Category Archives: Startup Success

3 Things I Did To “Surprise and Delight” My Way to 15,000 Customers

by: Sam Feldman, Founder, CardBuddy

CardBuddy-22Jun16-7

BACKGROUND ON ME

I fell in love with entrepreneurship soon after arriving at college, and made it my goal to run a business full-time upon graduating. I went 2 years without any paying customers, but during my junior year I started CardBuddy, a stick-on phone wallet company that now does over $100K annual revenue (and have been running it full-time since graduating last May).

I have some unique customer service strategies which have brought me great results, and I thought I’d share them here!

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Dingman EIR Disrupts the Real Estate Industry with Latest Venture, iUnit

 

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UPDATE – Recently, we caught up with Brice to get a few updates on iUnit. Within the next few weeks, iUnit will deliver to tenants the first project and MVP. This video gives the viewer a glimpse into the construction process and community amenities. In additional news, iUnit is expanding its partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), one of the world’s largest research centers focused on energy efficiency. The iUnit prototype will be housed in NREL’s Energy Systems Integration Facility where it will be used in testing everything from materials used to build the iUnit to energy efficient mechanical systems like iUnits battery and software systems.

It’s an exciting time for Brice and his team. To put a finer point on the company’s progress, Brice commented “iUnit is essentially the electric car of housing.”


February 4, 2015 – Envision the Prius of apartment buildings: wired with the latest “smart” technology, environmentally friendly, affordable, cool. That’s exactly what lifelong entrepreneur Brice Leconte delivers in his latest venture, iUnit.

Brice is one of the Dingman Center’s EIRs (Entrepreneurs-In-Residence), who help UMD students realize their entrepreneurial ideas during the Dingman Center’s weekly Dingman Fridays sessions. A long-time entrepreneur, Brice has a passion for disrupting industries and building socially active companies. He has started and invested in a wide range of businesses, from real estate development, to bricks and mortar, to e-commerce and tech startups. Today, he is focused on disrupting the real estate industry with his latest brand, iUnit.

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6 things we learned at Do Good Challenge Finals

By: Megan McPherson

The positive energy at last night’s Do Good Challenge was palpable. From the showcase to the finalist pitches to the panel of past Do Good competitors, it was clear that every person  there was united by a passion for driving social change. Do Good delivered not only excellent pitches but also an informative platform for discussing the unique challenges and rewards of social entrepreneurship. Here are some takeaways:

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A Look Back at the 2016 Cupid’s Cup

By: Justin Taubman ’16 MBA Candidate

On Thursday, April 7th, Kevin Plank ’96, Founder and CEO of Under Armour, returned to the University of Maryland to host the 11th annual Cupid’s Cup Entrepreneurship Competition. This was my second time attending the event and Mr. Plank continues to outdo himself by bringing in celebrity judges like Dan Gilbert, Wes Moore, and Arianna Huffington to evaluate the exceptional pitches of six finalists. The finalists emerged from a pool of over 500 applicants representing over 100 schools and made it through several rounds of screening to the main event where they competed for $100,000 in cash prizes.

The event started at 2:00 p.m. in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center with a Startup Showcase of UMD’s top student entrepreneurs and their businesses. Among the startups in the showcase were many of the finalists from the Pitch Dingman Competition such as uBoard and WeCook as well as many other friends of the Dingman Center like Spot This and Meta Cartel

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After touring all the booths, I ended up throwing on a Spot This t-shirt and joining my classmates to help collect email addresses to invite users to join their beta. The crowd was very curious about their product and happy to get involved in the testing. The energy and excitement in the atmosphere was palpable, but this was just an appetizer leading up to the main event that would start at 4:00 p.m.

The show kicked off with the professional MC Christian Crosby, Live Events Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers who introduced Plank to the crowd of over a thousand. Mr. Plank recounted his days at the University of Maryland as a student athlete and his rose delivery business that helped him raise the seed money to start Under Armour after graduating. After introducing the judges, the competition began.

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Kevin Plank ’96 introducing judges

The competition was comprised of six finalists, all with incredibly unique businesses that were all generating substantial revenue. Headbands of Hope kicked things off by pitching their stylish headband company with a social angle to help children with cancer. Then the University of Maryland’s own Javazen got the hometown crowd fired up in their presentation. The unique box membership company MyBestBox did an impressive job explaining how their customized boxes can help customers live more healthy lives. The youngest entrepreneur in the finals was the founder of Plova Chewing Gum, who introduced us to the world’s first beneficial oral care product in the form of gum. The founder of Six Foods had an infectious energy that got Kevin Plank to eat her Chirp Chips, tortilla chips made with crickets. The last pitch was by Wolf & Shepherd the sleek dress shoe company with the technology of running shoes.

