UT Student Startup Wheelist Helps the Automobile Industry Ramp Up for the Future
With the help from The LaunchPad’s summer accelerator and UT’s Student Entrepreneur Acceleration and Launch (SEAL), student entrepreneurs, Connor Phelps and Javier Huerta, launched Wheelist.
By Barrett Ward
Longhorns Connor Phelps (Communications, Class of 2018) and Javier Huerta (Government, Class of 2021) co-founded Wheelist, a tech company that helps car dealerships better manage and move their inventory. The duo met just a few years ago as founding members of the Delta Upsilon fraternity. Javier (COO), grew up in Brownsville, Texas, and completed one year at UTRGV before transferring to The University of Texas at Austin. He was originally pre-law, but ultimately decided he was better suited for a business career.
“I view entrepreneurship as a chance to not only pursue something that I can build on my own but also as a way to provide value and help other people run their business and in a more efficient way,” says Javier.
Similarly, Connor (CEO) considered pursuing a law degree before switching to communications. In high school, he opened a business with his brother restoring wrought iron fences which earned him enough money that he only needed to work two days per week, rather than working every day after school. Connor’s desire to work for himself, his focus on profitability, and creativity around working smarter have driven him over the years.
“I think Javier and I both share a sense of drive and self-determination. We had to make sacrifices early on in college. We often stayed in and worked when our friends were going out. We put in long nights and early mornings to get things done that some people might find boring, but it has paid off to get us where we are today,” says Phelps
Connor came up with the idea for Wheelist during his senior year at UT Austin. At that time he regularly bought and sold cars, and recognized the need for a better solution to privately sell cars online. The first iteration of Wheelist was a platform for individual consumers (B2C) to sell their cars digitally with the promise of a sale within two weeks of listing. Although Wheelist did get some interest from private sellers in its early days, the startup ultimately struggled with scalability. After the first year, Wheelist pivoted to focus on car dealerships (B2B), an industry with a long history of inefficiencies. Dealerships also sell hundreds of cars a month rather than once every four years, which is the average time frame for private sellers in the U.S. This pivot allowed for higher customer retention and lower acquisition costs.
Photo: Connor and Javier with fellow Student Entrepreneur Acceleration and Launch (SEAL) participants, Capital Factory 2019
In summer of 2019, Connor and Javier applied and got into Student Entrepreneur Acceleration and Launch (SEAL) — UT Austin’s selective 9-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 surrounding its go-to-market strategy. After running into brick walls with direct sales to individual dealerships, the team discovered a channel partner strategy that provided access to hundreds of dealership decision makers at once: wholesale auctioneers. Wholesome car auctioneers sell thousands of used cars each week or month, and hundreds of dealership executives show up these events — streamlining Wheelists 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.
A key to Connor and Javier’s success has been their ability to deeply know and empathize with their customers. “Dealership owners typically don’t like change, and they certainly don’t want someone coming in and changing their whole backend system. We built Wheelist to integrate with all of their systems, which we thought was really important. We’re able to pull their data over to our server, and we provide them with photo templates and a password-protected portal,” shares Phelps. Although Wheelist has worked with dealerships of all sizes, the company found its niche in middle-market dealerships, which are categorized as selling 70–100 cars per month, and they believe their platform best serves dealers with this volume of inventory.
“My advice to other student founders is to really know your market,” says Javier. 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.”
Photo: Wheelist demoing their platform at a local Austin dealership trade show
The duo gives credit to The LaunchPad for helping Wheelist get started and sticking with them through each phase of their business development. “Mitch Jacobson [Executive Director of The LaunchPad] has been instrumental in pointing us in the right direction,” says Phelps. He has given us his time, knowledge, and expertise, which took Wheelist from just an idea to a sustainable business. Mitch advised us to get involved with 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 3–5 years, these ambitious Longhorns have their sights set on expanding to middle-markets in large car states such as California.
To connect with The LaunchPad or learn more about our summer accelerator program, SEAL, visit ugs.utexas.edu/launchpad.