October 3, 2011

Michael Leff ’07 Creates Website with Support of Entrepreneurial Mentor Jim Fisher ’77

In your favorite city looking for a restaurant with fusion cuisine or a bar specializing in tropical martinis? The new website has the answers.

The brainchild of Michael Leff ’07, is a guide to restaurants and bars in 18 major cities across the country. It features not only the name and location of the establishments but also detailed information about the atmosphere, typical crowd, cuisine, specialty drinks, and more.

A unique collaboration among Leff, alumni, and students led to the launch of the site in January 2011. Jim Fisher Jr. ’10, who interned at Fisher Capital Corporation LLC, Cranbury, N.J., where he learned the ropes on entrepreneurship, is now a partner with Leff.

Jim Fisher Jr. '10 (left) and Michael Leff '07

Jim Fisher Jr. ’10 (left) and Michael Leff ’07

“I created a prototype about two years ago to get feedback from potential users and potential investors,” says Leff, a mechanical engineering graduate. “I am friends with Lauren Fisher ’07, and she suggested that I present the concept to her father, Jim Fisher ’77, a very successful enterpreneur. So I did, and he agreed to be my mentor and an investor.”

Fisher, an economics and business graduate and member of Lafayette’s Board of Trustees, is managing member, Fisher Capital Corporation LLC. Involved in identifying and analyzing investment opportunities, he previously served as chairman of the board of Bristol West Holdings, Inc. (a former NYSE company), and currently serves on the board of First Data Holdings Inc. and Coverzones Limited. He is a trustee for the National World War II Museum and American Foundation for the Blind. He is also a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

“I enjoy being a mentor,” says Fisher. “These young men have a lot of ideas but lack the experience to know how investors will react, which is where I come in. In addition, I have taught them about such fundamentals as having a sound business plan, working with attorneys for necessary policies, and making sure that they have the proper insurance for the business they are in.”

Both Fisher and Leff cite and as examples of their competitors. But barHappy’s creators have taken steps to distinguish the site. First of all, owners of restaurants and bars can register and become users of the site.

“They can log in and add photos, change information about specials, and update information on their businesses at any time at no charge,” says Leff.

In addition, barHappy is focused to young professionals, has information on 18 cities across the country, and recently introduced an iPhone app that enables users to connect with barHappy and find establishments near where they are located.

“Jim Fisher is a real businessman,” says Leff. “He has been extremely helpful. He is not just a kid with an idea. He transformed the concept into a functioning business. He is constantly there for us with advice about legal and financial issues. He knows because he has built businesses himself. He has made it all possible.”

When the iPhone app was introduced Aug. 11, featured it in “Hit the Hot Spots and BE Social with These Nightlife Apps,” by Meg Baker ’07.

barHappy logo

barHappy logo

The site currently has over 15,000 businesses listed, and visitors have been active in all 18 cities. Some marketing strategies used to promote the site include posting a video about the barHappy lion, their mascot, and barHappy coupons that people can download to their iPhone and take to the bar or print them out. The number of hits has been going up about 20% each week, says Leff.

The site was built by web professionals and tested prior to launch. A great deal of detailed information about the bars and restaurants had to be gathered, verified, and loaded into spreadsheets to be used in the behind-the-scenes database. That’s where Lafayette students have played a role.

Paid internships were offered through Career Services Job Vault during last spring semester. “We needed detailed information on bars and restaurants such as description, hours, specials, location,” says Leff. “The students were extremely helpful. They made the necessary phone calls, then typed the information into Excel spreadsheets.”

With a strong interest in the food and beverage industry, Cara Donleavy ’12, an AB engineering major who has been working with barHappy since last spring, says, “This has been a fun opportunity for me. It has taught me the importance of a deadline since the information must be loaded onto the website as soon as possible. I’ve improved my time management and individual responsibility skills as well.”

Mitch Bennett ’11, an AB engineering graduate, also benefited from the experience. He says, “We found out about the atmosphere of the bar or restaurant, special features such as drink and food deals or things like karaoke and bingo nights. It helped me with public or professional speaking, and I learned how to ask questions to find out the information we needed.”

Leff says his development of problem-solving skills as a mechanical engineer has been important to the development of a new business because problems come up continuously. Communication skills are also important.

“You have to speak to your customers with competence and confidence,” he says. “You  need to build a rapport with them and inspire enthusiasm.”

On the technical side, having learned programming languages in engineering was also helpful. He used such programs as PHP, html, CSS, JavaScript, and MySQL in creating the prototype.

Another student who worked on the site, Gwendolyn Turner ’12, says, “I worked on New York, D.C., and LA. I found it interesting and innovative that someone would think of this idea and then put it into action so well. I learned ways to be efficient when researching a large number of similar things at once.”

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