As a Program Assistant at the Ain Center for Entrepreneurship, I often come across a variety of entrepreneur profiles. From local founders of small businesses in Rochester, to UR researchers who started their own companies. I always find myself amazed by the incredible ventures these people are leading. However, I have to admit that the entrepreneur profile that intrigues me the most is the student one: how can someone manage to get a product or service to market successfully while taking college courses and not having tons of experience?
To answer this question, I’ve decided to write a series of student entrepreneurs spotlights. The purpose is to share the story of these passionate and ambitious students who are making an impact while pursuing their own studies. I hope this series can help other students who are leading their ventures or those who are thinking of starting a new business.
To launch the series, I interviewed Shelley Chen (‘20), a recent graduate at the University of Rochester who majored in International Relations and Business Entrepreneurship. She also participated in the e-5 Program which is a tuition-free program at the University of Rochester for graduates who propose to start a business or a project.
Shelley is the founder of Yolo Shadow, a shadowing marketplace that connects local organizations and businesses with travelers who look for authentic work experiences.
“I started Yolo Shadow two years ago as a class project when I was taking a very general entrepreneurship class. We were asked to do a group project to try to launch a business. By that time, I had just taken a trip to Hawaii where I got to job shadow a Ukelele instrument maker. So I got to see how a Ukelele was made in the most traditional way possible, using the local wood material. I learned how to use those materials to construct a Ukelele. I got to shadow this Ukelele maker for half a day and it was the best thing that happened during my trip.”
Later, Shelley realized that when she travels she prefers to really get to know the local culture of the places and that she doesn’t like going to the most touristic places. That’s how she got inspired to develop Yolo Shadow.
“Yolo Shadow is a marketplace where you can try any jobs in the world. At least that’s how we started, but then we realized this mission is kind of too big. So we toned it down to job shadowing with small business owners who actually started a craft store, an art shop, etc. I find those stories more personal, and it’s the art and visual aspect that makes the experience more interesting.”
Yolo Shadow currently has a team of eight students, Shelley included. They are split between the business team and the tech team in which UX/UI designers and developers work together. On the business side, they mainly focused on doing customer discovery so they interviewed a wide range of small business owners from photographers, artists, manufacturing companies, architects, and even henna tattoo artists. The purpose was to gain an understanding of what type of experiences could work best for Yolo Shadow. On the tech side, Shelley mentions that she didn’t bring anyone on board until she was sure the platform could actually bring value to the market. The first tech person to join was the UX/UI designer and by now they already have their MVP.
“I noticed at the end of the class that most of my classmates took the project just as a class project; they didn’t do any interview, they didn’t talk to any customer, they did some research online, put together a Power Point and submit it for a grade. I didn’t want Yolo Shadow to just be a letter grade. Actually, the people I worked on this for the class decided to not continue with it after so I had to recruit again. It took a lot of convincing, I had to talk to a lot friends and think “who can I bring on board?”, “who has the skills to make this a real thing?” . It was very hectic of course but it’s something I feel really passionate about so I would feel very comfortable just pitching it to my friends in the cafeteria.”
Shelley found the first developer while having lunch at one of the dining halls. She saw a lot of students asking him very technical questions and she thought he could be a very good person to be the technical lead. Then, she decided to pitch the idea to him right away and fortunately he agreed to join the team.
“Finding a team was definitely one of the most challenging things. Time management and scheduling was not a problem because I feel really passionate about this project so it comes natural to me.”
Yolo Shadow received funding from University of Rochester grants. They also participated in the Innov8 program in which they got a $3,000 grant, the Forbes Entrepreneurial Competition in which they were awarded $1,000, and the Regional Economic Development grant which was $1,000 as well. Shelley mentions that she decided to not raise venture capital because she’s working on Yolo Shadow part-time, thus as long as everyone on the team feels comfortable bootstrapping, they will continue like that.
Advice for students
“If you are looking to start a small business or a tech startup, I would say the most important thing is to identify a problem to solve. There is a lot of cool technology but if that piece of technology doesn’t solve a problem, you are not gonna be able to build a sustainable solution. When I started this project, I didn’t put all the resources into building something. Even though building something is very cool and exciting, you wanna make sure you’re building something that solves a problem. Customer discovery is something you have to be very patient with, listen to what your customers are saying, always get feedback right away so that you know you are building something customers really want.”
I had a wonderful talk with Shelley. She was very open and genuine with her story. I hope you enjoyed the reading and it inspired you as much as it inspired me!
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