Truly successful people hate how so many ‘wantrepreneurs’ talk about how much they want to build a company, but never act on it. These two college entrepreneurs are about to make most aspiring entrepreneurs look like wimps. Delara Fadavi and Danee Kenyon have only been entrepreneurs for six weeks and have already raised $20,000 without a perfected product! Ambition? Check. Initiative? Check. Ability to make people throw money at them? Check, check, and check!
What is their brilliant product that they’ve created that’s got people writing checks for them while you are still sitting there counting down the days to EDC? They’ve invented a solution to stop your laptop from getting stolen. It’s pretty genius how this works.
USKey is a motion-activated USB plug-in alarm with an on-board speaker. When you have to leave your laptop unattended, you plug the USB in, activate it through a password, and you go about your business. If the laptop is moved at all, the alarm sounds, alerting everyone in the area. It even works when the computer hibernates and only you can disable the alarm through a password.
I had the pleasure of catching up with CEO and third year bio-engineering student Delara before their first pitch competition where she shared how they put a talented team of engineers and entrepreneurs together, what it’s like promoting their company and finding funding on campus, and how they are growing their company faster than most young entrepreneurs thought possible. If you’re a college student and care at all about being even remotely successful, then you’ll want to read our interview about these two talented ladies.
Like many college startups, USKey was slapped together in the spur of the moment. At the time of this interview, USKey was barely a month old from inception, had already applied to tech funds, and already had a pitch competition lined up. As of today, they have gained valuable experience through that pitch competition and even grabbed $20,000 in funding along the way.
“The past two weeks have been really fast paced. We started the project, the next day we applied to the Triton Technology Fund and we have an interview with them to get some initial funding. The funding for parts and things so far comes from the Gordon Center. A couple days later we applied to this pitch competition, made a one minute video pitch and the next day we got a response that we were in the next round and now we are pitching again in front of a panel of judges, so it’s all really fast paced and its all coming together a lot faster than I initially expected.”
At a school like UCSD, programs like the Gordon Center have to be applied for where acceptance is based on good standing academics and a background in engineering. Entrepreneurship classes are available, but the most valuable resource is the generous guidance available. Delara explained that, “We all have a challenge project- we all have to come up with some sort of innovative engineering solution for whatever application, so all of these people are working on some sort of product, structural engineering innovations, there are some students who are 3D printing rockets, so we definitely have that strong network through the Gordon Center so its very supportive.”
Who has mentored you so far?
“We have mentors at the Gordon Center; they’ve been really supportive in helping us find pitch competitions. So today, this evening, we are going to go pitch at the Recess Semi-Finals Pitch Competition that’s brought to UCSD by Mark Cuban, so they’ve been helping us prepare to have an entrepreneurial mindset. We are all engineers and we are doing all the technical stuff but they are helping us keep in mind market size, if we can have a profitable product, questions about IP, so that’s where we reach out to them more. Our future now is about how we are going to secure intellectual property and how we will organize ourselves to make it a legitimate company.”
What stage are you at now in development?
“We are now collecting market data. We sent out a Surveymonkey survey with different questions like “how useful do you think this product can be,” “do you think it can deter theft,” “would you buy it,” “how much would you pay,” and so on.”
Collecting market data for a prototype product is a necessary step for all entrepreneurs at some point and it’s as easy as asking a class to take a quick survey at the beginning of the lecture. Surveying the market yielded some great results for USKey. Delara explained that,
“We surveyed around 200 people, mostly students ages 18-22 responded but we did have the random 65 year old, but in general 75 percent of the participants believe this product can help deter laptop theft. Another interesting statistic that we found was that 50 percent of the participants often times found themselves in the situation where they don’t want to leave their stuff unattended but they choose not to because they are worried about security. So it’s really promising to hear that the market will be receptive to our product.”
Additionally, Delara mentioned that, “Most people said that they’d pay $15-20 dollars for this product which is really exciting, so we are trying to keep our production cost per unit under that.”
How did you put your team together?
