Summer Wildfire 2017: Local Technologies

It’s no secret that college students are always looking for a little extra spending money. Whether it’s to help with groceries, hang out with friends, or even buy textbooks, a couple extra bucks never hurts. Students explore a wide variety of opportunities to make this extra money. From giving blood for mono research to random Kellogg studies on relationships, the possibilities are endless. But why waste your time with these inconsistent and strange methods of making money?

Local Technologies, a startup founded by Collin Pham, aims to solve this problem by connecting students interested in earning money with community members interested in getting tasks done. This will be a mutually beneficial relationship for students and local homeowners. After getting the ball rolling in Evanston, Collin plans to scale this platform to college towns throughout the nation. The Garage sat down with Collin to learn more about Local and its future plans.

Left: Caraline Pham, Right: Collin Pham 


The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?
Collin: “So it’s actually kind of a long story. During the summer of my sophomore year of high school me and two friends, Charles and Cam, really wanted to make some extra money. We went to all the ice cream and pizza parlors but we weren’t hired because we were still pretty young. So we decided to put up some flyers around town and we called ourselves “Newton Odd Job Services.”  Our motto was “You name it, we do it.”  We mowed lawns, painted walls, and pretty much did whatever other opportunities presented themselves to make some extra money. And this really small idea started growing into something really big.

By my senior year I had bought out one of my co-founders and the other had left of his own accord. I had employed about 20 students from my high school and we were making about $20,000 per summer. I took a step back and thought to myself, “what’s going on here?” We learned quickly that there are already homeowners who are hiring general laborers to come into their homes. However, these homeowners are generally unhappy with the laborers because they’re expensive and can also be kind of strange — students are a lot more pleasant to hire. On top of all of this is price — if you hire a painter, they cost $40-$50/hr.  Students can come in at 50% under that cost . And because these tasks are so simple they’re pretty much commoditized; the quality of work we’re providing is the same, if not better than these adults.  We looked at this and were like, why isn’t everyone hiring students for their general labor needs?

Local aims to bring this solution to scale to solve this 2-sided problem. One, there’s no simple way to find general laborers as an alternative to the expensive labor homeowners are currently paying for. Two, there’s no highly flexible, simple way, for students to earn extra money. Now we’re building an online platform for that to scale across college campuses. My high school experience was what really sparked our idea and I want to take that and make it more efficient, profitable and impactful with a powerful tech backend.”

Who’s on the team?
Collin: “Right now, we have a team of six with three more that just came on board. I’m the founder and I have a computer science background. On campus, I’m involved in other entrepreneurial groups and I also run NU Tutors which has a similar business model and growth strategy to Local. My sister Caraline studies strategic communication at the University of Wisconsin and she’s currently building our brand. She’s making all the content on our website. Since our company’s name is Local, it’s really important to us that every time someone hires a student, they feel like they’re hiring someone down the street, someone truly local to the community. She’s working on our mission statement and core values and making sure we have a solid foundation. I also just recruited three Northwestern students to help out with tech for the summer. Each of them has an awesome background and I’m really excited for what we’re going to be able to accomplish. The sixth person is Abby Stratton and she’s the head of ISBE Mark. She’s a junior and she’s helping with a lot of operations to figuring out how we are going to scale.”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?
Collin: “When I first started doing this, I dove into the code, and I was trying to create a login process to authenticate our users. I basically spent an entire month building everything from the ground up. I created our own authentication process and it was working about 90% of the time. But it just took so long and it still wasn’t perfect. Then I realized I could  use a third-party service and I was able to implement it within a day. Trying to build it out from scratch was a huge waste of time. I learned that you shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of free things out there that can help you and you should use them!”

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?
Collin: “ I think the entrepreneur I admire the most is Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, because of his ability to compartmentalize everything. When he was first building Amazon, he did this really interesting thing where he told everyone that they need to make sure everything they’re building needs to be able to communicate with everything else.  Apparently it was really annoying for every single team because they not only had to build what they were told to build, but they also had to make it really easy to communicate with everyone else. But that turned into Amazon Web Services (AWS), which is this huge thing today. So I really admire his ability to plan 5 to 10 years in advance.”

How as The Garage helped you with your startup?
Collin: “I think two things have been really helpful here. First is the space; it provides a location for me to come and work. And the second is the people I’ve met. Just the other day I met someone who was able to help me with our taxes. Just the broader network of connections that you make here is amazing.”

What do you hope to get out of the Summer Wildfire Accelerator?
Collin: “Hopefully by the end of the summer we will have our website up and running to scale. We’ll have our login features and our matching algorithm done and pretty much be able to pick up from Northwestern and go to any other location or college campus. The next place we are looking to expand to is the University of Wisconsin because my sister goes there. Although it doesn’t have the exact audience we are targeting, it makes the most logistical sense since we will have someone onsite to oversee things. Ultimately I hope to go national with this and to achieve this, we have a very slow growth strategy. Once we know this model can scale, we’ll be looking for investments to help accelerate it!”

To get in touch with Local, visit their website or shoot them an e-mail.

This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.

Summer Wildfire 2017: Unruled.

In a world where everything seems to be regulated by one thing or another, why confine our ideas to the spaces between lines on ordinary notebooks? Let these ideas flow and simultaneously fight for a more sustainable future.

Unruled. is a sustainable notebook for creative thinkers. The team has designed a minimalist and aesthetically pleasing unlined spiral notebook that students can be proud of. It’s tailored to creatives and intellectuals alike by taking the best features from traditional notebooks and improving the rest. The Garage sat down with Bennett Hensey and Jacob Morgan from Unruled. to learn more about their startup and goals for the future.

From left to right: Lexy Praeger, Jacob Morgan, Ellen Ehrsam, Bennett Hensey, and Christina Allen

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Bennett: “We were in the same Principles of Entrepreneurship class and we needed to brainstorm problems that occurred in our lives.  One problem that I had as a freshman was that being an engineering student, a lot of my classes were not conducive to lined paper. So I was looking for a spiral notebook that didn’t have lines and that was really hard to find. I ended up just buying an expensive sketchbook that was big and bulky which wasn’t ideal at all. I remember writing this idea down in an Evernote file thinking that this could be a great project to fill a need and learn about what it takes to create and grow a business. Then I pitched this simple idea and we all went with it. Since then, it has turned into a lot more than just a simple idea.

How was the process from ideation to creation?

Jacob: “So like Bennett said, it started in the Principles of Entrepreneurship class where you come up with an idea during the first couple weeks and then you walk through all the steps of what it takes to start a business. This included business plans, marketing, social media, funding and more. So we created a plan for all of this and at the end of the quarter, we decided that we could take this a step further through The Garage. We applied to the Residency program and through that, we’ve started to implement our plan. Last quarter we had our Kickstarter that was very successful and we raised $6,400. That was our first funding goal and with that we have purchased our first round of manufacturing for our notebooks, which have just arrived, and we’ll begin selling very soon!”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup so far?

Bennett: “I think The Garage has given us a place that catalyzes our business. As students and first-time entrepreneurs, there are a lot of small things that you may not know how to do as well as thoughts and road bumps that can inhibit your progress. Having the guidance of our mentors who have worked through many entrepreneurial projects and having the help of other students who are struggling with their own projects, pushes us to do more than we could do alone. It also allows us to meet a lot of like-minded people and overall it’s just a great place to be.”

