Startups for students, by students



 
Ann Arbor certainly isn't lacking for either students or startups, but the two cross over less frequently than you might think. It's fairly unusual to find a startup aimed specifically at students as a target market, and even more unusual to find such a startup actually run by students. However, a handful of student entrepreneurs are moving to fill the needs of the market they know best: their peers. 

Concentrate spoke with three such innovators who started businesses to serve their fellow campus-dwellers while still juggling classwork themselves.

Cribspot: Cutting through the rental clutter

Jason Okrasinski says plenty of startups count college students as part of their customer base, but few are developed specifically to address students' needs.

"I think that's starting to change now," Okrasinski says. "There's a lot of students coming out and saying, ‘Hey, this was a pain point when I was in college. Let me try and come up with some way to solve this pain point.'"

That's exactly what Okrasinski, 23, did last year when he and two friends cofounded Cribspot, a one-stop web platform for browsing rental options that's now available in 15 college towns nationwide. 

Okrasinski was a senior majoring in business at U-M when Cribspot got started. He says the idea arose from his and his partners' own frustration with searching for apartment listings scattered across multiple websites.

"We went through that same problem, and a lot of our friends have gone through that same problem," he says. "Really, not much has changed since we've graduated. So it's given us a unique insight as to how the market functions, when people are leasing, how to market the site and what students really want."

Even in the short time Cribspot has been in existence, it's already been validated in a big way. The startup won $100,000 as first runner-up in the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition, and closed a seed-funding round of $660,000 in September. Okrasinski says he and his partners will be using the cash injection to increase their current staff from six to eight or nine, and to expand into new college towns.

"When we started this two years ago, I don't know if we would have imagined ourselves being in this position," he says. "I think it's really empowering to other students that you can be in college and actually make it work and be successful and raise money, even at a young age."

Delivice: Stepping up from Top Ramen

College students generally aren't known for making the healthiest eating choices, but U-M grad Benny Wang sees that as a simple result of transportation limitations.

"They live on campus, but they don't have a car or don't have time to go out and shop for groceries or shop for fresh food," says Wang, 24. "So they tend to eat out, and it's expensive eating out and it's not as healthy."

Wang's website Delivice, which launched in February while he was wrapping up his coursework in economics and international studies, proposes to bring that fresh food right to students' doorsteps. The website allows users to browse through the grocery selections at Kroger (Whole Foods' inventory will be added soon) and place an order, which is then filled and delivered by Delivice drivers. A small surcharge is added on to the price of each item. Wang says his friends' complaints about the difficulty of procuring groceries inspired him to create the service.

"I've always had a car to go out and grocery shop, so I've never really faced that problem," he says. "But being a student on campus, seeing a lot of my friends experience this problem when I had the luxury of driving to the store whenever I want, it really gave me an insight."

In the 10 months since its launch, Delivice has experienced what Yang calls "a crazy upward trend." Delivice started as a simple Google form, but it now sports a snazzy website and a staff of six. Although Wang did most of the deliveries himself early on, he now employs two drivers to handle about 12 orders per day while he concentrates on the business side of things.

"There's a lot of hard hours and a lot of sleepless nights," he says. "But I think it's worth it. Entrepreneurship to me is like a lifestyle."

Boldr: Deals on demand

There's a plethora of options for eating and drinking in Ann Arbor, and several well-known apps to sort through them. But U-M junior Prateek Sachdeva wants to offer students and other revelers a different way to parse their choices.

"Apps like Yelp or Foursquare focus on discovery, like, ‘Hey, find a new place,'" says Sachdeva, a 20-year-old computer science major. "Living in Ann Arbor, I realized that I'd go to places depending on what they're doing right now, and that information was really hard to access."

Sachdeva refers to information on happy hours, daily specials, live music and other special promotions that may change day to day–or even hour to hour. His app Boldr, which launched in June, shows users up-to-the-minute deals and special attractions at nearby eateries and watering holes. Sachdeva says Facebook and other social networks are currently the only way for businesses to post that information, or for customers to find it–and that's inconvenient for both.

"Small businesses, physical businesses, don't really use online ads on Facebook or Google, because all they hear about is the number of clicks on ads," he says. "And for a physical business that doesn't really mean anything, because they can't really count their sales increase from the number of clicks on Facebook."

Sachdeva aims to fix that particular problem by putting Bluetooth iBeacons in businesses that are listed on Boldr, tracking when Boldr users actually enter or exit those establishments. While he says the app could theoretically be useful to users of any age, he's targeting 18- to 35-year-olds because of their likeliness to go out and seek new hot spots. He says there's no one better than young entrepreneurs like himself to fulfill their needs.

"[Students] know how to target their peers better than they do young professionals or older people," he says. "I think [the student market] may not be completely tapped out yet."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and lead writer for Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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