta says. “For some time we struggled with customer acquisition. After evaluating our customer-based, we identified that car dealership owners operate in a tight-knit community, they respect relationship building, and they are more likely to trust referrals.”
The duo gives credit to the LaunchPad for helping Wheelist begin and for keeping them through each phase of their business development. “Mitch Jacobson (executive director of the LaunchPad) has been instrumental in pointing us in the proper direction,” Phelps says. “He has given us his time, knowledge and expertise, which took Wheelist from just an idea to a sustainable business. Mitch advised us to find yourself in angel investors, incubators and accelerators. Because of this involvement, we have raised $500,000, and we’re currently entering an expansion round with the expectation of raising another $500,000.”
Over the next three to five years, these ambitious Longhorns have their sights set on expanding to middle markets in large car states, such as California.
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