How did you choose the name Unruled. and what was that process like?

Jacob: “I think it came about when I was doing the graphic design for the cover. I was looking at traditional notebooks and they would say things like: 1-Subject, 80 sheets, Wide Ruled, 8” x 10.5”. So I wrote out: 1-Subject, 80 sheets, and I was thinking what we should put in the following spot and Unruled just made sense. It’s the one thing we all agree on and hasn’t changed.”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Jacob: “Fortunately, we haven’t had any really big failures yet but one thing we could do better is delegating tasks and figuring out who is doing what to improve productivity. We’ve had a bit of trouble with that this quarter. We’ll come to meetings where we usually do a lot of problem solving as a team, and we’re at a point where that’s not the most effective way to go about things. We need to figure out everyone’s strengths and let those individuals take ownership of their particular projects and have a system that encourages trust and cooperation.”

What is the most important lesson you have learned?

Bennett: “I think for me, it’s taking criticism in stride. I think realizing that criticism always comes from a real and valid place is important and we need to understand and identify the root of that criticism. Whether it’s clearly explaining the purpose of the product or the product itself, there are always areas of improvement. So you need to accept criticism in order to learn and grow from it.”

What do you hope to achieve through the Summer Wildfire Accelerator?

Jacob: “I think it’ll be a huge motivator for us and a force that makes us go out there and really build Unruled. We have a lot of plans for this summer to grow and scale and start selling and solidify channels for manufacturing and distribution. Having the constant pressure of other students working on their projects and the mentors checking in on us will really help us get our work done whereas right now we have a ton of stuff going on like classes and clubs that can get in our way.”

Bennett: “I think it’ll be a good experience to not have any classwork and focus on Unruled. I’ve spent a lot of time in school where you’re told to do an assignment and you do it for the sake of doing it. But having an opportunity to do something you want to do and doing it full-time is something really special and not something that happens everyday. We also have a lot of personal goals in addition to our business goals that we hope to accomplish this summer as well.”

What are your next goals for Unruled.?

Jacob: “Right now, we’ve ordered 600 notebooks and we have to fill around 360 pre-orders that we received through our Kickstarter. So we have around 240 left that we need to sell, so that should be fun. We’ll be setting up pop-up shops around campus and maybe partnering with other startups and organizations on campus.

Over the summer, we will focus on establishing relationships with retail locations and also other distribution channels like a website for online orders or other platforms like Amazon to really solidify and streamline the process of ordering notebooks. So when school comes back around, hopefully we aren’t scrambling around to try to figure things out and instead we can run things smoothly.”

When did you first feel the entrepreneurial spirit?

Bennett: “I think I’ve always been motivated “to do.” I’ve realized that I learn best by struggling rather than learning to do something perfectly. As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve learned to push myself outside of my comfort zone like teaching myself how to code over a summer and thinking about how to monetize the terrible Twitter bot.  So I’ve always been motivated by learning to do new things and had an interest in entrepreneurship as it became more and more trendy. I read a book on entrepreneurship and always thought about how I could make money from various projects, so I wanted to learn how to actually do it and the process behind it.

Jacob: “I think I’ve always loved creating and making things. I think I always knew I wanted to do something with entrepreneurship even though I hadn’t done anything related to it before I took the class. Prior to the class, I actually made my own major which is Product Design and Entrepreneurship Engineering, so I jumped into it without knowing too much about it. I enjoy everything from designing, building, and making, but also being able to do something impactful. The class really opened my eyes to entrepreneurship and we see a lot of teams in The Garage who are working on their startups full-time and it’s a great way to see progress in real life. Hopefully working through Unruled. will give us the skills and experience to work on bigger projects in the future.”

Check out the Unruled. website and follow them on Instagram: @be_unruled!

This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.

Summer Wildfire 2017: BOSSY

Traveling is an unparalleled way to experience new places and cultures. And to make the experience even more meaningful, it’s always nice to interact with and support local business owners. These can be local restaurants, fashion boutiques, coffee shops, museums, and so much more. It’s a great way to learn more about your destination from a genuine and knowledgeable source and as a result, this also fosters a greater economy among these local businesses. However, sometimes it may be difficult to find these businesses, especially those owned by women, which results in low engagement with these local communities.

BOSSY, a startup founded by Sam Letscher and Isabel Benatar, aims to solve this problem by connecting socially conscious travelers with local female business owners, facilitating ethical traveling and purchasing while empowering women worldwide. The idea was sparked in Mike Moyer’s Entrepreneurship 225 class and the two are currently focused on telling the story of various female business owners in Chicago to increase awareness and engagement with these local businesses. The Garage sat down with Sam and Isabel to learn more about BOSSY and their goals for the future.

Left: Isabel Benatar, Right: Sam Letscher

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Sam: “So when we were first coming up with the concept for BOSSY, we were focused on travel. This was because Isabel had taken a gap year after high school before coming to Northwestern and I was abroad for 6 months in Madagascar and Switzerland studying public health. As we were traveling, we saw the difficulties with traveling ethically and engaging with the local community in a mutually beneficial way. We found that local businesses owned by women were the best way for us to make an impact. While traveling, we’ve both come across amazing, small women-owned businesses and we have had great experiences with them.  And right now we’re taking that concept and condensing it to Chicago and thinking about how we can be more ethical consumers rather than just travelers. For example, when we go out to a restaurant, instead of  supporting one of the big Chicago restaurant groups, how can we support local, independent businesses run by women. The focus on female ownership has really come from our dedication to women empowerment stemming from the disparities in women’s access to capital and how easy it is for people to get a business up and running, which is usually very difficult for women. Often, they’re mothers and they’ve taken a couple years off when their children were young and suddenly people don’t see them as credible or professional anymore. So there are a lot of factors in play that make it hard for women to start a business. We really wanted that to be  part of our mission because it’s something we’re both very passionate about.

How are you solving the problem you’ve identified?

Sam: “So right now we’re storytelling and we have found it so compelling to hear from women who own businesses in Chicago, especially their trials and tribulations when starting out with their own ideas. We also really enjoyed learning about their inspirations and motivations so when we step into one of these spaces, it’s a much more meaningful experience. When we sit down for a meal, we know the history of the restaurant and where the profits are going. Really understanding that background adds value to us because we are supporting someone we want to support. It’s the difference between sitting down at the Cheesecake Factory and sitting down for a home cooked meal by your grandma. We want to help people understand the history behind these local and independently run places so that when they go there it’s a more meaningful experience and simultaneously drive traffic to these locations.

How did you choose the name BOSSY, and what was the process like?

Isabel: “So we were originally calling it ‘Soar’ which we didn’t realize might be confusing if you didn’t see it written down. We both felt like we wanted to use something more powerful and we had chosen ‘Soar’ with the idea of uplifting women. We ended up brainstorming for a long time and Sam came up with BOSSY. We struggled a little bit because it does have a certain negative connotation but that’s why we liked it because it’s reclaiming that word. Also, people have a reaction to the word and it makes people curious and want to learn more about us. Ultimately, we want to encourage and celebrate women who are bosses.”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Sam: “I don’t even know if we’ve been going long enough to have a biggest failure yet. Honestly, we’ve taken so long to decide on how we want to start with this concept since it’s so broad. How do you connect socially conscious tourists with women-owned businesses to create meaningful travel experiences and support women’s economic empowerment? We decided to start with Chicago and figure out what we want to do from there. We decided to go with storytelling because that was the most interesting and compelling thing for us and we wanted to bring that content to our customers and people who will appreciate it. The hardest thing so far has been taking this broad idea and figuring out how we want to start and how we want to test it. I think that the failure was the period of being very jumbled in our thoughts and concepts and having so much going on that we couldn’t solely focus on one thing. But now we have our blog and our instagram page that we can drive people toward and we have a space to tell these stories.”

