By Laura Donnelly-Smith
When George Washington University senior Dylan Fox was a sophomore, he had the idea for his first startup. Wouldn’t it be great if stuff like toilet paper or toothpaste came right to your door, automatically delivered on a monthly schedule? He wanted to create a company called LeaveItToMom.com that would send college students monthly toiletry packages. He took his idea to Jim Chung, executive director of GW’s Office of Entrepreneurship, looking for feedback.
Mr. Chung was not enthusiastic.
“He was really skeptical,” Mr. Fox recalled. He ended up starting the company anyway, despite Mr. Chung’s concerns. LeaveItToMom.com ultimately failed.
But Mr. Fox wasn’t discouraged. He moved right onto his next idea—a website that would allow small groups, like high school bands, parent-teacher associations or community nonprofits, to solicit donations for their fundraising efforts while rewarding the donors for giving. This new idea, which he developed into Crowdvance.com, got a much more enthusiastic response and plenty of support from the Office of Entrepreneurship. And last month, Crowdvance won first place in an international business plan competition at Texas Christian University. The prize was a $15,000 grant to invest into the company.
“Failing at first was such a good learning experience,” Mr. Fox said. “GW provides great opportunities for student entrepreneurs.”
The idea behind Crowdvance is to help small groups successfully raise funds without any initial investment. Teams and community groups have been having bake sales and selling T-shirts for decades, but fundraisers like these require serious upfront commitments of time or money—often both—and groups must recoup that initial investment before dedicating any earnings to their cause. Mr. Fox’s idea was to create a website that would link small groups with national sponsors who provide desirable rewards—like discounts on merchandise—directly to the donors.
There’s no cost for groups to set up fundraising pages they can share with supporters, and anyone who decides to donate can choose a voucher for a reward from one of Crowdvance’s national partners. Right now, the list includes companies like delivery.com (savings on food orders), shoebuy.com (savings on shoes and apparel), Razorgator (discounts on sporting event or concert tickets) and HuluPlus (free access).
Mr. Fox said one of his company’s main goals is to continually build new relationships with nationally known brands to offer a wider variety of rewards.
“We want to get rewards that will appeal to lots of different people, from college kids to grandmothers,” he said. “We want what donors get to be applicable and rewarding. So we’re always reaching out to new companies.”
The Crowdvance model allows major companies to essentially “sponsor” small community groups, Mr. Fox said. And when groups are spending less time baking for their bake sales and organizing their T-shirt sales, they have more time to do the things they’re best at—whether that’s playing music, training for national competitions or doing community service projects.
Mr. Fox credited the support provided by GW’s Office of Entrepreneurship as a major part of his success. He won third place in the 2012 GW Business Plan Competition and used feedback he received from that experience to help further refine the Crowdvance model.
“The process that we have at GW, with the mentorships, the pitch practice and the Business Plan Competition, all helped me get to where I am now,” he said. “I’d tell other students to take advantage of it and to take risks while still in college.”
Mr. Chung said his goal in the Office of Entrepreneurship is to encourage GW students to think big. “You only have 24 hours in a day which you can spend on doing something, so you might as well spend that valuable time on building something that will change the world,” he said.
“We can build off students’ energy and initiative and help them get where they want to be. Our model works best when students really take advantage of all we have to offer. Come talk to us and participate in all our events—we have something almost every week during the school year. Even if your startup doesn’t work out, the experience will help you for the rest of your life.”
Mr. Fox will work on Crowdvance full time after his graduation on May 19. The company now includes three full-time staffers and two interns, with four more interns coming on for the summer. Mr. Fox said he foresees more expansion in the future.
“We want to be as ubiquitous as bake sales within three years,” he said. “We want it to be second nature that small organizations go to Crowdvance.”