The judges certainly had their work cut out for them. Ultimately there could only be one winner of the Cup. After much deliberation the judges emerged from backstage and handed out some impressive $5,000 consolation prizes to Plova and MyBestBox. SixFoods was awarded $25,000 for second-place. The first-place prize of $75,000, their name on the Cup, and access to Kevin Plank’s network was awarded to our very own Javazen! We are all very proud of Ryan, Eric, and Aaron at the Dingman Center and hope that their success continues and also that it inspires other student entrepreneurs at University of Maryland.

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Part-time MBA Launches Grey Matter, A Terp Startup that Protects First Responders

WebImagine a technology that could protect first responders and law enforcement agents from dangerous chemicals.

Not only would the technology protect agents from such chemicals, it would actually block the chemicals from clothing, turn them into water and cause the toxic chemicals to evaporate before even having a chance to touch agents’ skin. That is what the technology behind DC-area startup, Grey Matter, claims to deliver.

The venture, co-founded by part-time Smith MBA student Tommy Luginbill, recently secured $75,000 in federal grant funding to bring this potentially lifesaving, self-decontaminating clothing technology to agents in the field.

How did Grey Matter get its start?

Tommy Luginbill, Grey Matter

Tommy Luginbill, Grey Matter

Tommy Luginbill is no stranger to entrepreneurship. A part-time MBA student, Tommy comes from a line of entrepreneurs and even helped to start a family-run solar contracting business before business school. Given his strong interest in startups, Tommy started hanging out at the Dingman Center (one of the resources that drew him to UMD) and even pitched an idea to an EIR for an energy software venture.

Dr. Brandy Johnson, Ph.D.

Dr. Brandy Johnson, Ph.D.

As Terps are known to do, Tommy worked tirelessly and fearlessly dove into the courses available around the Smith School, including the Fearless Founders program. He learned of a new pilot program at the time on campus called iCorps, which matched business students with lab innovations to identify viable commercialization paths. It was here that Tommy met inventor Dr. Brandy Johnson, a Ph.D. working in the Naval Research Lab.

Dr. Johnson was developing smart anti-decontaminating materials made from chitosan, a biopolymer made by treating recycled crab shells. Tommy knew about the lean startup methodology, how to create a business plan, and how to conduct customer discover and identify markets.

And Grey Matter was born.

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Catching up with Cupid’s Cup Champ, MyFridgeRental.com

This year Cupid’s Cup is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Kevin Plank is looking for the next entrepreneur who has what it takes to win the cup and more than $100,000 in cash prizes.

As we gear up for this year’s competition, we caught up with founders Adam and Eric VanWagner to see how things are going with MyFridgeRental.com, the 2011 Cupid’s Cup champion.

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Adam VanWagner ’11

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Eric VanWagner ’11

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Dingman enTERPreneur Launches Mega Kickstarter Campaign

Obidi Maryland in manhattan

Obidi Orakwusi, Founder of Gym Supreme

We’ve all heard stories of entrepreneurs whose businesses began on the backs of napkins. But how about the back of a job application?

For one Dingman enTERPreneur, what began as a sketch for an at-home, all-in-one fitness device on the back of a gym job application, has turned into a fully operational business. Today, Gym Supreme’s founder and Dingman enTERPreneur Academy graduate, Obidi Orakwusi, has a patented at-home gym device, Mega Bar, and is launching the company’s first kickstarter campaign.

In 2013, the Dingman Center blog caught up with Obidi. To learn about the genesis of his idea, check out that post here.

Since we’ve been uber-focused on the lean launchpad methodology and customer discovery around the Dingman Center lately, we asked Obidi to share some of those insights from his startup journey.

When Obidi initially gained the idea for Mega Bar, he was confident that it would sell. Mega Bar was not the first at-home gym on the market, but Obidi noticed that what was available at an affordable price point was not the best quality.  This validated his hypothesis and he saw an opportunity.

What was your path like toward customer discovery?

I did things a bit backwards. I did much of my customer discovery after the prototype had been developed. I walked around campus and stood outside of Eppley Recreation Center with a clipboard to take notes from discussions with potential customers, who were undergrad students ages 18-22. Through those interviews I found that although my product was an improvement from a quality and design standpoint — think the Nokia compared to an iPhone — it was too expensive for the demographic on campus. The needs matched but the price didn’t. From there, I segmented the target market and shifted focus to a more of a working class, young professional crowd that had money but limited time. Within this space I found my target customer and learned what I was really solving for them: saving people time. This customer spends a majority of his/her time at work, leaving minimal time — sometimes just a few hours at home or outside of the office. With that limited time, people may not always feel like working out, but Mega Bar can help.