Made up of a small makeshift team of UCSD students, USKey was founded by 3rd year bio-engineering student and CEO Delara Fadavi and 4th year mechanical engineer and CTO Danee Kenyon; Aditi Gupta also serves as COO and chief marketer and Jorge Landaverde who manages hardware and software development.
“We mostly found everyone through the Gordon Engineering Leadership Program. I met Danee through there and met Jorge in another class so we all just fell together and we were in an engineering leadership class where we do presentations about potential products and potential solutions to problems that students have and what not, and Danee gave her really general pitch idea for this product, I found it interesting, was interested in entrepreneurship since freshman year but never found the idea that I wanted to work on, and when she gave her presentation, it just sparked my interest and I definitely saw something that is relevant, could be useful, so I approached her and told her we should make this a thing.”
Have you put any of your own money towards the project?
“No, not initially. We would have but the Gordon Center has been really generous and helping us out with the initial jump start until we get more funding. We are looking forward to the Triton Fund to really get going.”
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
“Probably setting meeting times when we can all get together and work on things, but to be honest we have some really talented students and that helps a lot. Danee and Jorge have been taking a lead on the technical things, they seem to be getting along and making progress so I think communication has been the biggest challenge. I also anticipate the manufacturing to take a long of time because I haven’t done that before.”
What has been the greatest lesson so far?
“Seeing the results are very encouraging. Before you see any results it’s… not discouraging, but I would be hesitant because I don’t want to waste my time, I don’t want to do something that I don’t think will succeed, but you really have to just just go for it, do something, and if it doesnt work out, try something else but definitely take that first step.”
So what does the future have in store for a young entrepreneur with such success ahead of her? An entrepreneur at heart, she plans to bring all her creative ideas to reality “I’ve thought of things from removable high heels to different bio-engineering applications. It’s just all really exciting.” Delara said that she is set on graduate school, focusing on engineering and management, but if USKey were to take off, she quickly added that, “I would definitely be willing to put off school and go further. It’d be a great experience.”
Right after our interview, Delara and Danee won the UCSD Recess Pitch Semi-Finals and were invited to the final round in Downtown Las Vegas at the annual Up Summit conference, which brought together over 500 entrepreneurs and Startup Weekend coordinators from across the globe. The pitch finals showcased nine college startup teams from across the United States and USKey pitched to a panel of judges representing Vegas Tech Fund, Dorm Room Fund, and Inc. Magazine.“
“We were able to meet a lot of young entrepreneurs, people who have had experience with startup incubators, and leaders of large companies like Scott Case, the founding CTO of Priceline and Steve Case, the former CEO of AOL.”
Though not everyone can leave home with the first price, Delara and Danee still left with a great deal to push their company even further.
“We didn’t end up placing in the pitch finals, but won a contest for a $20,000 prize pack from a company called Neon Roots for the best idea not yet built from all of the submissions at the pitch finals. They run a product workshop called Rootstrap, and want to help us accelerate and validate our idea.”
When I asked Delara how the experience at the pitch competition would change USKey’s strategy, she told me that,
“We are in a very early stage of development and growth compared to the other college startups who were competing, which was a slight disadvantage since we don’t have revenues and haven’t produced a final product yet. Regardless, we learned more about how to go about valuing our potential market, and got a lot of feedback regarding ideas to think about when branding and marketing USKey. It was also very helpful hearing the other students pitch and seeing what parts of their presentations were effective. In the future, I think we’ll adjust our pitch to focus more on the market potential we have and go-to-market strategy rather than the market research statistics we collected.”
What’s next for you and USKey?
“We gained a lot of momentum from the pitch finals in Vegas, and have a lot planned for the upcoming two weeks, including: meetings with Neon Roots to start up our Rootstrap, conference calls with mentors who we met in Vegas, meetings with the directors of UCSD entrepreneurial centers (namely Moxie and Von Liebig), attending the San Diego Venture Group’s Venture Summit on June 19th, and also pitching at the Geek Girl San Diego Tech Conference at their ‘Sharkette Tank’ pitch competition on June 21st.“