Student Startup Roundup: Brandizi, Teaman, and Volunteer Forever
April 21, 2014
This is part of an occasional series of articles spotlighting students who are juggling their studies with starting a new business or social enterprise.
Kim Cabot, MBA 14
As a marketing director at a big company, Kim Cabot used to think about all the ways she could improve communication. The company worked in silos, with everyone running their own email and social media campaigns. “Things were inefficient and (software) tools were expensive,” she says.
Cabot’s idea for Brandizi slowly took shape.
By the time she started at Haas, Cabot had co-founded Brandizi with her husband, who earned his MBA at Babson College, and was a half-million lines of code into building new software.
Yet during Sara Beckman’s Problem Finding, Problem Solving class, Cabot realized that her product, designed without potential users’ feedback, “was not going to happen the way we were building it.” Cabot was accepted into the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps (I-Corps) Program overseen by the Haas School’s Lester Center for Entrepreneurship.
“We told Lester Center Director Andre Marquis, ‘We’re a little backward. We have something built and now we have to figure out if anyone wants it and for what,” she says. That wasn’t all that unusual among entrepreneurs, she discovered.
During the I-Corps Program, the Brandizi team found the product wasn’t a perfect fit with marketing managers. They told the team to take it to sales managers, who rely heavily on email and social media. “Sales managers said, ‘This is great. It helps me sell,’” she recalls.
The product automates and improves email, social media, and other communication streams between a company and client during the sales cycle and ongoing company relationship.
“We’re adding customers all the time now,” Cabot says, “and learning that the customer discovery process never ends—we have I-Corps to thank for that.”
Brandizi currently has 25 customers, who typically have about 10 users each, and has raised $1 million in angel funding.
Now Cabot is working with entrepreneurship lecturer Dave Charron, MBA 95, in independent study. “He’s been amazing,” she says. “He’s super smart. He can listen to anyone talk about their company in any industry, and he just gets the weak link.”
The best advice Cabot received from Charron: "Don’t be afraid to ask for more money for your product. And think big.”
A Real Gem
Alastair Trueger, MBA 15
Co-founder, Teaman & Company
Alastair Trueger co-founded Teaman & Company to bring fine gemstones and luxury, custom-made jewelry to a market beyond the very wealthy.
Based in San Francisco, Teaman & Company was recently accepted into 500 Startups, an incubator program in Silicon Valley that provides early-stage companies with up to $250,000 in funding. “It’s exciting,” Trueger says. “It shows that we have traction and we’re doing interesting stuff.”
Teaman’s products range from $30 gemstones like the aquamarine to a $17,500 raspberry-pink Tourmaline ring from Brazil. “There’s an entire world of stunning gemstones beyond diamonds that most people have never heard about,” says Trueger, who stresses that Teaman sells only ethically sourced and conflict-free jewelry.
The company is tapping the cutting-edge technology to introduce the world to these gems. Customers worldwide can create their own jewelry designs, and Teaman then sends them a model created using a 3D printer to review before the final product is created.
Trueger began working on the company last July with his co-founder, Chloe Alpert, a certified gemologist who was raised in the jewelry industry. The two met in London, where Trueger previously lived. (He’s American and British and has worked in India and the Philippines.)
A vast support network at Haas has helped Trueger navigate his job at Teaman, he says, citing classes in leadership and operations and valuable feedback from Professor Toby Stewart, faculty director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship, and Haas Lecturer Rob Chandra, a senior adviser to Bessemer Partners.
The company’s first sale? An engagement ring for a classmate. “She’s been a fantastic evangelist for us,” Trueger says.
Helping Volunteers Abroad
Kelly Ling and Steve Weddle, both MBA 15, Co-founders
Like many startups, Volunteer Forever emerged to solve the pain points of its co-founders. Both Steven Weddle and Kelly Ling had volunteered abroad, Weddle in India and Ling in Costa Rica, and found the experience expensive and a bit unnerving.
“I was more nervous landing in New Delhi than when I landed in Afghanistan with the Air Force a few years back,” says Weddle, who served in the Air Force for seven years.
After paying $2,000 for airfare, travel, and insurance, he wasn’t sure the organization he’d volunteered to work for was legitimate, or whether anyone would even pick him up at the airport. Nonetheless, he says, his three weeks working in an orphanage for children with HIV/ AIDS turned out to be remarkable.
Still, Weddle couldn’t stop thinking about how to make the experience easier for others. After meeting Ling at the start of the MBA program, the pair began discussing a Kickstarter-like platform that could be used by individuals who want to raise money to cover the costs of their trips, coupled with Trip Advisory-style program reviews for potential volunteers to read about the experience of others.
Since coming out of beta in fall 2013, Volunteer Forever now receives 50,000 visits a month and has about 3,000 users. Collectively, volunteers have raised well over $500,000 to travel largely to Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central America. Volunteer Forever makes money by collecting 5 percent of each donation and will soon earn revenue through advertisements from international volunteer organizations.
Sara Beckman’s Problem Finding, Problem Solving class helped Ling and Weddle to think more about how other people understood their idea and to consider designing it in ways not done before.
They also entered the Global Social Venture Competition and UC Berkeley Startup Competition to seek feedback from users and investors with a potential cash prize.