Who says you need years of experience before making a mark in the world? These idea people are getting an early start.
by Rick A. Richards
The idea for the “next big thing” can come from anywhere but a lot of times it’s frustration that leads to inspiration.
That’s the case for John Rocha, who graduated from the University of Notre Dame last spring and already is involved in a startup company that could change the way people buy clothes online.
Instead of going to the mall, Rocha preferred to sit in his dorm room and shop for clothes online. The problem was, he couldn’t always be sure what he ordered was going to fit. So he thought about that for awhile, and with the help of partner Rick Tillie and a mannequin they named Larry, they created myFit, a smart phone app that will be available by the end of this year.
“Ordering clothes online was much more convenient for me because I didn’t have a car when I was on campus,” says Rocha, who has moved only a short distance away to Innovation Park at the edge of campus.
“Fifty percent of all computers are sold online and 60 percent of books,” says Rocha. “But only 10 percent of the $250 billion clothing market is sold online. That’s because people aren’t sure the clothes will fit.” And a lot of those clothes don’t fit. About 40 percent of online clothing orders are returned, says Rocha. “The only winners in this are the shipping companies.”
Rocha, 23, who was a political science major at Notre Dame, never imagined his career was headed in this direction. He says he caught the entrepreneurship bug when he visited the Gigot Entrepreneurial Center at Notre Dame, and after two years of taking classes there, Rocha found he wanted to create a product of his own.
Once the idea of myFit was born, Rocha says the next step was to find a home. He graduated on May 22 and two days later he was back on campus with Tillie and they spent six weeks in the library basement coming up with a business plan.
After looking across the nation for a place to locate the business, Rocha settled on South Bend and Innovation Park. “They have tremendous mentors and tremendous IP access. The building is a great resource and it promotes collaboration. It pushes you every day,” says Rocha.
He’s also been able to tap into the Irish Angel network that helps fund startup companies. Already myFit has gotten help from a national development recruiter from Johns Hopkins University and is in a partnership discussion with Microsoft.
“We’re also talking to several retailers,” says Rocha. “Retailers want to increase their online sales so we hope to see this as the next general step in sales.
Using a 3D camera, which is available at electronic stores, Rocha and Tillie created a program that allows people to take a full body scan of themselves and use it with Microsoft’s motion sensing Kinect program. Then, as you’re shopping online, you virtually try on the clothes you want to purchase.
“When you’re shopping online for jeans, for instance, you never know what the sizes are. Some are sports fit, some are relaxed fit. I have no idea what that means, but myFit will solve that.”
When Steve Bartholomew was a member of the Valparaiso University track team, he was always tinkering with the hammer he threw in competition. “I like being 100 percent in control of everything I do.”
So when his equipment kept breaking—even equipment that was new out of the box from the manufacturer—Bartholomew decided to vent. “I picked up the phone and voiced my opinion to the manufacturer. I told him I wasn’t happy and that it broke right out of the box. I hung up the phone and designed my own fix.”
Today, Bartholomew’s Dominator Athletics LLC is one of the largest suppliers of indoor throwing weights to track and field programs in the country. It didn’t start out that way, though. His first year in business he made only $300.
“I came up with a simple, rudimentary design. I figured the more simple it is, the less that can go wrong,” says Bartholomew.
His first order came from two Ohio universities – Ashland and Bowling Green. He manufactured the throwing weights and personally delivered them. “I used all my cash to drive there. They paid me right away instead of sending a check, and I’m glad they did because I didn’t have gas money to drive back.”
But because Bartholomew was a weight thrower, he knew how to talk to other throwers. He convinced them to try his indoor throwing weights, and when they did, they liked them. Through word-of-mouth, orders began coming in. “This past year, I sold more than any other company,” says Bartholomew.
His simple design has already been recognized by the Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana. The business graduate has gotten advice and help from the Center for Entrepreneurship Success at Purdue University Calumet.
Each order is custom made by Bartholomew, who still competes. He just missed out on qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team trials in 2008, and his eye is set on trying to make the team this year. “I’m nowhere as good as I was in college, but I’m throwing farther than I was in college.