What was the biggest challenge in developing and commercializing a new product?

From my experience, the biggest challenges in creating a new product and commercializing it, are marketing and pricing. Pricing will narrow your target market and really affects revenues. For example, if you try to force the price to fit a cheaper audience, you might be faced with a situation where your margins are just too low to keep the company growing. Once you have a set price, the hardest thing is figuring out how to reach the market with the highest willingness to pay when you have no budget for marketing, because marketing has to be continuous for it to be effective.

mega pyramid

How did you navigate the patent approval process?

Getting a patent so early on was a great boost of confidence, and the fact that it arrived at the door on my birthday last year was unbelievable. I knew how important it was to have a patent in the pipeline, but I didn’t have the resources to pay excessive legal fees, so I had to learn it all. I read all the rules very carefully, read articles, and called the USPTO anytime I had a question. With all the knowledge I gained, I was able to submit the patent application and receive the approval to grant the patent within nine months of applying, which is extremely rare. I applied for my second patent last summer.

Have you tried any unique marketing campaigns?

I’ve tested three different marketing strategies. The first two were great strategies, but they wouldn’t work with the minimal resources the company had to work with.

The first was a social media campaign. The second involved attempts to have influencers in the fitness industry promote the company, and then the 3rd strategy was to get a booth at a fitness convention. The social media strategy was put on hold because it felt like the posts were getting nowhere without paying for ads; it was taking too long. The fitness influencers marketing strategy didn’t work because we couldn’t afford to send in free gear so early on or pay them to promote to their fan base. I also tried to get the Mega Bar featured in major fitness publications, but the cold emails felt like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into the ocean of emails that those publications received everyday.

The entire time, I was trying to figure out a way to reach an audience that would also see the value in the product, but I realized that I had been searching for the marketing middleman that would help us reach the potential consumer, when I should have actually been the one reaching directly to the early adopters because middlemen are always more costly. I had to find a way to reach directly to consumers that would understand the value of the product just by seeing a 30 second video of what the product can do without further explanation, so I decided to get the company’s first booth at a personal training convention to gain exposure for the Mega Bar. That turned out to be the most effective strategy based on time and the little resources the company had.

What resources have you found to be most valuable to you as an entrepreneur?

The most valuable resources found throughout my journey, thanks to the Dingman Center, are the entrepreneurship classes. It started with the Entrepreneur Academy that eventually evolved to Fearless Founders. From that class, I learned so much about how to understand your target customer. Everything about the Dingman Center has been a great resource for me along the journey. From winning the first funding ever for the company, which went toward the issue fee for the first patent, to being able to talk to other successful entrepreneurs to get feedback. It’s all been a source of encouragement to keep progressing.

At the Dingman Center, I attended Pitch Dingman on Fridays where I could talk about creative ideas and strategies freely without being looked at like a crazy person because I was so young. You run into a lot of doubters when you first start your idea because no one believes you, but at Dingman, they believe you and are always there to help you succeed even if you are trying to turn water into wine. I had the chance to go on a trip to New York this past spring to show off the cool ideas that are coming out of UMD to Terps who now live in Manhattan. That would have never happened if the Dingman Center didn’t hook us up with a booth at Cupid’s Cup earlier this year where I connected with the UMD Alumni Association.

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University of Maryland President Wallace Loh with the Mega Bar

What advice do you have for student entrepreneurs? 

The biggest advice I would have for student entrepreneurs is to be confident, but don’t think you already know everything about your idea on day one. Be confident about your idea, but don’t be arrogant because it is just an idea until you can start selling it or acquiring users. You will need help to keep your idea progressing, but watch out for anyone who starts wasting your time because you can not replace time. Learn from the good things that happen along the journey, and also learn from the bad. Every experience will help you understand what to do the next time.

What’s one of the biggest lessons learned in starting Gym Supreme?

I’ve learned so much through building a product and launching a brand to push the product, but the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that you should always test out your theories, never rush into decisions. Starting a company with no money after product development will force you to find new solutions to overcome marketing barriers.

You recently launched a Kickstarter campaign. What do you hope to achieve through Kickstarter?

My main goal with the Kickstarter campaign is to launch the first sales of the Mega Bar and to introduce Gym Supreme’s story to the world. The goal is to raise $12,000 through sales so that the company can finally generate revenue.