What’s the most important lesson that you have learned?

Isabel: “You have to start small. Since we started with a passion for travel, that automatically generates the question of where do we start? Do we start in a city in Mexico or take on the whole world right off the bat? So just learning that we need to start on smaller scale and more locally has allowed us to grow. “

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Sam: “Personally, thinking about what we’re trying to do, I really admire the founders of Airbnb because they’ve given so many people the opportunity have another source of income. When we look at what we may eventually do in the travel space, we’re really passionate about the idea of supporting the people who actually live in a location rather than the large hotels there. So I really admire how the founders of Airbnb have been able to line up this need that travelers have with a social impact. I feel like they don’t even emphasize the fact that they are trying to support local economies. But they do and this is really inspiring because it’s such a simple idea yet it has such a big impact.”

Isabel: “I strongly agree with that and I also want to say my dad, who’s also an entrepreneur; I always bounce ideas off of him and we’re from Palo Alto so I’ve been surrounded by this culture growing up. I’ve worked with his company before and I really admire the values he brings to the organizations he works at. “

When did you first feel the entrepreneurial spirit?

Sam: “We lived with each other last year, we were roommates, and we took the Entrepreneurship 225 class with Mike Moyer. We were working on this ‘Just add water cereal’ idea that wasn’t a very interesting product to either of us but nonetheless, still a satisfying process to go through. But I think the seed was planted there and we started thinking about the problems and opportunities in our own lives.

Basically right after this class, I went abroad for 6 months and during my time abroad I was noticing problems and how we could do them better. I had always been interested in traveling so it was a great opportunity from a personal perspective to notice these things which the 225 class really primed me to do. And when I came back, I took the 325 class with Neal Sales-Griffin and he just took the base that I had and gave me the tools to try and identify meaningful problems. I think that both of our issues in the past have been that we didn’t have anything that felt compelling enough to pursue. But once we did, it was almost a no-brainer to get together and do this because we have complementary skills and passions.”

How as The Garage helped you with your startup?

Isabel: “Honestly, the workshops like the financial modeling workshop and having a structured environment where someone is giving you this information is so helpful. Also, The Garage keeps us organized, gives us deadlines and provides networking opportunities to meet people.”

Sam: “And it’s not just the physical space that The Garage provides. It also provides a headspace for you to work in as well because you meet all these other students that have these amazing ideas which is very inspiring. Having this dedicated space creates that headspace where you’re more free to explore your ideas which is something that we all should be doing more. Overall, this really validates the student’s’ interests instead of being some alternative path and crazy side project.”

What do you hope to get out of the Summer Wildfire program?

Sam: “We’re both so excited to be focusing on this full time. It’s so hard to do this throughout the year. We started a quarter ago and we’ve already made a lot of progress, but it’s hard when you don’t have the dedicated time for it. In our heads, this is a priority but there are so many other things we need to prioritize as college students. Being surrounded by people and resources who want us to succeed will be amazing. I don’t know where we’ll be and what we’ll have done by the end of the Wildfire program but I’m confident that we’re going to do something that we’re proud of and be satisfied with the work that we’re doing.”

Stay connected with BOSSY by following their blog here and their Instagram: @BOSSY_Chi!

This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here

Summer Wildfire 2017: Gulu

With more than 300,000 Chinese international students coming to the United States each year to pursue a college degree, it’s no surprise that the application process is becoming more and more rigorous for these students. Competition is constantly on the rise and as a result, many of these students turn toward outside resources to aide them throughout this process. Chinese education consulting agencies are one of the main sources for this guidance, however they often only act as a middleman to connect mentors with eager students without any consideration for fostering relationships. They overcharge students who will do anything to get accepted to their dream schools and they also underpay the mentors who actually put in the time and effort to help them.

Gulu, a startup co-founded by two Northwestern juniors Ann Yu and Danqi Liao, aims to solve this problem by providing a platform that helps students in China (mentees) find the perfect mentors to help them navigate and excel through the college application process. Gulu provides a direct channel of communication between mentors and mentees and eliminates the need for education consulting agencies. The Garage sat down with both co-founders to learn more about Gulu and their goals for the future.

Left: Ann Yu, Right: Danqi Liao

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Ann: “Our startup targets Chinese international students to help them gain access to resources throughout the college application process. My co-founder and I are both Chinese international students and we went through college applications with the help of Chinese education consulting agencies. We paid them a lot of money and they advised us through the college application process. But both of our experiences kind of sucked. We hated that agencies were in between the mentees and mentors. We really wanted to create something that would kick them out of the picture because all they provide is marketing and PR. Although they recruit the mentors, their process for assigning them to the students is inefficient and rushed. And they take at least half of what the student pays them. It’s pretty unfair.”

What is the problem you’re working on and what is your solution?

Ann: “I think the problem is that the industry of Chinese educational consulting agencies as a whole is very high-profit, but it does a poor job of pairing mentors and mentees because they work like a business or a big a corporation. They don’t care about relationships; all they care about are numbers and money. The other side and the bad thing for mentors is that they get paid less hourly while they do most of the work. I personally worked for three major college application consultant agencies in China. I got paid a lot, like $30/hour, but that’s still not even half of what students pay the consulting agencies to help them even though I was the one doing all of the work. And the students who sign up for the services don’t have a chance or opportunity to look through all the available mentors. They just get assigned one from the agency. We want to provide freedom, autonomy and transparency when making that decision. Our plan is to design a mobile app and create a community that is interested in or currently studying abroad. So for example, if you’re a student in China, you would go on our app and sign up as a mentee and you can browse through all the students who are studying a particular university like Northwestern or UChicago. You can be like “Oh, I’m interested in your experience! Can you help me write my essay?” And you would directly pay the mentor. In this way the mentees can pay less while the mentors receive all the money.”

How did you choose the name Gulu? What was the process like?

Ann: “We started with Guru, because it implies you’re the master of something and we like to think that everyone can master a subject and be someone’s mentor. But then we realized a software company already had the name Guru. So we decided maybe we should use something that doesn’t mean anything but still sounds like Guru. So we just changed the R to an L and created Gulu.”

Who’s on the team right now?

Ann: “I’m a junior studying philosophy and computer science and my co-founder Danqi, is a junior studying computer science. We currently have two teams, a software development team and a marketing team. There are two computer science majors who are on the software development team. Zilun will be working full-time and Jennifer will be working part-time. On the marketing team we have Kate who will be working full-time and she is currently a junior at UPenn, studying Econ, Philosophy and Political Science (PPE). Our last two members are both high school students, one will be going to Claremont McKenna College and the other will be attending Wesleyan and they will be working remotely. I actually met them through college application consulting services and I mentored both of them during their college application process and and we’ve kept in touch ever since.”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Ann: “I don’t know, I feel like we haven’t succeeded in anything yet to be honest. So far, failure is a normal state of life. We are currently trying to write the app but everyone is really busy. We have a five hour working session every week where we just sit there and learn iOS coding but it’s a huge time commitment for our members who are taking computer science classes. So that’s the biggest struggle. Hopefully we will get it done before summer so we will have a prototype to work with.”

