AzTech: Den

by Neal Bloom

By Sandy Athniel 

Year Founded: 2018

Aztec Founders: Tristan Fleming & Charlie Wiggs

Technology: Mobile app that helps college students find compatible roommates, connect with friends, date, and discover events, all with the intention of creating real-life experiences.

Headcount: 8 team members

For Tristan Fleming, Fall 2017 marked a time of new experiences. The then-college freshman had spent months preparing for his first semester at San Diego State University (SDSU), including choosing classes and searching for a roommate to share his dorm with. The latter proved to be a struggle, not only for Fleming, but for most of his fellow college students, who are expected to find roommates using outdated systems provided by universities. The clunky systems, which tend to have very few indicators and don’t give users freedom to show off their personalities, may as well just be a game of roommate roulette.  

Luckily for Fleming, he and his roommate got along just fine, but he knew not every student was as lucky.  The aspiring entrepreneur went into college with no solid idea for his future venture, but he soon discovered the archaic roommate-finding process plaguing college campuses across the country was one worth exploring.

Tristan and his roommate, Charlie Wiggs, set out to replace the clunky, ineffective system managed by the university with something more sleek and intuitive. This was the start of Den, an app whose roommate-matching capabilities have become just part of its multitude of offerings. The app has pivoted to encompass all things college lifestyle, including community, dating, and events. 

We chatted with Fleming about being an Aztec entrepreneur, the guidance he’s received from SDSU’s resources and network, and the impact Den will make on college campuses across the country.

Planting the Seed: Fleming has had the entrepreneurial bug for as long as he can remember. His first venture was a textbook reselling business he ran from eighth grade until his sophomore year of high school. 

His private school would routinely sell textbooks to students at full price at the start of the school year and buy them back for a lower price, only to sell those same books at full price the following year. In addition to its low buyback prices, the school’s payments for students’ books were only in the form of bookstore credit, meaning students had to wait all summer before they could return to school and use their credit to buy something new. Fleming knew he could do it better.

“I would just bring a bunch of cash to school and pay students what the bookstore would pay them, but I would give them cash so they could spend it on whatever they wanted,” Fleming said. 

The teen entrepreneur would also purchase textbooks when they were priced low at the end of the school year so that he could sell them for a profit in the fall, when demand was at its highest. “Every year, we would do a few hundred textbooks, and our margins were anywhere from 200-to-300 percent,” he said.

This first dabble in entrepreneurship helped Fleming realize that he could make a significant amount of money – we’re talking roughly $900 per hour, according to Fleming – working very few hours. He also enjoyed the autonomy.

Fleming’s other ventures included subscription boxes and a logo design website. He also currently does freelance UI/UX and website design, among other things. It’s no secret that the Temecula native is constantly looking for ways to build things and improve his skills.

“Being able to give back to family and friends, and to have freedom, as well as being part of something bigger than myself is a main driving factor in a lot of the things I do nowadays,” he said.

There’s an App for That: When it first launched, the Den app served the sole purpose of matching its users to potential roommates, based on criteria like personality and lifestyle preferences. Today, it has evolved into a general college lifestyle hub, giving students access to connect with their local communities (think classroom group chats, taco buddy meetups, etc), find a significant other, and discover local events, in addition to its roommate matching feature.

The Den app gives users one place to go for all things college lifestyle.

This change came about after the app’s initial launch. The Den team noticed that even after universities’ roommate deadlines had passed, students remained active on the app. Not only that, more people were downloading the app and signing up each day even though their roommate selections were already set in stone. People were using the app for purposes it wasn’t initially intended for, inspiring the Den team to expand its offerings. More on the startup’s rebrand below.

San Diego-based BL3NDlabs, which is a full stack digital product firm, recently spruced up Den’s app for the upcoming academic year, and Fleming took it upon himself to revamp the startup’s website.

The new version of the free app will soon be available for download, and the startup just surpassed its goal of 5,000 preorders. Den plans to generate revenue with a freemium model, launching this summer. Freemium models give users the option to use a basic version of an app for free, with options to access more features and unlimited use upon payment. Additionally, the team is considering implementing advertisements into its platform sometime next year.

Team of Aztecs: The Den team consists of Aztecs, both alumni and current students. Fleming and Wiggs decided to leave SDSU last Spring, at the end of their sophomore year, to pursue Den full time. Their two marketing and finance employees are current students at SDSU.