Do you have any bootstrapping tips for our readers?

Start saving your money now! Before senior year, I had a work-study job on campus and saved every paycheck. By the time graduation rolled around, I had enough money to develop a prototype.

Never jump into decisions without thinking twice about it. When you receive that first offer, don’t just take it. Be cautious of investors who are just opportunistic and don’t genuinely believe in your product.

Also, be resourceful. For example, I taught myself to code, which saved a lot of expense and was something I could figure out through studying.

What’s your long-term vision for Gym Supreme?

The long term goal for Gym Supreme is to become a fitness lifestyle brand that creates excellent products, which help us all stay consistent with our health goals. I want this company to help anyone that has a desire to Lift Good, Live good, and Look Good®.  Gym Supreme Logo

To learn more about Gym Supreme and to place your order for the Mega Bar, visit their Kickstarter Page to support the $12,000 goal.

And, be sure to connect with Gym Supreme on social media:

https://www.facebook.com/GymSupreme
https://www.youtube.com/GymSupreme
https://twitter.com/GymSupreme
http://instagram.com/gymsupreme

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Alumni Spotlight with KidFit Academy

Since 1986, the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship has helped foster countless students and entrepreneurs. We are always excited to speak with alumni about their successes. Today, we caught up with Margaret Croushore (Maggie), a 2013 UMD graduate who launched her business, KidFit Academy, in Oakland, California.

Grant Lee (GL): Hi Maggie! Tell me about yourself?
Maggie Croushore (MC): I graduated from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy in May 2013, with a focus in education policy and nonprofit management and leadership. Prior to UMD, I taught middle school literacy in Washington, DC for four years. I became involved with the Dingman Center at the end of my first year at UMD, when I pitched an idea that would get students more active throughout the school day. The idea has evolved over time into what is now KidFit Academy. Continue reading

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Guest Blog From Former Cupid’s Cup Winner, Goozex

This year marks the 9th annual Cupid’s Cup business competition chaired by Founder & CEO of Under Armour, Kevin Plank. Plank partnered with the Dingman Center to find the most passionate student entrepreneurs running impactful businesses and in 2013 they took the competition national. Before this Cupid’s Cup was a University of Maryland-only competition and in 2007 the winner was Goozex.com.  Today’s guest blog is from Goozex.com co-founder, Valerio Zanini. Read about his journey with the Dingman Center and where Goozex.com is today. 

When Jon Dugan pitched Goozex.com at a Pitch Dingman event in 2005 he lost the competition. The idea was great, but his business plan needed further exploration and development. Just one year later, Goozex.com was open for business and in a few months had gained thousands of users and won the prestigious IMA Interactive Media Award for best website design. How Jon was able to create a viable business and launch it while still in college is a fascinating story that shows how the Dingman Center can have a huge impact in shaping entrepreneurship in the DC region. goozex-logo

In all senses, Goozex is a Dingman Center success story of teaching the right methodologies to start a company, providing the right support, and trusting entrepreneurs in their vision. Jon Dugan was a senior at the University of Maryland when he pitched the Goozex idea at the Dingman Center. One of the judges who voted against his business plan later invited him back to the Center and offered help in developing a better model for the company.  I was that judge, at the time a second year MBA student and Dingman Scholar helping local entrepreneurs start their businesses. I paired with Jon and together we brainstormed product ideation, refined the business model, and connected with key suppliers.

Within a few months we had a working model of Goozex and a team to launch the business. We partnered with a software development company in Italy to cut down on costs, and brought in another MBA classmate to lead the marketing strategy in preparation for the launch. Mark Nebesky joined the company eager to jump on an entrepreneurial opportunity and excited to be working in the video game industry.

I had come to the US from Italy to obtain an MBA degree at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. I had received offers from other MBA schools around the world but chose UMD for one key reason: the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. Smith was the only business school with an in-house entrepreneurship center and a curriculum designed to foster entrepreneurship among the student body, and support new entrepreneurs in launching their ventures. To me, UMD was the best choice and I joined the 2006 MBA class with the clear intent of participating to the Dingman Center’s activities, and one day starting my own company.

The Dingman Center supported Goozex in so many ways. It provided the very first seed capital that was used to sign the contract with our first supplier and incorporate the company: we were in business. The Dingman Center gave the newly born startup its first office space: it was just a room shared with other businesses but it gave us a sense of stability and belonging. The then-Director of the Dingman Center connected us with the founder of another video game company: over the years this proved to be the most productive partnership for Goozex. The Entrepreneurs in Residence provided us with advice, support, and even participated in the seed stage round of financing. I am sure that Goozex would not have existed without the Dingman Center and its great people.