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?

Ann: “I think when someone is creating and leading a team, one thing you need to think about is the quality of the team. I feel like a lot of student groups on campus are facing the same issue. Many of them are really big, but no one is actually doing anything. I feel like the key for a team is that the size of the team doesn’t matter. What’s important is how dedicated the members are, how interested they are in the mission of the company, and how well they work with each other. Teamwork and the social fit are also really important because you have to see your team members 24/7 so you need to get along with them.”

When did you first feel the entrepreneurial spirit?

Ann: “ If I could define ‘thinking entrepreneurially,’ I would define it as thinking critically and independently, which is something that my parents have always encouraged me to do. I feel like the culture of my family is pretty free and open. My parents always encourage me to think of every decision I make and what I want to do and this has really helped me become a more autonomous person growing up. So I guess the spirit has always been there.”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Ann: “We are relatively new here, and I really appreciate how we have a space to work in, instead of sitting in one person’s apartment or living room. Also, the weekly family dinners with the various speakers are very cool. It’s very interesting to see how people come up with different ideas. I remember the first week of Family Dinner with Noah Mishkin; he was an architect and he spent like seven  years in school. And it’s really cool because when you think of entrepreneurs, they’re not necessarily coming from a similar background, like computer science. You could be doing anything when you decide to create something and start a project. Also the dinner with Oliver Leopold was very cool as well.”

Where do you see your startup going in the future?

Ann: “I hope to actually bring people some benefit and convenience. I’m not expecting to go big like a unicorn or anything. When I was a freshman thinking about startups, I felt like a startup was a failure if it didn’t become a unicorn. For a lot of startups, there’s no need for them to become a unicorn because their market is very niche. Not every startup needs to become a unicorn, but if your startup can semi-successfully solve a problem and it fits a part of the user’s need, then I think that that’s a good startup and a good goal to hit. I wish that my effort can change people’s lives, even if it’s just a little bit.”

This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here

VentureCat 2017: The Finals

VentureCat is Northwestern’s annual student startup competition, offering the best and brightest Northwestern student entrepreneurs a shot at a piece of a $100,000 dollar non-dilutive capital pie. Didn’t get a chance to see the finals? Here’s how it all went down.

A total of 23 teams competed in semi-finals rounds in six different tracks. Interested in learning more about the semifinalists? Click here. Prizes of $5,000 were awarded to the winners of each track, and $3,000 to each track’s runner up.

Business Products + Services (B to B)

Track Winner: Quickpulse

Runner Up: Zcruit

Consumer Products + Services (B to C)

Track Winner: Welltended

Runner Up: RE-Bucha

Energy + Sustainability

Track Winner: Aerospec Technologies

Runner Up: PedalCell

Life Sciences + Medical Innovations

Track Winner: Actualize Therapy

Runner Up: ActiWit

Social Impact + Nonprofit

Track Winner: Tiltas

Runner Up: Sidekick

Transportation + Mobility

Track Winner: IFM

Runner Up: SHURPA

Then, each of the finalists took the VentureCat stage. Finals were MC’ed by Northwestern alum, Samir Mayekar (a former student founder himself).

The Finalists From Left to Right: Tiffany Smith (Tiltas, Kellogg ’17), Carolyn Snider (Welltended, Kellogg ’17), Selin Halman (Actualize Therapy, WCAS ’18), Smit Naik (Actualize Therapy, Kellogg ’17), Jessica Tsai (Quickpulse, Kellogg ’17), Lance Li (Aerospec Technologies, Kellogg ’18), Marc Gyongyosi (IFM, McCormick ’17) and Alexis Baudron (IFM, McCormick ’20)

IFM (Intelligent Flying Machines) took home first place and a check for $30,000. Founded by Marc Gyongyosi, IFM is a data analytics startup using robotics, computer vision and machine learning to automate indoor data capture and is currently focused on warehouse inventory tracking. Marc has become a pitching veteran, competing in multiple venture challenges just this year. Marc is currently a senior, graduating from Northwestern this year and has been incubating his startup at The Garage.

We don’t mean to brag, but second place and $15,000 went to another Resident Team of The Garage, Tiltas. Founder Tiffany Smith pitched her technology platform that connects formerly incarcerated individuals with resources and mentorship as they transition. Tiltas has been one of Tiffany’s primary projects during her time as a student at the Kellogg School of Management, and she’ll be pursuing Tiltas full time after her graduation in a few weeks.

Third place and a (literally) big check for $10,000 went to Quickpulse, a WeChat-integrated tool that allows Chinese millennials to give feedback to employers to improve workplace retention. Founder, Jessica Tsai is a former Resident of The Garage where she worked on Quickpulse and is also graduating from the Kellogg School of Management.

The VentureCat audience also heard pitches from the remaining three finalists, Welltended, Aerospec Technologies, and Actualize Therapy.

Summer Wildfire 2017: ORIHD

Recently, over 20 cities in China have issued red alert warnings for air pollution and smog. Red alerts are the highest of the four-tiered pollution warning system used by mainland China and are a definite indication that something must be done to combat this air pollution. Chinese authorities are taking steps to fight the pollution and limit the smog, but this is still an issue that continues to plague the citizens of China. Fortunately, ORIHD aims to produce new and innovative technology to solve this problem.

ORIHD began in Northwestern’s NUVention: Energy class where Co-Founders Kuanze Ma and Edgar Palacios originally developed the idea to tackle the air pollution problem in China. ORIHD is the world’s first design of a functional and intelligent mask providing endless clean air both indoors and outdoors. The Garage sat down with both co-founders to learn more about ORIHD and their innovative mask.

Left: Kuanze Ma; Right: Edgar Palacios 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Kuanze: “Our idea started in NUVention, a course we took together during the beginning of 2016. Initially, we were required to complete a project related to energy. However, we asked whether we could do something else that wasn’t necessarily related to energy but that could still solve a big problem and our instructor was open to it. And then I thought back to my life; I was living in Beijing for four years and I suffered a lot from the smog. So, I would like to tell two stories, the first is my experience when the smog first popped up and I had no idea what it was.

It just looked like dirt in the air. I walked outside without any protection just to enjoy the comforts of the campus. But after 15 minutes, I got back to my dorm and I couldn’t go anywhere for the next two days because I kept coughing. The second story involves my roommate at the time. He was a pretty hilarious guy because he frequently opened the window during the night and I would ask him why he opened the window and he said he wanted to freshen the air… I said seriously? It definitely didn’t help freshen the air. Every time a window was open, whether it was ours or someone else’s in the hall, I couldn’t fall asleep for the next two hours because the smog and internal air pollution was so intense. So when we got to NUVention  and we had a chance to solve this; we had the technology team and myself, who has knowledge and experience with the pollution in Asia, we decided to start a technology related project to solve this problem.”

