Technology to Connect Users Across Social Media
Tyler Sells (Business Dec. ’21), Tyler Gebhart (MCA ’23), and Ben Oldham (Business Dec. ’21) started their business, Rola, to help people develop new and meaningful relationships.
Social media promises connection. A key idea behind Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms is that we can create rich personal and professional networks, receive updates from people, and build community. Yet the experience doesn’t always live up to the hype. This disconnect is what a few students at The King’s College and teammates from other institutions sought to overcome with a new location-based social sharing app they call Rola.
King’s student Tyler Sells points to data from the Pew Research Center that indicates Americans spend 6.5 hours per week interacting with an average of 3.5 different online communities. Given the reality that “Our world is built on social media,” Sells said, “why not make it better?” To answer that question he and his friend Cedric Paige, a graduate student at the University of California San Diego, developed an app to simplify the user experience and return people to what’s important—“reorienting our use of social media back to building relationships.” Sells serves as CEO of the company and Paige as CTO.
When Sells and Paige started Rola in July 2020, they initially focused on individual users, providing a way for individuals to “connect instantly over all of their social media platforms,” as they describe on their website. The app aims to help people preserve relationships that would otherwise be lost by allowing them to link social media accounts, email addresses, YouTube channels, and more to their account.
In the process of connecting people on social media, the Rola team found significant market pull from associations, professional organizations, and colleges that wanted to use Rola to connect and engage with their members. Rola pivoted from a peer-to-peer connecting app to a “Software as a Service” platform for these organizations, while keeping relationship-building at the heart of their mission.
Rola now serves organizations that may not have the capital to build their own app. They accomplish this by aggregating multiple outside services in one place. According to Sells, “Rola aggregates community information, connects members through a modern directory, allows members to RSVP to events, and lets leaders send updates directly to the phones of everyone in the community instantly.”
Rola’s growth accelerated with the help of select King’s students who joined January 2021—Ben Oldham (Business ’21) is the head of operations and business strategy and serves as Sells’ “right-hand guy” and Tyler Gebhart (MCA ’23) is the head of marketing. Marcos Cabral (Business ’23) made important connections early on with Specno, a development company that continues to partner with Rola.
Marketing efforts initially targeted King’s students followed by Ouachita Baptist University students, with the ultimate goal of expanding to colleges and universities across the country. Today, Rola is in the App Store and Google Play with over 1,700 users. Sells said, “We relentlessly pursued Rola’s product-market fit through 32 beta organizations and we just created a deal with a 1,500-member professional organization in NYC.”
Rola was recently accepted into the Blackstone LaunchPad’s Winter 2021-22 accelerator cohort. The program was founded in 2008 to make entrepreneurship more accessible while students are in school. They provide startup resources, facilitate access to mentors and advisors, and offer virtual and physical convening opportunities so college students can succeed in contributing to the 21st-century economy. This accelerator focuses on helping new companies to build innovative products. The Blackstone accelerator also provides cohort members with office space in UC San Diego’s Design and Innovation building, and Sells plans to work on Rola full-time there upon his graduation from King’s this December.
Additionally, in late November 2021, Rola became one of 50 companies selected out of 1,400 applicants for the NewChip Pre-Seed Accelerator cohort, which will provide the team support in raising capital.
When asked how King’s influenced the creation and development of Rola, Sells said, “As a freshman, I took Adjunct Professor Barry Marshall’s Principles of Operations. The class was highly conversational and we connected case studies with Barry’s experience in banking and fintech.” Now, Barry is a formal advisor for Rola, helping the team grow their business while holding true to the principles they discussed in class.
Sells continued, “Matt Perman, director of career development, has been a close friend and mentor during my time at King’s; the lessons I continue to learn from him help us lead the company with God’s love and compassion. Megan Dishman has shown us support from King’s staff, connecting us with King’s entrepreneurship fellow Rob Myer. Dr. Kimberly Reeve has been a resource for us as we make decisions on our business model and strategy.” He also credits Frank Torino, Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Finance, with helping him learn important skills during the development of a student-managed investment fund Sells originated.
Gebhart had this to say about the College’s influence on his leadership: “King’s forces you to be autonomous and figure things out by yourself. This is a skill set that fosters discipline and creativity despite obstacles. One of the reasons Rola exists today is because King’s taught us to address problems with innovative solutions.”
“There is something broken about the way people connect in modern society,” Oldham said, “and as Christians, we are called to attend to that brokenness. We believe the fragmented nature of social media and our communication has led to difficulty in connection. We know there is value in human relationships so we want to make it effortless for humans to connect, bringing people together in community.”
As for the future of Rola, Sells said, “Through angel investors, friends and family, and accelerators, Rola is closing our pre-seed raise. Software-as-a-service products like Rola are attractive to venture capital firms as a seed investment when they past $15,000 Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR). Given our addressable market of $1.8 billion, this pre-seed capital to deploy, our finalized product, strong team, and a conservative growth rate—we expect to reach $15,000 MRR by December 2022. Upon hitting this goal, we will seek a formal seed from venture firms to take Rola to scale.”
Featured photo: Team members working on Rola from a Brooklyn apartment. Ben Oldham is kneeling, and standing (L-R) are Tyler Sells, Marcos Cabral, and a roommate, Sam Johnson. All photos provided courtesy of the Rola team.