Bartholomew, 26, who has his MBA from VU, says his business has grown to the point that 50-hour weeks now sometimes are 100-hour weeks just to keep up with demand. “I’m selling to throwers in Europe and Canada and nearly every major track program. I thought this would sell, but I had no idea that people would take to it like they have.”
Kelsey Falter comes from a family of entrepreneurs, which is why she told her mother there was no way she was going to be one. “I told my mom she wasn’t like other moms because she was working all the time.”
Falter, whose family lives in southern Florida, is a senior at the University of Notre Dame, and today is an entrepreneur, just like her grandfather (who invented the flip top box), her father, and her mother. She spends part of her week taking classes at Notre Dame and the rest of the time she’s in New York City perfecting Markover, a real-time communication, editing, video and conferencing program that’s poised to take advantage of the latest cloud technology.
Falter, 22, is a design major and until she got involved with Markover with two other students – Stacey Milspauw and Brenden Kokoszka – worked during the summer for Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Coca-Cola. “I found the working world wasn’t for me,” says Falter. “The communication process was tedious. You’d have to open and look at attachments, edit them and then e-mail them back.
“With Markover, we’re bringing chat to business. You can look at images and video and converse over it all at once. It’s real-time communication.”
Last summer Falter went to New York for the Start Up Weekend event and that’s where Markover got a lot of attention. In October, she won a pitch series in New York, got a $10,000 grant from FedEx and is one of 14 “tech stars” in the running for a $120,000 investment.
When Falter isn’t in New York or at Innovation Park in her office, she’s working at the Gigot Center at Notre Dame, a place she says has helped nurture her entrepreneurism.
“When I’m there, even at 3 a.m., there are engineering students there. It’s great to have people around to bounce ideas off of,” she says.
Falter has high expectations for her business. “In five years I’d like to be on my way to a $1 billion business,” she says. “When you’re building a business like this and dealing with technology like this it’s reasonable to say you’re going to get millions of users.”
In the meantime, she’s like a lot of other students who’ve gotten money from the family and who spends football Saturdays tailgating. “The family comes in for football games and I tailgate, but I think I saw one half of one football last year. I’m living on a tight budget so it’s nice to tailgate and get free food and take leftovers home.”
Running his own business is something Doug Meece always wanted to do, even while he worked for Enterprise Rent-a-Car and State Farm Insurance. “I mowed yards as a kid to make money,” says the marketing and business graduate of the University of Southern Indiana. “When I was a residence hall assistant at USI, I set up a business called Dial a Dog which delivered hot dogs around campus after hours.”
Today, Meece lives in Valparaiso, and with help from the Center for Entrepreneurial Success at Purdue Calumet, has created an online sports camp registration program that is used by nearly all Division 1 universities in the country.
Meece operates ADM Camps and ADM Races, which is an online program for running events.
“The goal of the program is to make the camp registration process more streamlined. If VU has a basketball camp, for instance, we do all the online registration and administration. The coaches want to run the camp; they don’t want to get involved with this stuff.”
Currently, Meece, 33, has 350 clients, including a deal worth $25,000 with the University of Notre Dame. Other recent clients include Eastern Michigan University, Purdue University wrestling, Purdue volleyball and University of Michigan wrestling.
“When I worked at Enterprise, it helped me learn the day-to-day operation of business. They have an entrepreneurial approach on how each office is run, so that really helped me in this.”
Meece started his business after he was hired by what is today his main competitor. “He hired me and then three days later, his best friend lost his job so he told me that I was being let go so he could hire his friend.”
With help from a Chicago web designer, Meece has created a program that allows universities and coaches to create their own camp web page. Meece not only handles the registration, he handles the registration fees and other administrative responsibilities.
“Coaches only do business with people they trust, so this business is based a lot on personal relationships,” says Meece, who has met and talked to coaches all over the country. “I’ve learned that people like doing business with people they like. People want to put a face to a name.”
So even though it’s important for Meece to have the latest technology to make online registration and payment as easy as possible, he also needs to make sure he’s pressing the flesh with his clients.
“I knew this business would take off because I studied my competitors and learned what they were doing wrong,” says Meece. “I found out what people didn’t like about a site and then I fixed it on mine. I’ve streamlined the entire process.”