Over the years Goozex.com grew to become the #1 online platform for used video games in North America. We were consistently rated the best trading platform for several years in a row by third party websites. We created an engaged community of users many of whom are still with us years later. And we received multiple offers for acquisition, including one from one of the largest media conglomerate in the US (the owners have a castle in California!). We were excited by the opportunity, but even more excited by the growth prospects of our company and turned it down. We had recently launched our Facebook application (at a time when the Facebook App marketplace was considered the ultimate thing in business and everyone was striving to get there). And we had two big partnerships lined up and ready to close. It made sense to us, at the time.

But by 2009 things had started to get sour. The economy was in chaos. Entertainment spending declined, as did Gamestop’s used market for the first time in a decade. Prospective investors disappeared, followed by the two big partnerships. In just a few months we were back to the drawing board figuring out how to pivot and grow Goozex again.

We owned a solid and appreciated brand, a loyal user base, and played in a very large market that, despite the continuous challenges posed by digital games, showed little signs of shrinking. We knew Goozex could make it, and we decided that if we didn’t find the resources needed to grow the company, we wanted to find a new acquirer who had the possibility to scale it up. We rolled up our sleeves, cut down our costs, and doubled up our efforts.

Things really turned around when we finally found an interested buyer, a company who believed in the Goozex’s vision and wanted to restore its growth potential. We sold the company on November 15, 2012.

The Goozex story is one of endurance, passion, and ingenuity. It was a bumpy ride, but a fantastic ride nonetheless. It has shaped my life and that of all Goozex founders and associates. And I believe it’s a great Dingman Center success story. The resources, trust, and support offered by the Dingman Center were priceless. And it certainly proved that I made the right choice in attending the Robert H. Smith School of Business!

Valerio Zanini
Co-founder and CEO, Goozex.com
2005-2012

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Dingman Center Angels: A Year in Review

The Dingman Center Angels connects regional startup companies seeking seed and early-stage funding with angel investors. In this special edition of Worth Reading, we are featuring an info-graphic showing the metrics from this year’s investment season.

DCA Year Review (1)

Background on the companies Dingman Center Angel members invested in from September 2012 to August 2013.  

  • 6th Street Commerce: focuses on simplifying and streamlining the critical business processes associated with managing a successful E-commerce business.
  • Astrapi Corporation: Astrapi’s patented Compound Channel Coding™ (cCc™) allows for dramatic improvements in communication performance by smoothly integrating periodic and exponential signal parameters.
  • Brazen Careerist: a growing community of connectors, coaches, job-seekers, recruiters and entrepreneurs to help you find your next great opportunity.
  • Cirrus Works: a scalable integrated infrastructure solution that forms the basis of efficient technology management in commercial networking environments.
  • Distil Networks:  protects websites against web scraping, content theft and competitive data mining.
  • E-ISG Asset Intelligence LLC: delivers cost efficient solutions to help customers manage and track their assets so they can reduce costs and improve operation efficiency.
  • ExecOnline: provides every executive at the world’s great companies with access to superb training opportunities.
  • Foodem: an online trading, business intelligence, and process automation solution for the $670 Billion U.S. wholesale food distribution industry.
  • InGo: the revolutionary solution which brings data-driven value to face-to-face sales and marketing. InGo provides Social Event Marketing with Meeting Matching for show growth and guaranteed value for every user.
  • Mobile Systems 7: allows enterprises to securely deploy smartphones and tablets by monitoring deployed systems, securing sensitive data and enforce corporate policies without relying on software agents.
  • Naaya: a game-based social learning platform for Elementary Schools (K-5) focused on global and social studies and 21st Century Skills – Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, Critical Thinking, and Character.
  • Nexercise: a free mobile application that rewards users with virtual medals, discounts and free merchandise for good health.
  • Plant Together: a platform to mobilize youth and families, in partnership with other agencies, to plant trees and promote reforestation in critical zones on the African Continent.
  • Riskive: provides enterprise grade security technology dedicated to identifying, monitoring and preventing risk across the socially connected enterprise.
  • Spinnakr: increases click-throughs and conversions by automatically displaying the right message to the right visitor.
  • Visisonics: brings to market state of the art products and solutions in 3D sound capture, analysis and reproduction.
  • YaSabe: connects businesses, Latino culture and community by allowing users to be “in the know” and confidently make choices about how and where to spend their time and money.
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