Edgar: “We initially started with a thermoelectric generator based-device because we tried really hard to make it an energy-related product, but that was a longshot. So we ended up with a really cool and simple idea which is much more feasible.”

What problem are you targeting and how do you aim to solve it?

Kuanze: “Initially the problem we were trying to solve is the outdoor air pollution and our product was a mask. But gradually, we revised our business and project model. One year after the initial stage, I realized a mask is cool but there are other problems with indoor air pollution as well and why can’t we solve both? So we changed our project model and we wanted to create a product that can protect the users from both outdoor and indoor air pollution. We changed the product from a mask to an integrated design of a mask and a portable air purifier. You can wear it as a mask when you travel outside and you can put it on a table while you’re inside as it will blow fresh air into your face. This will create a micro-ecosystem for yourself and in that way, you’re always protected!”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Edgar: “Probably that we didn’t get a designer sooner. None of us are designers. I come from an engineering background and Kuanze comes from a business and law background. And when you have a product like ours, people want to see it and that became a roadblock pretty frequently. We had an idea but we never had an actual physical or even visible representation of the product and that set us back a lot.”

Kuanze: “Yeah, I think that’s the problem as well. If we could have found someone who could really commit to this team, the whole process will be much more smooth. Although we are still developing our technology, we need the technology to go together with the design. Initially we had a friend who came onto the team as an intern and she helped create a 3D model for us but unfortunately she couldn’t remain on the team as she was applying to schools. Then I spent the next few months looking for another designer and I got to The Garage and found one during the Design Expo.”

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Edgar: “I don’t think I know too many to be honest.”

Kuanze: “You should say Kuanze!”

Edgar: “Definitely Kuanze! But also Elon Musk is definitely one that I look up to and I consider him more of a futurist. He also just bought a solar company and he has Tesla as well. He has a bunch of different things.”

Kuanze: “For me, it’s Elon Musk as well. I admire him because he’s an explorer of so many fields like PayPal and SpaceX. And I feel like he really wants to make a change in the world, not just profit.”

Edgar: “And I think the thing I admire the most about him is that he went beyond the idea that not very many people can travel to space and he actually made it semi-affordable. I think that’s really cool because it’s outside the box and before, you’d never be able to go to space unless you were an astronaut, but now,  if you can fork up a little bit of money, you can do it.”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Kuanze: “A lot!”

Edgar: “Resources and a lot of them. Networking and resources have been huge because when you talk to someone they say, oh I know someone who can help you. You’re constantly surrounded by people who can help you or know someone who can help you. As an entrepreneur, you’re constantly learning and being surrounded by experienced individuals is definitely a very valuable aspect of The Garage.”

Kuanze: “There are so many ‘spark’ moments here in The Garage. Every time we schedule a meeting with one of our mentors, we always feel surprised and humbled by how experienced they are. They always propose so many great ideas!”

Edgar: “And the Northwestern community in general is also so helpful.”

Kuanze: “Melissa and Billy are always super willing to help. I actually just met with Insight, an industrial design group in Chicago because I was talking to Billy and I told him we were looking for an industrial design firm. The next day Melissa actually introduced us to Steve, a partner at Insight. The meeting went really well and now we might have a chance to work with this firm. Overall they have opened up a lot of opportunities for us which will definitely help us throughout the whole process.”

What do you hope to get out of the Summer Wildfire program?

Edgar: “A functional prototype. The money we are receiving is great because you need money to make and develop your product which is something that we’re missing. Also, I think the fact that there will be be people here who will be pushing us is also  great because right now we’re just working at our own pace and sometimes that can be a little slow. Having someone to constantly push us will definitely keep us on track!”

Kuanze: “And if everything goes well, the next step will be crowdfunding!”

Summer Wildfire 2017: PedalCell

Our society has continuously grappled with clean energy and sustainability throughout the years. It’s a threat so large and omnipresent that we may never be able to fully overcome it. Hybrid cars and alternative forms of commuting, especially bikes, are becoming increasingly popular. These alternative forms of transportation save energy and reduce CO2  emissions, a great step toward a more sustainable lifestyle. And why not fill two needs with one by saving the environment and charging your phone at the same time?

PedalCell, a startup founded by Vishaal Mali, aims to address the alternative energy crisis through convenient, powerful and wicked cool measures, starting with the ubiquitous bicycle. Their goal is to create a bike-powered cellphone charger that will reduce the need for conventional charging methods as well as reduce the use of cars for commuting. The Garage sat down with Vishaal to learn more about PedalCell and what they hope to achieve in the future.

Founder of PedalCell: Vishaal Mali (Not pictured: Adam Hokin, Andrew Brown)

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Vishaal: “So we started in high school actually. My cofounder and I were really into bikes, and we were also really passionate about sustainability. We wanted to know what we could do as high school students to not necessarily change the world immediately but rather spark an initiative to change people’s mindsets about cleantech in the long run. We wanted to show people that clean energy is cool and something that can be easily applied to our lives rather than something that’s tedious and inconvenient.  Being avid bikers, we decided to create a bike-powered phone charger because the bike market was something that we were  familiar with. We decided to harness the untapped source of power from riding a bike and turn that excess energy into electricity to charge a phone.”

What is the problem you’re targeting and how do you plan to solve it?

Vishaal: “Everyone who has a phone will inevitably need to charge it. People spend a lot of time charging their phones and this requires a lot of energy. Since we’re really big on clean energy and sustainability, we knew that the current way we charge our phones and appliances is not sustainable. Eventually we’re going to hit a point where our current methods will be unsustainable. So we decided to create the bike-powered phone charger to spark this initiative toward clean energy and sustainability. It’s obviously not going to clean the face of energy but we hope to spark a chain movement. We are creating a device that you attach to a bike and mainly bike shares because a lot of people use them on their daily commute. So as they bike to their destination, they can charge their phone and save the energy that they would be using from their homes or other energy sources.”

When did you first feel the entrepreneurial spirit?

Vishaal: “I think the spirit itself has been there my entire life. I’ve always been passionate about things and have been able to refine them as I’ve gotten older. Whenever I approached something, my first thought would always be, “What can I do to change this?” From there, it kind of evolved into the idea of creating a company whose sole purpose is to continue the passion that I have for clean energy and sustainability.”

Who’s on the team?

Vishaal: “I’m the founder and CEO of the device and I brought on my cofounder, Andrew Brown, during high school; he currently studies at Georgia Tech. He’s also really passionate about sustainability and clean energy. We also have Adam Hokin, another cofounder who is a sophomore studying business at the University of Michigan. He’s someone who can take our technical expertise and combine it with the market and really get our product out there as starting a company is more than just creating the product.  

When I got here in the Fall quarter of my freshman year, I continued working on our startup but it was really difficult being the only person working on it. So I brought on a fourth team member, Christoph Aigner, a freshman engineer here at Northwestern University. With him, we’ve been moving forward and progressing through various prototypes.”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Vishaal: “We initially started out with a consumer product before we decided to target bike shares. We made a few prototypes super early on and began testing them; however we quickly ran into a roadblock. In order to charge your phone, you’d have to be biking for a ridiculously long time. Usually, we were sweating by the end of it and your phone got maybe a half of a percent of charge. It was a huge setback as we were forced to redesign our product to make sure it could hit the energy demands of today’s phones. Our device can now charge a phone from 0-85% in 30 minutes.