Before its first launch, the Den team traveled to a few college campuses on their orientation dates to promote the app to freshman.

Aztec Resources: Soon after Fleming and Wiggs initially came up with the idea for Den, they discovered the Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Launchpad. The incubator supports SDSU’s students, faculty, and staff in their entrepreneurial endeavors, providing guidance, mentorship, networking opportunities, and even non-dilutive funding. The Den team completed all three programs offered by the on-campus incubator and feels well-equipped for what’s next.

“The ZIP Launchpad is really the perfect place to ease you into the complicated atmosphere of being an entrepreneur, and I’d say that’s where we got the most value out of it,” Fleming said.

Other campus resources Fleming took advantage of during his time at SDSU include the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center. Participants are given the chance to network with and receive guidance from industry experts, faculty, mentors, and the center’s staff to fuel their careers. 

Fleming was also a member of SDSU’s Entrepreneur Society, which is known to host a plethora of events throughout the school year, bringing in speakers, like the Aztec founders of behemoths such as Rubio’s Coastal Grill and Stance Socks. 

These various programs are as informative as they are social. Meetings and events bring together like-minded students, giving them the opportunity to network and potentially meet prospective co-founders. 

“There’s people in these programs who think like you do. Not everyone thinks like an entrepreneur. It’s fun to bounce ideas around and work through problems with them. And personally, I believe surrounding yourself with other crazy people is great,” Fleming said. “These organizations have introduced me to some really cool individuals, some who have even joined our team.”

Another resource Fleming got value from is MentorBoost, a fellow Aztec-run startup, which gives first-time founders an e-learning platform with step-by-step guides on entrepreneurship. “MentorBoost partnered with the ZIP Launchpad and I could not recommend them enough. They were a fantastic supplemental tool to help us through the process of entrepreneurship,” Fleming said. 

SDSU’s ZIP Launchpad helped the Den team build its business before it expanded to other universities.

Mucho Den-ero: The startup raised a $100,000 friends and family round to get the first version of its app developed in 2018. The team is currently raising money for its second seed round, half of which it has received at the time of this writing.

San Diego Scene: The local startup scene’s tight-knit nature is one that Fleming enjoys. “I like having conversations and finding out there are mutual connections shared, which seems to happen all the time,” he said, adding that he is also optimistic about San Diego’s rapidly-growing tech presence. “There’s a lot of tech talent here, if you know where to look. The tech scene is getting much stronger down here, which is perfect for us.”

Looking Ahead: This year, the Den team is reimagining everything from the app’s features to its aesthetic. “Our rebranding is a complete overhaul of our logo style and general messaging in our business. We decided to add an icon to our wordmark in order to symbolize chat bubbles,” Fleming said.

Den’s purpose went from matching students to potential roommates to something much greater than that. “Our platform is made for messaging people with the intent of creating real-life experiences, and so we want to rebrand ourselves to focus on that intention,” he said. “Our internal view of social media giants is that they don’t promote getting off your phone and meeting new people in order to make your life better. They make you consume content and chase numbers. We believe technology can be used for so much more and we hope Den can help fill that gap.”

You can see launch dates for each of Den’s four features on the startup’s website.

Taco ‘bout a Recommendation: Fleming has the diet of a true Aztec. “The place I’ve been to most for tacos would probably be Trujillo’s by SDSU. That’s pretty much what SDSU students live on, for the most part,” he said. His usual? Two beef tacos with rice and beans. 

Another Mexican food favorite Fleming had to mention is green sauce enchiladas, namely from Ponce’s Mexican Restaurant in Kensington. “Those things are amazing – 11 out of 10.”

Brew with a View: Fleming’s favorite spot to grab a beer is The Rooftop by STK in downtown San Diego. We had good timing because Fleming had turned 21 just a week before we asked him this question. Sounds like a hoppy accident to me.

Keep up with what’s brewing at Den on their website and follow along with co-founder Tristan Fleming on Medium and LinkedIn for updates.

Editor’s Note: AzTech is an original Fresh Brewed Tech series on San Diego State University Aztecs (students and alumni) who are building the tech startups of tomorrow. These innovative ideas born in the halls of academia are making a great impact on our ecosystem and beyond. Don’t miss these compelling stories of passion, hard work, and problem solving by the next generation of entrepreneurs.

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