Finding Start-Up Success Through Serious School Spirit University of Oregon grad Abraham Choe wanted more university-branded goods. So he launched a business to make it happen.
Editor's Note: YE's Startup of the Month is a regular column that highlights new companies with interesting launch stories. To be considered for a future column, tell us about your startup.
While a student at the University of Oregon, Abraham Choe wanted to show some school spirit by decking out his laptop in a UO case. But, to his surprise, he couldn't find one anywhere. So he slapped a university decal on a plain laptop sleeve and the response from his classmates was overwhelming. Everyone wanted to know where they could get their own UO-branded laptop sleeve.
Choe's entrepreneurial instincts immediately kicked in. He started researching existing college-licensed products and didn't find many companies that specialized in this niche.
Related: How to Start Up from Your Dorm Room
In two short weeks, Choe, now 29, and his classmates Daniel Lee and Vinh Luu set out to launch Ulife. In Sept. of 2010, the Beaverton, Oregon-based company received its first trademark license to the University of Oregon -- setting Ulife up for its first production run. Choe's company generated $150,000 in revenue this past year.
At YoungEntrepreneur, we think this is pretty impressive. So for the month of September, Ulife is officially YE's Startup of the Month -- landing the company this Q&A and, of course, bragging rights.
We caught up with Choe to discuss the ups and downs of his start-up life. Here's an edited version of that conversation:
What's been your greatest start-up challenge so far?
Raising capital to expand. For every university trademark, we have to pay advanced royalties and need capital for products. It takes money to make money. When you are in the wholesale business, it takes even more money.
What did you do about funding then? How about going forward?
Fortunately, with the contributions of a few family members and friends who agreed to invest in the company, Ulife got the foundation it needed. Going forward, I applied for my favorite show, ABC's Shark Tank season four and made it to the final video submission rounds. We're still waiting to hear if we'll be on the show. Other than that, we are setting up an Indiegogo campaign and talking with some venture capitalists to trying and work out a deal. But like I said, raising capital is the hardest part.
How do students find out about ULife?
Grassroots marketing. One of the cool things we're doing is our touchdown-celebration video contest. We're asking customers to post a 30-second video of them doing their best touchdown celebration dance to our Facebook page. The person with the most "likes" wins a pair of primo UO football tickets on the 45-yard line.
For every product sold on the website, Ulife donates $2 to a textbook fund for college students. Why, as a startup, are you giving away precious profits?
Ulife exists because of the students, fans and supporters who buy our products. It's because of them that we were able to survive and grow during the recession. I think it is important to give back and wanted to make a direct impact on students -- it wasn't long ago that I was in their shoes, after all.
Related: 3 Tips to a Speedy Launch
What's next for Ulife?
Our goal is to expand to 34 major universities across the nation in the next 12 months and become a household brand in the collegiate-licensed products industry. Most recently, we expanded into iPhone and iPad cases, mouse pads and travel pillows. Currently, Ulife products can be purchased at 20 retail locations, including six Oregon Mac Stores, three local Walgreens and the University of Oregon's Duck Store. Along with retail outlets, Ulife has added two more trademark licenses for Oregon State University and Boise State University.
What advice do you have for other young entrepreneurs?
Brain storming, generating ideas, talking with family and friends -- those are all good things, but everyone does them. What you need to do is take action and do everything with passion.