The second setback was when we were prototyping before we came to Northwestern and we were running things out of a little setup in my garage. We were testing and playing with batteries trying to get the charger to where we wanted it. And then one night some of the lithium ion batteries caught on fire in my garage. Luckily, I figured it out pretty quickly and I was able to contain the fire but it was still a pretty major issue. Playing with batteries in the garage with a soldering iron nearby was definitely not the best move.”

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?

Vishaal: “I guess the most important lesson is that often as engineers, we get caught up with trying to have the best product and adding new features to the product. But you always have to take a step back and think about what problem you’re actually trying to solve because sometimes you realize these features don’t actually help you achieve that goal. Our goal is to promote sustainability and create a social benefit.

Secondly, sometimes you lose track of your target audience as well as the process of how to get your idea from prototype to implementation. This can be very difficult and our biggest goal right now is to continue the progress of our idea as smoothly as possible.”

How did you choose the name PedalCell and what was that process like?

Vishaal: “It was actually very inorganic. Our first name was Vitruvia- based  off of the Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci. But we realized that idea was cool, but had nothing to do with our product and people need a name that’s related to the product. Again, being in the market where we’re creating bike-powered phone chargers where you pedal to create energy, the idea of PedalCell came up because cell: battery, and you can charge your phone by pedaling.”

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Vishaal: “I think there are several, very generically, Elon Musk. He does a great job of not caring about what other people think about him and he is very focused on what he wants to do and get accomplished. The second person is Ben Horowitz; he has a huge VC firm and the reason I like him a lot is not for how smart and talented he is at engineering, but it’s because he really highlights and emphasizes that being an entrepreneur, there are a lot of hard things that people don’t want to talk about. He has a book called The Hard Thing About Hard Things, which I just read recently, and I love how he takes the glamour of being an entrepreneur and breaks it down to how it’s actually extremely difficult. He went through so many difficult steps and failures but kept on moving forwards.”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Vishaal: “I think the biggest thing is the mentorship. Being young entrepreneurs, it’s hard to know what to do. You don’t know what the next steps are, but having people like Melissa, Billy, Elisa and our mentors as resources to ask whatever we want whenever we want about anything is super helpful. The Makerspace is also really helpful since we use the 3D printers a lot for prototyping. The new Muse Laser Cutter will be huge for us as well. Also, the other companies in The Garage are really helpful because sometimes products in The Garage overlap and if you have an engineering question you can ask the guy next door. In our case, that’s IFM, and Marc is really good at what he does and he’s a great resource as well.”

What do you hope to get out of the Summer Wildfire program?

Vishaal: “The biggest thing is being able to work together as a team since we are so spread out across different schools. Having all of us together for the summer, where this is our only job, will be huge for us in terms of development. We hope to launch in the Fall of 2017 so we obviously have a lot of tasks to finish from now until then. So Wildfire will be amazing for mentorship, creating time to work, and learning the nitty gritty details of a startup.”

Where do you see your startup going in the future?

Vishaal: “In the future we hope to use this not as the end all be all company but as a platform to get started. Again, we’re passionate about sustainability and starting a chain or a movement but that can’t be done immediately. So, we hope to use PedalCell as a platform and once we can prove that this is doable and that people like it and will use it, we can create bigger and better things. Eventually we hope to have that one company that does have the potential to change the world.”

This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here

The Garage Gift Guide: Mother’s Day 2017

Moms give you everything and then some. And even though they deserve the world, we’ve narrowed it down to our top five startup friendly gifts to celebrate mom this year, featuring fun technology, cozy tea and plants, and even a way to make wine better. Brought to you by Northwestern alumni and Resident Teams incubating their startups out of The Garage, here’s a few things we think the moms in your life deserve.


1 // Bigelow Tea // Engraved Tea Chest

Cindi Bigelow, CEO, Kellogg School of Management ’86

Why we love it: Founded in 1945, we love that Bigelow is still a family owned and operated business and how they turn something as simple as a warm cup of tea into a memory. After making tea for three generations, the company strives to get better and better each year. We also can’t help but relate to the founder story of Ruth Campbell Bigelow who simply wanted a better cup of tea, so she made it herself.

 


2 // Welltended // Plants for a well-tended life.

Carolyn Snider, Founder, Kellogg School of Management ‘17

Resident Team at The Garage

Why we love it: Welltended has a beautiful, grand, and green vision for the world with the belief that plants are right at the intersection of health, happiness and beauty. Launched in 2017, Welltended is a group of people with a passion for plants and a love for the environment. Currently serving the Chicago area, we love how this startup makes having a houseplant easy for city-dwellers.


3 // Amaree Jewelers // Authentic silver filigree jewelry and artwork from Mardin.

Erkan Kilic, Founder, McCormick ’18

Former Resident Team at The Garage

Why we love it: Sourced from the city of Mardin in Turkey and handcrafted by silver filigree artisans, Amaree Jewelers unites eastern craftsmanship and western fashion as an international company.

We love that it’s more than jewelry, and with every piece, Amaree hopes the wearer will find optimism, harmony, and be a part of a legacy unifying people of 28 cultures for more than 3,000 years.


4 // Üllo Wine Purifier // A revolutionary wine purifier that restores the natural taste of wine.

James Kornack, Founder, WCAS ’15

Why we love it: Üllo is a Chicago startup with a simple mission to bring wine back to its natural state. Founded in 2014, James Kornacki used his education and resources from Northwestern to solve a problem (the root of all great innovation).

Using a proprietary technology to filter out free sulfates and their bitter taste, the Üllo Wine Purifier simply makes wine taste better. Raving reviews and more than 200 backers pledging upwards of $250,000 make this gift perfect for any wine loving mom.


// Ampy Move // A portable smartphone battery that charges as you move.

Tejas Shastry, McCormick ’16

Why we love it: This one is near and dear to our hearts. AMPY was created by three PhD students in 2012 as a project for an entrepreneurship class at Northwestern (something we know very well). It converts the wearer’s kinetic energy from movements like walking, bicycling or running into electrical energy which is stored in a battery to charge a cellphone or other devices. Still based in Evanston, AMPY’s Kickstarter campaign surpassed its goal in 72 hours in 2015. Shastry’s innovation and entrepreneurial success also landed him on the 2015 Forbes 30 Under 30 List.


Want to learn more about the student founded startups incubating out of The Garage? Check out our series on The Magazine featuring teams heating up to participate in Wildfire, The Garage’s Pre-Accelerator program.

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Summer Wildfire 2017: Community Currency

Traveling abroad to a foreign location can be a great experience! Every location has its own culture and unique wonders to experience. But whether it’s for business, vacation, or academic reasons, you’re bound to need money. Sometimes you’re lucky and your destination uses the same currency as your home country, however, this is not always the case. Usually, travelers must exchange their currency for foreign currency. And often at the end of their trip they end up having excess foreign currency without anything worthwhile to spend it on and they end up wasting it.

Community Currency, a startup founded by Evan Taylor, is a 501(c)(3)-incorporated non-profit that repurposes leftover foreign currency from international airport travelers, changing the lives of underprivileged children by funding local charities. They aim to collect any extra foreign currency that travelers may have as they return to the US through eye-catching receptacles placed throughout international airport terminals. Ultimately, they hope to use that money to make an impact on US public education, beginning with Chicago Public Schools. And The Garage sat down with Vice President, Jackson Lehmar, and Director of Research, Robbie Markus, to learn more about Community Currency.

