Blake Rupe considers herself an accidental entrepreneur.
The 26-year-old University of Iowa student had no plans to start a business as she entered her final year studying marine conservation. But a trip to some garbage-infested beaches in Mexico convinced her a mobile application to encourage recycling could help.
"There was a lot of mostly plastic, but a lot of glass, wood, cardboard" on those beaches, said Rupe, who received her master's degree in international studies. "There were a lot of things people were throwing away while visiting the beach. It was overwhelming how many of them were recyclable. I just started thinking, 'There has to be a way to get people to recycle more.' "
From that came Re-APP, a mobile application that turns recycling into a competition, with users challenging each other on a virtual leaderboard.
Rupe's path to entrepreneurship has become more common, as even people with few technology skills look to mobile applications to solve problems. The accessibility of mobile phones and other devices has helped foster that, experts say.
The trick for Rupe, however, was being open-minded enough to consider technology as a solution. Once she hatched the idea, Rupe approached the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory at the University of Iowa. She connected with mentors and learned how to make her business a legal entity, how to fund a project, and how to create a mobile application-based business.
The result? An application that has so far drawn roughly 300 downloads.
"I knew nothing going in, so I had to learn how to start a business from the ground up," Rupe said.
Through the school, Rupe found a developer, who built the application with her guidance. She paid between $8,000 and $11,000, mostly out of her own pocket.
Rupe had not taken a business class, much less pursued entrepreneurship or application development.
"I like being outdoors, hiking, being in nature," she said. "To want to come back around and work on the opposite side of that has been quite the learning curve."
She has the added benefit of being passionate about her product, said Tej Dhawan of StartupCity Des Moines.
Problem, solution, business
He said the concept of accidental entrepreneurship has been around for decades, although he hesitates to call it "accidental."
"Isn't that how most of the big entrepreneurial startups came about?" he said. "From Apple to Microsoft. Those are entities just trying to solve a problem, then creating a business afterward."
For example, Dhawan said, Jay Olsen of Des Moines-based construction startup Jobsite Unite saw a problem with construction communication and sought to solve it through technology.
The firm is building a mobile and Web platform aimed at streamlining communication on construction job sites.
"The persistence comes from knowledge of the problem," Dhawan said. "If you wanted to duplicate another idea, the passion will not be there because you never owned the problem or the idea."
Advances in application development have made mobile technology more accessible to people who might have otherwise shied away from starting a business based upon an app.
Drew Harden, president and co-founder of mobile application developer Blue Compass Interactive in Des Moines, said people without technology backgrounds no longer consider mobile app development an unapproachable, mystical world.
"Customers are moving away from traditional avenues and more toward technology," he said.
Harden, whose firm has been around since 2007, said Blue Compass focuses more on medium to large businesses. The company built a Fareway grocery store's mobile application along with UnityPoint Health's website.
Dhawan said startups and small businesses have plenty of room for companies like the one Rupe hopes to build.
"Many conversations that will relate to this will say this idea is too small," he said. "But it's a startup. It may end up as a lifestyle company with a few employees. But so what if that is what it is? If an idea is seen by an adviser as too small, it might be dismissed as a business, but it very well could be a small business that provides great value."
A leap of faith
Re-APP uses social media networks and leaderboards to create a sort of competition that challenges users to recycle more items than their friends. As users log recycled items, they earn points that drive them up on their friends' lists.
Rupe said her team has considered how to make money from the app, which is now available free. These include building partnerships with companies that want to use the application or perhaps building a "freemium" model, where users download the application for free but incur small fees for specific uses.
Lindsey Wortmann teaches first grade at Agassiz School in Ottumwa, Iowa, and has incorporated Rupe's application into her classroom.
The school has a strong recycling program, she said, and the app has encouraged more students to take ownership of it.
"It made my class more accountable," said Wortmann, 25. "The kids wanted to partake in recycling. Everything was, 'We need to recycle this.' They were really into it."
That's the idea, Rupe said. For months, she sat on the idea, considering her options. She took the leap in December.
"It's unbelievable," she said. "Coming from outside of technology, I thought I'd be swimming with concrete shoes on."