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 just a few years ago as early supporters of the Delta Upsilon fraternity revival. Huerta (COO) grew up 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 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,” Huerta says.
Similarly, Phelps (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 needed to work only two days per week, rather than every day after school. Phelps’ desire to work for himself, his focus on profitability and his 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,” Phelps says.
Phelps came up with the idea for Wheelist during his senior year at UT Austin. At that time he regularly bought and sold cars, and he recognized the need for a better solution to selling cars privately online. The first iteration of Wheelist was a platform for individual consumers (B2C: business to customer) 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 struggled with scalability. After 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 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.
In the summer of 2019, Phelps and Huerta applied and got into 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 sales to individual dealerships, the team discovered a channel partner strategy that provided access to hundreds of dealership decision-makers at once: wholesale auctioneers. Wholesale car auctioneers sell thousands 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 get started and for 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,” 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 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 three to five years, these ambitious Longhorns have their sights set on expanding to middle markets in large car states, such as California.