 

(Left to right: Lauren Burns, Robbie Markus, Jason Kerr, Meghan Harshaw, Justin Hennenfent, Jackson Lehmar, Evan Taylor, Zach Hennenfent)
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Robbie: “So it’s pretty funny actually. The idea initially came from the mom of our CEO, Evan Taylor. They were flying back from Mexico last summer and they had a good amount of pesos left over which they ended up just spending on wasteful things. They realized that no one is doing anything with this money so Evan’s mom said something along the lines of, “I wonder how much foreign currency is out there that is just completely wasted and unused.” Evan played around with the idea that summer and when he got back to campus he reached out to some of his friends and others who had work ethics that he respected and told them that he really wanted to make this happen. He believed we could use this completely wasted foreign currency for a really good social cause. We could convert this money and turn it around to give it to a socially inclined purpose.”

What is the problem you are targeting and how do you plan on solving it?

Jackson: “So Robbie just touched up on it, but the problem is that there is this space of foreign currency that is brought back to the US without anywhere to put it. We did a ton of research and found out that currency exchange partners in the US no longer take foreign coins because it is too costly to ship all them back to their manufacturers. Also, processing is too expensive and they don’t do it anymore, only third parties do it now. We did hours and hours of research and market analysis. We crunched a ton of numbers and found out based on our estimate, that there is roughly 95 million dollars in wasted currency that will circulate throughout the year.

Currently, there’s this company called Change for Good. They’re a non-profit that works exclusively with Unicef and American Airlines. Instead of placing a receptacle in the airport, they take bins on flights and the stewardess will walk by to collect any donations. So, imagine these numbers: since 1997, Change for Good has made 27 million dollars, thus averaging about 1 million dollars per year.  Our solution is to be in every major international terminal and TSA checkpoint and have receptacles placed that are eye-catching so when people walk by they will see a an initiative worth donating to. These individuals could walk by and drop their coins in and we would take the money and ship it to Global Coin Solutions. Global Coin Solutions is a third party currency exchange company that we’ve already talked to and have a handshake agreement with. We drop the coins in a box which is pre-labeled and we ship it to them and they send the money back to us while they take a 25% cut.”

Robbie: “And the larger social impact that it’s going towards is education. A lot of what Jackson and I will be doing this summer, especially because education policies in the U.S are so tough, is trying to figure out how to make a difference with the resources we have and cut through all the tough problems with public education in the U.S. It’s something that, as a political science major, I very much look forward to doing!”

Jackson: “There’s two spaces that we will really be working on this summer at the Wildfire pre-accelerator program. One is the manufacturing side, prototyping the receptacle as well as branding and marketing it so that it is appealing to people in the airport. The other side is continued research into what demographic we are looking into to get people to drop coins into the bins and reach out to CPS, principals, local hospitals, and nonprofits to identify their biggest need/problem.”

Who is the team composed of?

Jackson: “I am the Vice President and I run operations, float around, and oversee the Board and chair positions. Robbie is similar and we do a lot of floating around together. Although we have positions, everyone collaborates which I think is really important because it keeps people on their toes.  

I’ll speak on Evan’s behalf. He is our president, our CEO, and the one who came up with the idea. He runs most of the motions, keeps us on our toes, and keeps us motivated. As for the rest of the Board of Directors, we have Jason Kerr, our treasurer who runs everything in the legal realm, and Justin Hennenfent, our secretary, who also headed our recruitment process recently.”

What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?

Robbie: “Over winter break I wasn’t working so I was really excited to go 24/7 with Community Currency. I was hyped! During the school year, you’re taking four classes and you’re in various student groups. Over winter break, I didn’t really have anything. My main goal over winter break was to find someone that could convert this money for us. I wanted to figure out how to do this because there aren’t that many other people out there aside from Change for Good that are doing what we’re doing. I was a little bit concerned that people hadn’t done this because there wasn’t someone to convert this money. We needed to find someone that could convert this money in an efficient way, the way we want it.”

Jackson: “This is something we had researched all throughout fall, but we still couldn’t come up with a solution.”

Robbie : “Yeah, so over winter break I did a lot of research on it and I reached out over LinkedIn to people with banks or foreign currency exchange companies. I must have reached out to three CEOs each day with a 5% response rate. And that’s tough because you know you have a good idea, but people just won’t respond. You know you just have to get up the next day and do it all again. That was the time when I felt like wow, this is tough, but once we find the one person that will work with us, our problem will be solved. And we finally found this guy in Canada who seems incredible.

Jackson: “And to touch on that as well, this isn’t so much a failure rather it’s more of a learning experience. I think something to be said for everyone who begins a startup is that you should clearly set out your goals and define them. And then you specify and redefine them and then specify and redefine them again. You should specify and redefine them almost every day.”

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Robbie: “This is an interesting question for me because I’m not particularly interested in entrepreneurship since I’m majoring in political science and radio television and film. But the main reason I’m here is that I’m very interested in helping people and because of the the social impact of non-profits. The entrepreneur that I do look up to most is Elon Musk because I think it’s so easy for your thinking, and daily thought processes to be defined by the context around you and the news you read. But Elon Musk has consistently shown an ability to think completely in a manner that the rest of the world isn’t thinking in.”

Jackson: “Similar to Robbie, all my life the best thing in this world is to be able to help someone else in need and I’m involved in multiple nonprofits on campus aside from this as well. I never really had the entrepreneurial mindset but I would say the one closest to me that I admire most is Evan, our founder.  And throughout the past nine months he’s been so steadfast and such a great leader. He has done everything from meeting every week and emailing every person on this planet to securing every promotion and connection that we have.”

How has The Garage helped you with your startup?

Robbie: “For me, I find The Garage interesting for us because we are outside the norm. Almost everyone here is either a) a for-profit startup or b) largely invested in tech. We’re a non-profit, social impact focused startup, which is very outside of the mold. What I can say is that The Garage has absolutely given us a community that is very engaged and very interested in what they’re doing. Being in this mindset is very motivating and pushes us to constantly rethink, innovate, and redefine our mission, which I’m very appreciative of.”

Jackson: “For the team, I have been in multiple mentorship meetings over the past three or four months and every meeting I’ve gone to, I’ve learned something new that I can’t believe I didn’t know before. For me personally, for Wildfire, we had to make a pitch deck and prepare an elevator pitch which is something I had never done before. Now I can confidently build a PowerPoint and present our company to anyone at this point because of their guidance and help. These are skills you don’t really learn in the classroom and we get to practice at The Garage and apply them to our startup.”

This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the ten startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here

Summer Wildfire 2017: MOGO

It’s no surprise that viral video challenges spread like wildfire. These challenges drive creativity and innovation as each challenger tries to create something new and unique. These challenges take many forms (for example, the cinnamon challenge, the mannequin and running man challenges, and even challenges to raise awareness like the ALS ice bucket challenge). However, there really isn’t one central social platform that hosts all of these challenges.

That’s where Mogo comes in. Mogo stands for Making Our Generation Original and it’s a video challenging social network looking to create sustainability in users doing viral video challenges. Mogo hopes to become the location that all users look to in order to find, watch, and upload video challenges. The Garage sat down with Lloyd Yates and Drew Luckenbaugh, two members of Mogo to learn more about their journey.

