A Rainstorm Brainstorm
Karan Randhawa was home in Delhi last summer, out for a drive with his parents during a torrential rainstorm. Watching from the comfort of the family car, he saw people on motorcycles getting drenched. Most people in India can’t afford cars, and many rely on motorcycles for transportation. During monsoon season, that means often showing up at work completely soaked.
When Randhawa, A11, returned to Tufts last fall, he talked about the problem with friends in his Entrepreneurial Leadership 101 class. They saw an opportunity: Why not build something to keep motorcycle riders dry? The students started a company, Roof for Two, to design, develop and market the device, which they named the Shield.
The students—three other seniors and a junior—got a big boost for their project in April, when they won the seventh annual Tufts $100K Business Plan Competition, whose prize money is divided among the various winning groups. Roof for Two will receive $15,000 in cash, as well as $35,000 in in-kind legal and accounting services and office space.
Four of the students will spend this summer developing a prototype of the Shield. Randhawa, meanwhile, will return to India at the end of the semester to conduct focus groups, surveys and interviews to better understand consumer needs. The goal is to market a product that will be useable and affordable for the average motorcycle-riding citizen in India.
“We saw there was a need and a market, and it was fun to do,” says Maxime Pinto, A11, a history and environmental studies major. He says there are other kinds of covers for motorcycles, but none like the one they envision. For now they are keeping specific details about their product under wraps—no need to give the competition a heads up. All they will say is that the Shield will be made out of plastic and be both detachable and collapsible.
The Roof for Two students are very engaged in what they are doing, says Pamela Goldberg, director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Program at the Gordon Institute, which sponsored the competition. “That will help them overcome whatever hurdles lie ahead, and there are bound to be some,” she adds. “They care about this and have worked it out so that each person brings a different skill set to the table.”
In addition to Pinto and Randhawa, the team includes biology major David Chen, A11; psychology major Andrew Altman, A11; and Justin Ferranti, A12, who is studying international relations.
None of them has studied engineering, so they are recruiting an engineering student to join the team as they develop the prototype this summer. They also are overcoming what might seem like another handicap: none has a business background. But they have learned to speak the language of profit margins, retail margins and cost structures.
“We definitely pulled some all-nighters, but what really showed throughout the project was how great our team chemistry was,” says Pinto. “We had no qualms about spending 25 or 30 hours a week on this.” He adds, laughing, “We all spent more time on this than on our classes, and it shows.”
Taking a Chance
Several of the seniors have turned down job offers to work on Roof for Two—in fact, Randhawa has declined five. But they are willing to take a chance, and have persuaded their families their venture is worthwhile, even if they’re not successful. “A lot of people are skeptical about whether it will work, but my dad thinks it’s a great learning experience, and I’m getting a lot of support,” says Pinto. “That’s the beauty of being an entrepreneur. If I knew what I was going to do tomorrow, it would be very boring. We’re young; we can take a hit.”
The team doesn’t have investors yet, but they have used Tufts connections to contact venture capitalists. Winning the Business Plan Competition gives them more credibility, they say, though they have already learned a quick lesson: investors need to see a physical product that has been tested before they are ready to commit any money.
The Roof for Two student entrepreneurs have something besides their winnings to inspire them. Many former Business Plan Competition finalists and winners went on to successfully launch their ventures, including Emergent Energy, which works with municipalities to develop renewable energy projects, and iCadenza, which helps artists and arts organizations promote their work. “In winning this competition, they are validated in the venture community, so they’re more able to get funding and other kinds of resources,” says Goldberg.
As the winner of the Tufts competition, Roof for Two is eligible to move on to the Mass Challenge, a statewide contest this fall with prizes totaling $1 million. Last year, six of the winning teams in the contest were from Tufts.
While the $50,000 in cash, goods and services is handy, the Roof for Two students plan to get part-time jobs this summer so as not to “eat away at our cash,” as Pinto says. But instead of becoming camp counselors or flipping burgers at McDonald’s, they have another idea: they hope to learn more about their potential customers by finding jobs in the motorcycle industry.
Marjorie Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.