All Posts By

Meghan Plate

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

Entrepreneurial Beginnings

By Michael Giardino

I turn off my computer and step away. That moment, push notifications start flooding my iPhone screen. 300 monthly subscriptions within the first hour. 800 in the first week.

Let’s rewind to me in 10th grade. Those stories in your Facebook News Feed about limited edition shoes selling out so fast that you have to pay five times retail on eBay? That was probably me — or, rather, bots that I taught myself to program, fetching some of the world’s most exclusive sneakers before human hands could click “buy.” I was turning thousands of dollars of profit selling sneakers on the secondary market every month, money that would get rolled into purchasing more sneakers.

One night, I purchased 100 out of 120 available pairs of limited edition sneakers from an Italian online boutique, at an average margin of $150 per pair above retail. The retailer caught on to my bots and cancelled all of my transactions, losing me $15,000 in potential profits overnight.

After that incident, my obsession with competitively optimizing my bots for the KPI of “exclusive sneaker purchasing share” began to become joyless. I was a faceless mercenary, coding increasingly sophisticated algorithms and bots to detect and crack websites so I could turn one dollar into two. While I was scrolling through the usual underground sneaker community sites, though, I noticed another trend emerging: Funko Pops. Funko Pops are small, licensed plastic figurines that are oftentimes limited edition collectibles. Their collectors also aren’t as hardened as sneaker collectors, and many of them expressed their disappointment at missing out on limited releases on Instagram.

Michael Giardino's Funko Dojo stickers

“I had it in my cart, but it sold out while I was checking out! I hate these flippers [slang term for resellers]. I wish I had a bot or a way to get it on my own,” one comment read.

And then it struck me: What if I used my botting prowess to help build up a community of devoted fans, instead of turning it into another vehicle for simple profit?

So I spent the summer of my junior year building Funko Dojo, a subscription-based community aimed at collectors looking to discuss and acquire the most coveted Funko Pops on the market. Instead of a KPI or traditional growth metrics, I became obsessed with creating the perfect brand presence and online community for Funko Pop fans. I crafted messaging to customers to avoid attracting resellers and to cater it strictly toward the collector community. I planned philanthropic campaigns for my users, including a partnership with Pops! For Patients, a charity dedicated to delivering Funko Pops to a nationwide network of children’s hospitals.

One problem: I had no users. The service hadn’t yet been pushed live. This thing I had spent my entire summer working on and hyping up never felt “ready” to be released to the public. At every step there seemed another forked path of potential optimizations.

Funko Dojo promo image
Preview of Funko Dojo mobile application

As another cold New Jersey winter brewed, doubt set in, the light from my laptop screaming at me in a dark room. What if “my baby” was rejected by people? What if no one wanted to pay $20 per month for access to purchase plastic figurines at retail price? And my greatest fear: Would all my hard work go to waste?

Then disaster struck — a competing service launched, co-opting my idea. The wind out of my sails, I talked to Juan Bizoso, a friend I met in my sneaker-flipping days and a Program Manager at Microsoft. He set me straight. “This is the kind of thing that’s always a work-in-progress,” he said. “You shouldn’t be sitting here losing money when you have a great product, and you’re just being too hard on yourself.”

So on September 15th, 2018, I activate the Shopify account for Funko Dojo and post the announcement on Twitter. Funko Dojo was officially live. I turn off my computer and step away.

Michael Giardino ’23 is currently pursuing a Computer Science degree at the University of Rochester. Michael comes from New Jersey where he founded his current venture, Funko Dojo. He aspires to use his entrepreneurial mindset and leadership skills to spearhead the solutions to the problems faced by his generation.

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

A Time for Thanks

By Ain Center Staff

In the spirit of gratitude, join the Ain Center for Entrepreneurship as we recognize and thank those who support us.

We would like to acknowledge those who give to the Ain Center in order to help maintain and expand upon the entrepreneurship opportunities and education for the University of Rochester community. These gifts include a recent endowment from Peter Mann ’88, founder and CEO of Oransi, to encourage student entrepreneurs by providing them the funds necessary to pursue their ventures.