 

Left: Shane Davis, Middle: Lloyd Yates, Right: Drew Luckenbaugh (not pictured: Megell Strayhorn)

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What sparked the motivation for your startup?

Lloyd: “I would say high school was when me and my two other founders really got into the entrepreneurial world. We tried network marketing and all that scam stuff, it didn’t work out, but nevertheless a good experience. It was good for us to dabble in entrepreneurship and figure out what we wanted to do. We kept seeing this common theme of video challenges resurfacing from middle school to high school and it’s become a huge phenomenon, that I’ve partaken in. And at the time we thought, let’s just start an app, it sounds really cool. We had no prior understanding of this area but we definitely wanted to build an app. And that’s kind of where it all came about, a passion for doing something we had seen for years and wanting to build something really cool.”

 

What are each of your roles on the team?

Lloyd: “So I’m kind of like the leader of the team even though we can all lead in different aspects. Drew, the tech guy, is the best in the business. We have Megell in Michigan,  who’s amazing at marketing. Currently he’s promoting our brand and building up our Instagram page and now we have thousands of followers. And there’s Shane; me and him kind of go hand-in-hand with everything we do. We’ve actually kind of made up a position for him: the Chief Visionary Officer. But I don’t think that title really does him justice in the sense that he’s a genius, especially with the vision of Mogo, where we want to take it, and understanding our users’ desires. We are definitely a solid team!”

 

What’s the problem you’re working to solve and what’s the solution you’ve created?

Lloyd: “I think we’re facing two problems. One, we believe there is a lack of a centralized video platform throughout social media. We conducted a survey of roughly 100 people and asked them what their favorite mobile video app is. Among those 100 people, there is no clear-cut answer. Snapchat was first, then YouTube, then Facebook, then Twitter, and finally Instagram. There was no clear winner with users saying “this is my favorite video platform.” And the second is the problem and conflict of video challenging. Like I said, it’s been going on since before our time. As long as I can remember, since I was 13 years old, people have been consistently doing viral challenges and competing with each other. Over 28 million people got involved in the ice bucket challenge in the summer of 2014 and recently over 16 million people mentioned the mannequin challenge on Instagram. So from me and my team members’ past seven years of observation, this is something that needs to be resolved. Since it’s a continuous process, it can be done better and that’s why we’re doing Mogo.”

 

How did you choose the name Mogo?

Lloyd: “Well, when developing the idea of the platform and tweaking things around, at one point we thought it would be cool to turn this into a game where the point of the game is to do video challenges and eventually work your way up in the system until you become a mogul. So that’s where it’s derived from and we said, Mogo, it sounds really smooth and it’s short and catchy. We also wanted it to mean something; Mogo is an acronym that stands for Making Our Generation Original.”

 

What has been the biggest failure and what have you learned from it?

Lloyd: “I would say, when we first got started right out of high school, we just really wanted to jump into it. We had no idea where to take things, how to build an app, and how to go about our business. We started by looking for freelance developers and we were going to pay out of pocket for their service. We got into contact with this one guy who sounded really cool and said he could do it for a reasonable price. Eventually, we started working with him, but things didn’t turn out as well as expected because for one, we didn’t know what we were doing or what we were looking for. We didn’t really see the vision or have a clear idea of Mogo at the time. And in a way, this guy played us because he knew we didn’t know what we were doing or what we wanted. He overcharged us for what he provided us. It was just a bad ordeal. But it turned out for the better; we learned we had to take things slow and do things ourselves and it was kind of a wakeup call. Now we do everything internally and it has been relatively smooth ever since.”

 

What has been the most important lesson you have learned so far?

Drew: “I would say with developing and everything, patience, double-checking and testing what a brand new user would be experiencing is key. You have to figure out what they would be doing as a user and become one of them. You need to think of all the different possibilities and at the same time make sure everything is  secure and good to go.”

Lloyd: “I would definitely say patience is a virtue. For starters, we really wanted to rush into things and pay somebody to build it. We didn’t really focus on the team, the product, or the users. But I think from just doing Mogo for two years now, patience is key. There’s no reason to rush into it. And another thing I’ve learned is to go ahead and just do it. There’s a lot of resources out there to tell you to create business plans and business models and 18-month runways. That’s fine and all, but I’ve read a lot of cool stuff that says creating those plans is just a prediction. You have to actually do it to figure out if it’ll actually work. Why waste your time building this elaborate plan when that plan is more than likely to fail? So just go ahead and do it and you’ll learn from trial and error.”

 

Which entrepreneurs do you admire and why?

Drew: “Linus Torvalds, he’s the guy that invented Linux! Mainly because he’s like a big-time developer and everything but also because he competed with Windows and UNIX at the same time. He wanted a cheaper solution that he also wanted to be as open sourced as UNIX was and he just came up with his own. And now even Windows incorporated their bash shells so he practically won, because they’re using his stuff now.”

Lloyd: “I would say two people, my dad and my brother. My dad is a doctor who has recently gone into a private practice and started building his own brand and products. Seeing him go through that has been really inspiring and he has greatly helped me with my ventures as well. My brother has been working on a music startup for a few years and just having them in front of me and looking at what they’ve done is inspiring in its own way. I would also say, like big-time entrepreneur, would be the CEO of 5 Hour Energy, Manoj Bhargava. He started 5 Hour Energy and became a billionaire and he’s working on this project called Billions for Change which is a dope project. He’s really trying to change and influence the world by creating resources that will allow countries in need to have access to water and energy and I think that’s incredible.”

 

How has The Garage helped you with your startup and your progress?

Lloyd: “I would say I got kind of lucky when I got here because I got here the summer of 2015, right when it opened. It was cool because I had never seen anything like it. I talked to Melissa and since day one, she has been super helpful with finding the right people to talk to and growing our network. She helped me figure out and get a clear vision of Mogo along with Billy, Gregg Latterman and Neal Sales-Griffin (Mentor at The Garage). To me, The Garage has been vital in figuring out what Mogo is and where we want to be.”

Drew: “It’s a great place to come to and work on stuff to clear your mind and there are so many resources available. There are always coders everywhere so if you have any questions you can always turn to them to help you out!”

 

Where do you guys see Mogo going in the future?

Lloyd: “We just want to grow it to its potential. We see it being one of the next big things. In a way, people have asked us if we want to compete with the big social media platforms. And it’s like why not? We’re not trying to do what they do, they’re trying to do what we do.”

 

What’s your favorite viral video challenge?

Lloyd: “My favorite is the Jukebox Challenge. It started at an HBCU  where these guys held up a speaker and played All Day by T-LO, and a group of 20 guys and girls would dance and have a good time. This really resonated with the football team. We brought that into the weight room and when someone would hit a PR (personal record) and go ring the bell, the guy who hit the PR would get a 45-LB plate and hold it up and start dancing like the jukebox challenge while more guys followed. And it just really stuck with me.”

Drew: “The cup-blowing one, mainly because I can do it. It’s the one where you have to blow one cup into another cup. That’s one of the only ones that I was good at.”

Currently Mogo is developing their mobile app which they hope to launch soon! In the meantime, check out their Instagram page @mogothat!

This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the ten startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here