OOHLALA Mobile: Wherever students go, there they are

Jennifer McIntyre
Magazine Section: 

Peter Cen

Postsecondary students around the world may not know it, but they owe an important feature of their on-campus connectivity to the wisdom tooth of a young UC grad named Peter Cen (BSc 2010 UC).

Cen, 27, is one of the co-founders of OOHLALA, a mobile platform that connects postsecondary students with the campus information they need via their tablets and smartphones, and he was recently named one of Forbes Magazine’s Top 30 Under 30 in Education.

The app, which is now available on 150 campuses in Canada, the US, Europe, and Australia, got its humble beginnings in the summer of 2009 during Cen’s third year at UC, where he was studying life sciences and human biology.

A tireless innovator and computer geek, Cen found himself with a week to kill after surgery to have a wisdom tooth removed. Rather than hang out in his pyjamas watching talk shows, Cen wandered onto the fledgling iTunes U site looking for something to learn.

“There was an online video course, taught by two guys who had made an app for Stanford, iStanford, and I thought that was really cool,” Cen recalls. “I loved the idea of being able to see my schedule all the time on my phone, and my friends’ schedules, instead of carrying paper around.

“So the idea started there: I thought, ‘I’ll make an app for U of T.’

“And that’s how I spent my summer – I made an app called My UT.”

Cen returned to school with his head filled with ideas – “I wanted to add other stuff on there, like scores for the football games, or clubs…” – but he also needed to decide what to study after his undergraduate degree.

“My parents wanted me to be a doctor, but I didn’t want that. Instead, I chose a really cool program called Master of Biotech at UTM. We did group projects [and] case studies. We had to form teams, sort of like a corporation, and do branding. Our team was called ViaVive and we worked for Sunnybrook.

“Maybe I influenced it,” he says with a grin, “but we did two projects related to mobile apps. One was called Mobile MIM, which allows radiologists to look at X-rays on the go. When Apple’s App Store launched in 2008, they launched that product [Mobile MIM] with them.”

He also worked with Toronto’s inDanio Bioscience during one of his co-op placements, which not only piqued his interest in biotech startups, but gave him some solid experience with pitching ideas and networking.

That summer, he met three undergrad students who were involved in the project that would ultimately change Cen’s life.

“They were working on an app called OOHLALA Deals,” explains Cen. “They’d started at the Rotman Case Competitions [through the Rotman School of Business]. They were trying to pitch an idea, a student deals platform. They’d built an app for Blackberry, because that was a popular device at the time.”

But in the midst of a recession, and with smartphones still in their infancy, it was tough to get students and stores on board.

“Only about twenty percent [of students] had smartphones,” says Cen. “Even I didn’t own one – I couldn’t afford the data plan!

“It was difficult to get students and deals at the same time – stores wanted students [to commit] before they signed up, and students wanted to see the deals before they signed up. A chicken-and-egg problem.”

Naturally, Cen was intrigued: “I looked at it as ‘Oh, you guys need my help because I can do this better.’” (Here he flashes another cheeky grin.)

They first expanded the U of T–specific app to include events and clubs, and then added in courses and timetables that students could view on the go. Later, as Facebook and other social media began to mushroom, they added a social wall to allow students to communicate with one another.

OOHLALA quickly grew in popularity, but since the app was still free, the group’s bottom line was flagging.

“We had a lot of clients in the US and Canada. But we weren’t making any money, and clubs still weren’t very committed. We’d participated in a lot of business competitions, and we’d won a lot of them – the prize money was actually how we’d kept our business afloat.

“So we changed our business model and started working with paid clients. We started charging for the platform and built more features. And we asked, ‘What are schools actually willing to pay for?’

“We found that schools actually wanted exactly what we had, but they wanted their name on it – in other words, branding.”

However, one key element was still missing: business experience. “We were just a bunch of students,” says Cen, “and we’d never run a business before.”

So the OOHLALA team applied to Montreal’s FounderFuel, a business accelerator program, or boot camp, and were accepted for the 2011 round. The intensive three-month program requires participants to live close by, and since one of OOHLALA’s biggest clients at the time was McGill University, they simply packed up their operations and moved to Montreal, where they’ve been ever since.

“It’s a great city,” enthuses Cen. “It’s really cheap to run a startup there. There are more taxes, but the rent is way cheaper compared to Toronto, and so are the living costs.”

The company has grown to 25 employees, and Cen’s official title now is Designer, Mobile Development. “We don’t really have fancy titles,” he says. “It’s just what I do. I love being hands-on, but I can also do admin if need be. But I really enjoy design and I see myself as evolving to more of a Head of Design.”

They plan to expand the app to include admissions, and are also working on a way to give students a stronger voice with school administrators.

It seems only natural that Cen and the team learned about the Forbes award via social media.

“We were nominated, so we knew there was a chance we’d get it,” he says. “McGill tweeted it, then one of my co-workers saw it and sent an email to everybody. That was cool.”

And the fun was only just beginning.

“We did celebrate a bit, on our own. But Forbes also hosts a conference in Philadelphia for the winners so we went to that. It’s really amazing – they bring in everybody who’s won an award, so you get to connect with everyone on the list. They also brought in really cool talkers, and we had our own education dinners to connect with each other – like the people from Khan Academy. Lots of very talented people.”

When asked what the award means to him, Cen is thoughtful for a moment, and then answers without hesitation.

“The award is an accomplishment, in a way, but it’s more like they see our potential. So we’ve got to work for it, achieve that potential – that’s how we see the award.

“We’re all cheering each other on.”