2019 Swarm Starter winners and judges

We further extend our gratitude to the many individuals who helped make our first-ever Swarm Starter Competition a success. Brennan Mulcahey ’09, ’11S (MBA), of Brook Venture Partners, LLC, and Chairman of the Ain Center Advisory Council, played a large role in helping us put this event in motion. His generosity – along with the financial support from fellow judges Quincy Allen ’93S (MBA) of IBM; Theresa Mazzullo of Excell Partners, Inc.; and Alyssa Carrizales ’20S (MBA) of the Simon School Venture Fund who was sponsored by Daniel Lazarek ’91S (MBA) of Access Insurance Holdings, Inc. – allowed us to celebrate some of the top student entrepreneurs on campus. We’d also like to thank the many attendees, including a number of alumni who have charted their own innovative path since their years at the University.

Finally, we would like to thank Mark Ain ’67S (MBA) and Carolyn Ain for their continued, generous support of entrepreneurship education at the University of Rochester. At the time of their original gift, former UR President Joel Seligman noted that, “This generous gift will allow us to continue our momentum in building a cutting-edge entrepreneurial program.” Since the Ain Center was dedicated in 2015, our programming has grown to serve the many needs of the entrepreneurial students and community at the U of R.

Participants and judges for the 2019 Creative Collision Challenge

As a direct result of your support, we are able strengthen the entrepreneurship ecosystem through collaborations across the University, and by enhancing relationships with the Rochester community and beyond. We strive to provide the structure and resources for innovators who express interest in starting an enterprise, and to teach them the skills to be successful. On behalf of the innovative community at the University of Rochester, aspiring to be Ever Better, we thank you.

Would you like to contribute to the Ain Center at the University of Rochester? We welcome you to make a gift to support student entrepreneurship during this season of giving.

By | Innovation, People, Rochester

Startup Trekking in Boston

By Vasisht “Guru” Prasad

I had the pleasure of visiting various startups and incubators during my startup trek to Boston, as a part of the Ain Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Rochester.

It was wonderful to see that Global Silicon Valley (GSV) Labs had set its office there in Boston. It was a privilege to meet Seth Hauben, who is the Managing Director there. He mentioned a very important factor which is why Boston is the place chosen for the GSV labs: it’s the closeness to the customers that makes a difference.

Guru Prasad in front of GSVlabs sign

Vasisht “Guru” Prasad at GSVlabs. 

Having a personal interaction with Eric Wisch, a partner with ADL Ventures, was invaluable, as he gave us a picture of how much of a risk being an entrepreneur takes; not only in terms of money, but also in terms of other resources, such as time. We understood how they managed to “weather the storm” by working with different venture capitalists, understanding the “fear of missing out,” playing the right cards, and showing commitment.

We then heard from Gemma Sole, the Co-founder of Nineteenth Amendment who along with Amanda Curtis, developed a platform that helps brands sell without inventory and produce quick-turn, sustainably.

Rooftop view of Boston skyline

View of Boston sunset from Beacon Hill.

A discussion with Jen Riedel and a session with Christopher Wolfel from TechStars opened us to a new set of industry jargon. They have the concept of “Mentor Whiplash,” in which the teams interact with all these mentors on a continuous basis, getting constant feedback, and developing their product and company. They work differently from a normal venture capital firm, as they do not pick startups that are in the beginning stages of their life. Instead, they work with reasonably established companies and then further help them accelerate to a much bigger scale. They have worked with close to 175+ companies, out of which more than 30 are now well-established.

We also had the chance to meet David Borrelli, who is a serial entrepreneur and a U of R alum with a set of interesting series of startups. His current venture is a platform for PhD students in the Engineering domain who have no knowledge of Data Science. This platform helps the students get the required knowledge and skills, and further helps them find jobs in the Data Science field as well.

Guru and three friends on the Startup Trek
Startup Trek group in Boston

Left: Duncan, Akram, Max, and Guru at Spyce (world’s first restaurant featuring a robotic kitchen, located in Boston). Right: Startup Trek group at GSVlabs.

I think it was a privilege to be a part of such an amazing experience, and to have interacted and gained a lot of experience firsthand with these connections in the industry.

Vasisht “Guru” Prasad ’20 (MS) is a first-year masters student studying Technical Entrepreneurship & Management (TEAM) at the U of R. Having worked for a couple of years in the Sales and Marketing teams in the Test and Measurement Sector, he is now working more closely with Computer Science and software fields, with areas of concentration in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.