The start-up bug that’s largely consumed techies and innovators in Silicon Valley has been caught at William & Mary.
Joe Laresca ’15 and Matt Sniff '15 are the masterminds behind and founders of CollegeCambio.com, an online marketplace exclusively for students to search for rides, shop for housing and buy and sell merchandise. Zilify, a second start-up that finds off-campus housing for students, is overseen by Hank Couture ’13.
CollegeCambio officially launched in early November and is similar to the widely known Craigslist. According to Laresca, the site currently has more than 1,000 members and over 125 posts.
“We wanted to create something that’s like a college Craigslist – where only William & Mary students could go to a website that’s like a marketplace,” said Laresca. “We wanted something that we could do here – being that we’re at college – we figured that we’re never going to have this opportunity again.”
The usual college items are sold daily on the site, said Laresca. Electronics such as laptops are especially hot commodities. The most unusual item to be sold thus far is a hamster, he said, which sold on the second day after the launch.
The duo originally came up with the idea a year ago when Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast, said Laresca. They initially launched the site just to their freshman dorm as an experiment.
“We had about 25 categories and it was a bit messy, but we had 1,500 posts and 1,000 members signed up in five months,” said Laresca. “It was pretty successful, but we knew it needed work.”
Over the summer, Sniff, who serves as the chief technology officer, accepted an internship at an incubator start-up where he learned a plethora of web programming to help improve the site. Meanwhile, Laresca, who’s a native of New York, sought investment funds from a venture capitalist in the Big Apple but unfortunately came up empty handed.
“We met with a consultant firm who loved our idea, but said that we needed to raise $109,000 to build a website and an app that was as good as eBay or Amazon,” said Laresca, president of the company. “So every day I would go to an office in New York and the person was never there…I left papers and made phone calls… but that fell out.
“So Matt and I decided to do this thing ourselves, give it one last shot, and see what we could do.”
For the reboot this fall, Laresca and Sniff decided to only keep the five most popular categories on the site: A wanted section, textbooks, rides, electronic/dorm items and miscellaneous. So far, the majority of student engagement and feedback has been on the rides and textbook sections.
“It was a great feeling when my friend came up to me and said, ‘Hey Joe, I just made 60 bucks to drive three guys up North when I was going to New York by using the website,’” said Laresca.
Start-ups are time consuming and risky, but there’s potential of great reward for hungry entrepreneurs. Bravo’s new reality TV show, Start-Ups: Silicon Valley, and ABC’s Shark Tank have injected the stories of technological ventures into mainstream media for millions to view. Movies such as The Social Network give inspiration to students as they watch how once-Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook to become one of the world’s youngest billionaires.
Zilify was also started this semester by a group of students from the Mason School of Business. Similar to CollegeCambio, Zilify was created and is operated by students to serve the student population.
Couture said Zilify is appealing because the housing options are conveniently located to campus and are reasonably priced.
“Our goal was to create a website with the best quality houses in walking distance,” he said. “That way, we could make the off-campus housing process structured and fair.”
CollegeCambio’s Laresca said he spends hours checking and monitoring the site each day in between classes, homework and studying. Sniff said he looks at CollegeCabmio as more than just a website, and compares it to the revolutionary iPhone, created by the late American entrepreneur Steve Jobs.
“It’s like an iPhone for the campus,” he said. “Students no longer have to go to Facebook and put a post to see if you can get a ride with someone, or go on Craigslist.
“It puts the whole student body in one place to fulfill all their needs.”
In the long term, Laresca and Sniff hope to offer their product to other colleges and universities. For now, they’re focusing on making CollegeCambio successful at William & Mary.
“What can I say? I’ve caught the social start-up bug,” said Laresca. “And I can’t get rid of it.
“I love the unexpectedness of not knowing what's going to happen, but I'm hooked and I can't wait to see what CollegeCambio will become."