The story behind VIV may have begun with a problem, but the solution started in the first grade where Austin Hoffman and Logan Schroering met and became friends.
Fast forward to 2015: Austin was a marketing senior in USI's Romain College of Business and Logan was noodling the idea of joining his family’s plumbing business, when the two began kicking around an idea that was part of their cultural DNA. Growing up in faith families, they’d witnessed the good that came from Sunday donations, but knew there were times people couldn’t come to services. The pair wanted to create a way for people to give online when they couldn’t attend.
Austin teamed up with USI classmate Mark Belcher ’18 (who’s also a friend of Logan’s), to pitch the idea of developing an online donation system at Startup Weekend Evansville 5.0 (a business incubator held at USI between 2011-2019). The idea didn’t win but it was one of the few to attract angel investors.
With financial support from the business community, Austin refined his donation idea to the point where he was ready to launch it via a website, but he knew nothing about web development or coding. With seed money in hand, he contacted a local web company about creating it. A 10-page document, a schematic-riddled paper revealed the hows, whys and whats it would take to create his dream site, along with a $135,000 price tag to build it.
Twenty-year old Austin and his idea sagged. How was he—or any entrepreneurial innovator—supposed to be able to create a company to surmount hurdles like that?
Allan Noe ’91, marketing and former USI Tau Kappa Epsilon president, laughs big and dreams big. He and his wife, Kellie, have spent 22 years building a small empire of businesses based on digital payment systems through startups and acquisitions. Today, their company Approval Payment Solutions (APS) has 47 employees, 15,000 clients and generates $4 billion in processing volume annually.
The climb to this pinnacle began when he was fired after three days as customer support staff for a bank, and immediately rehired to replace his boss who had just quit. “I was just kind of launched to the wolves,” he recalls. “I was told, ‘The good news is, you're promoted. The bad news is, it’s commission based.’ I nearly starved.”
Sales became his life breath, and over the next 10 years he steadily refined his skills and knowledge in all things credit-card and check-processing related, advancing to higher roles as the companies he worked for were swallowed up by others. After the third corporate acquisition Allan said, “enough,” and opened APS.
Partnering with banks, sales agents and merchants in all industries, the business grew from an office in Boonville, Indiana, with a sales force of three in 1998 to 100 by 2020. Over the years they’d acquired six merchant-payment-solution companies, putting APS in the top 40 in an industry of 3,800.
The $135,000 sticker price frustrated and motivated Austin to pivot and teach himself to build websites, enlisting childhood friend Logan to join him in the endeavor. Logan had an associate's degree from a community college and some credits from USI. His life was at a crossroads; he could join the family plumbing business, or...
Their first client was Logan’s family’s company. “We made my uncle an awesome website,” he says, “and we thought, ‘we can make money doing this, right?’”
Word spread. More clients came. Logan and Austin hung out with developers and gained certifications to increase their skills and offerings. Six months in, they’d created a dozen or more sites and knew they needed to loop back to their goals and refine their process. Based on their clients’ needs for online stores, they saw ecommerce as their next challenge to tackle.
When Allan entered the credit card industry 31 years ago, the marriage of the internet and ecommerce hadn’t begun. The first online retail transaction wouldn’t occur until 1994, possibly in Jeff Bezos’ garage. As online selling became a behemoth, Allan took note of how mom-and-pop shops struggled in the wake of mega corporations setting up online stores. “They were failing because they didn’t have a marketing strategy. They weren’t good at social media. They weren’t good at spending money for Google AdWords,” Allan says. “In 2017, retail business shrank 9% while online sales grew 22%. Mom-and-pop can’t keep up. They don’t have a website that’s ecommerce enabled and so forth.”
Allan realized that for APS’ merchants to have a fighting chance in a field of giants, they needed a great and secure website. They needed to be found on the first page in a Google search. They needed to be mobile optimized—since 82% of searches happen on smart phones. They needed someone to create such sites.
Allan met Austin and Logan when the VIV cofounders sought a local company to provide secure online payment processing for their growing client list. Initially, the companies collaborated on a referral basis, but as their working relationship strengthened, the possibility of a permanent partnership took shape. Austin and Logan’s ideas, work ethics and entrepreneurial attitudes impressed Allan. The VIV team was young (something that worked against them when selling to new clients), bright and tech savvy. Allan was experienced in digital payments and billing, and APS’s independent sales reps could pitch VIV’s services—web design and social media marketing campaigns—alongside APS’s payment solutions offerings. “Knowing that side of the business really helped us with our clients,” says Austin.
Connections and ties are a part of both companies’ legacies. Logan, Austin and Sam Leinenbach ’18 (VIV web designer) grew up together in Jasper. Logan and Mark (Austin’s Startup partner and VIV web designer) worked together at Holiday World for seven years. Allan (APS founder, VIV managing partner) and VIV designer Mark’s dad (Kyle Belcher ’87), were friends at USI.
Jordan Huneycutt ’11 (VIV’s business development executive) knew Allan’s daughter, Megan Noe-Sims ’14, APS’s director of strategic partnerships, at USI. Jordan was working sales for a large corporation and wanted APS as his next client when he asked Megan to put him in touch with her dad. What started as a pitch turned into a position. Today, Jordan’s sister Brooke Huneycutt ’09 is part of APS’s lead generation team.
In addition to these relationships, both APS and VIV continue their relationships with USI to keep their companies growing by working with USI’s Career Services and Internships Department. In the past five years, APS has hired more than 15 of its USI interns, and VIV has had two USI interns working for them and would like more.
“We could use more staff. More talented, super educated people who can help us advance our platform,” says Austin.
The collaboration between APS and VIV allowed VIV the ability to scale quickly, growing from 15 website creations to 400-plus in a year and a half. “We make sure that none of our sites stay stagnant," says Austin. "We’re constantly updating them and our product [offerings]. We’re always updating everything behind the scenes to make the website look beautiful. Last quarter, we generated almost 1.5 million views on our sites.”
The partnership between APS and VIV is a win-win. “VIV has allowed me to expand APS’s digital footprint and offer a much sexier product,” says Allan. “Because what merchants want to talk about is, ‘How do I win more business?’ They don’t want to talk about credit card processing.”
The opportunity to bundle these services is what VIV and APS say sets them apart and attracts business, but it takes more than a pretty website to keep customers coming back. “I think people like sticking with us because we’re young, we’re creative and we know how to move the ball. But another thing is customer service,” Logan says, who manages VIV’s internal operations. “Not a lot of website companies out there answer the phone. It’s not a personal number. It’s usually 1-800-let’s-talk-to-someone-different-every-time-you-call.”
As VIV’s co-founder, front man and product developer, Austin is no longer a near-starving student in a dorm. Although technically still a student in need of a few credits to graduate—something Allan (who along with his children are a legacy alumni family) ribbed Austin about. Some things, however, have not changed.
VIV’s evolution has led the team back to their original idea of creating ways to drive donations for nonprofits, but in a way that pushes innovation into older industries by developing product that enables municipalities to accept credit card payments for water, sewer and trash service. Customers who sign up with their civic service providers will get government alerts, road closings, school cancelations and such, as well as become part of a database through which they can make direct donations to causes of their choice.
“Alerts and donations are a part of our business, but the core focus of VIV is to drive business to local companies with custom marketing strategies and take out the corporate feel most agencies provide” says Austin. “We want to be all our clients marketing partner, not just their website guy or Facebook person.”