By Abhijit Singh and Alex Turgeon
"What is there to do in Worcester?" That was a common question we heard during Week One orientation, and it stuck with us. While Alex grew up in Holden, Mass., and had been able to experience all that Worcester had to offer, Abhijit was raised in Singapore, and had little knowledge of the area. Together, we saw an opportunity to help students, colleges, and local businesses discover the relationship they could build together not only to benefit themselves but Worcester as a whole.
The problem that we identified has less to do with Worcester than it does with the negative perception students have about the city. With this in mind, our ideas quickly grew into a passion for progress. However, we knew this was going to require a great deal of work and dedication. Out of this preliminary idea and research, WooConnect was born.
For us, the Clark University Ureka! Big Idea Challenge, sponsored by the Innovation & Entrepreneurship department, was a turning point. Ureka! is an annual new idea contest open to all Clark undergrads. The students with the top three ideas receive start-up funding. We entered in 2013 and won. With the guidance of Amy Whitney of the LEEP Center, we got to work on WooConnect.
The Clark community has been very supportive of our endeavor, helping us with market research, providing feedback on designs, and participating in a beta test of the product. We believe our success so far is thanks to the tolerant atmosphere at Clark that welcomes new ideas and encourages students to think outside the box and explore new ventures.
At this point you may be wondering — what exactly is WooConnect?. It's is a smartphone and Web application that integrates and connects Worcester college and university campuses with the students and their local community. Our goal is to provide students with a convenient and engaging mobile application that allows them to discover events that are occurring on their campus, other campuses, and the city they live in. Additionally, local businesses will have the opportunity to place promotions and advertisements on the WooConnect application to be viewed by users in order to engage with their community.
We developed WooConnect into our own startup. As a company, we are constantly seeking and pursuing different ways to efficiently market our product. We largely rally interest around our idea by engaging with students, running collaborative events with other organizations, maintaining a social media presence, and conducting fundraising campaigns. Essentially, we are always searching for ways to expand and grow our network as a product for Worcester, and are open to the feedback from our supporters.
Our success thus far has not come without challenges. As students looking to begin a startup, we face larger obstacles than entrepreneurs who are already out of college. Those challenges include time management, funding, and networking. On top of taking classes, the workload associated with these classes, extracurricular activities, and spending time with friends and family, we have to commit time and energy into the development and management of WooConnect. Needless to say, it is very demanding and time-consuming for full-time students like us. Both of us have faced days when, although we may have had a full day of classes, work, and athletics, as founders we must meet with our team to strategize and develop our product. A great example of this was when we launched our initial beta test in November; amid final exams, the open launch date was pushed back numerous times until we were finally able to buckle down and test our product.
Although at times WooConnect can be overly demanding, this does not discourage our efforts or diminish our commitment to our idea. In fact, the Clark community’s belief and faith in us and our idea has allowed us to overcome challenges. We are in the process of bringing our product to market and realize that there is still much to be done; there is no time to waste. We have learned a lot about the balancing act between marketing and development. We were challenged last semester when we decided to grow our network and begin marketing our brand before the product was fully developed. Although this helped WooConnect grow and maintain a firm social presence online, it meant we had less time for actual app development. That meant we didn’t have a product ready to launch by our deadline. But we learned from this experience and have adjusted accordingly.
Our biggest need at this stage of time is funding and mentorship. As students, our timeline depends many factors — academic breaks, midterms, team commitments, and more. To help secure funding, this semester we have applied to more than 25 accelerator programs, from large west coast programs like Y Combinator to smaller and more loca. incubators like Worcester’s Running Start. We’ve also learned a lot from the application process, including refining our presentation to a near science. We hope to be accepted into one of these programs in order to receive the financial and expert support needed to scale and launch our WooConnect mobile app.
Our current plan is to launch WooConnect this fall in time to assist with first year orientation. To meet this goal, we must fully develop the product over the course of this summer.
Throughout the entire WooConnect development process, we have kept in mind the support and encouragement that the Clark community has given us. We believe Clark is a great environment for young interested entrepreneurs to receive support and to collaborate with students and faculty in order to turn their ideas into real businesses. The embracive culture of Clark has allowed us to think differently in terms of solving problems and fostering growth, both personally and professionally.
Overall, we have learned an invaluable amount through our experiences with WooConnect. We have learned that launching a startup business in college literally means beginning from nothing. Our LEEP education has prepared us to meet that challenge, and brought out the best in us. We have exhibited resilience, creativity, and overall perseverance — LEEP skills that we will use throughout our professional careers.