In an article from ChicagoInno, Founders Fellow Jason Li talks about UProspie, his college campus tours app, and reveals how it gained traction and funding in an already crowded marketplace. The story covers the hard work and many pitch competitions Jason and his team competed in to secure funding to launch their startup.
Last fall, UChicago freshmen Raymond Han and Jason Li had an idea for a startup: an online platform where prospective students could meet with on-campus students to get a more realistic picture of campus life. They decided to apply to a few startup pitch competitions to test out their idea and get a bit of cash to support development.
“We didn’t really expect to win any of them. It was [for] the learning experience,” said Li. “Then things kind of got out of hand.”
By the end of the school year, Han and Li had pitched at 10 different venture competitions and won cash and prizes valuing about $50,000 for their venture, UProspie. But beyond that, they used the competitions to hone their idea, and to focus more on helping low-income students connect with higher education. The duo answered a few questions over email (from their summer UProspie headquarters in San Francisco) about what it was like to pitch eight competitions in two months, a pitch-inspired pivot, and perks of college venture competitions.
Chicago Inno: UProspie began in fall of 2014. Which venture competitions did you compete in over the next year?
Han and Li: We pitched at 10 competitions, and all but two happened in the spring, between April and June. It was a tremendous amount of fun– traveling and learning about other student startups as well as figuring out how our own platform should take shape.
How much money did you win overall?
We won about $47,000 dollars in cash but we also got everything from flights to shoes from a couple competitions. The money was great, but we think what spurred us onward was the continuous stream of new feedback and fresh ideas.
How were you able to qualify and attend so many?
There’s not really a big secret in qualifying for these competitions. We just wrote up as many applications as we could and did our best to demonstrate the value of our idea. We started with Chicago competitions and then used those prize funds to travel to more. It helped a lot that our school was incredibly supportive. Not only did we receive great feedback from our UChicago entrepreneurship advisor, we also received a lot of advice from admissions counselors.
Not only did you qualify for many competitions– you were really successful. What was the key to success?
Success to us wasn’t just based on how much money we won, but how much we learned from the judges and other contestants. We think some of the most valuable competitions were the ones we didn’t win, but gave us tough formative feedback. That being said, we think the key to success was really to keep an open mind and to take all questions and comments from judges very seriously.
The key to winning cash prizes comes along the same principle. You have to realize that winning money means that people are entrusting you and your idea with their faith, so just do everything you can to show that you care about your startup. And the best way to show you care is to forget about the prize money and pitch your product for the sake of sharing an awesome idea.
How did your pitch change over time?
The biggest changes we made was right after our first pitch competition. At the time, UProspie was only a service for on-campus meetups, and we were only targeting affluent students. After winning third at the U.Pitch competition, we sat down and discussed if this was something we really wanted to invest our time in. We came to the conclusion that night that we wanted to build something that would help students of ALL socioeconomic backgrounds. That really brought a lot more life and urgency into the idea.
What was the best competition you attended? Were there any surprise requirements, competition quirks, or prizes along the way?
The one that sticks out the most was the TCU competition in Fort Worth. That experience was when we realized that UProspie could really help students beyond being just a startup idea. It was also the first time Jason tried Chick-fil-a and our team had it for three meals in a row. The competition at Los Angeles rented a Redbull party bus for the finalists and we visited Redbull HQ and other awesome companies. Los Angeles gave us a lot of free swag, plus a weekend in Santa Monica made the competition feel more like vacation. [Northwestern’s Venture Challenge] was also an exciting one, because we were not expecting to beat the grad student teams. It was also during finals week, which made it incredibly difficult to prepare for, but it turned out well in the end.
Have you raise money in other ways? What are the benefits (and challenges) of raising money in this way, versus venture capital?
We’re completely bootstrapped right now and we’ve only received funding from competitions. Pitch competitions can be time consuming, but when you’re starting out, we think it’s only best to put your ideas out there and get them critiqued.
We are currently raising our seed round, now that we have a platform built as well as users. Of course money is necessary, but it’s also important to bring on investors who feel equally passionate about the cause and the vision.
Have you run into other student startups with a similar strategy?
Pitch competitions are pretty popular but there we only met a few other groups of students going to multiple competitions like we did.
Why did you decide to raise money in this way– was it a purposeful funding strategy?
Most serious investors wouldn’t give two college freshmen with just an idea and smiles on their faces $50,000 so going the competition route was the best way for us to earn money and gain experience at the same time. But really the biggest reason is because UProspie is a very student-centered product, so in addition to winning money, it was great to be able to talk to students on a lot of different campuses.
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