Sitting in the “fake” Starbucks Café at Framingham State University, two students laughed about the prospects about their future somewhat in doubt. Weeks later they would win a $96,000 prize, erasing some of that doubt.
These two students, Cameron Hoffman, a junior business management major at Framingham State University and Andrew Mathieu, a sophomore, have helped launch a business online that has recently been recognized by Boston University’s “Shark Tank” convention and Bar Rescue, while also having helped put money into to the pockets of 3,600 students.
On April 7, Hoffman, and Alexandra Shadrow, a senior public relations major at Boston University, represented Unitiques as finalists in BU’s 15th Annual New Venture Competition – their version of “Shark Tank,” a competition where new small businesses present their business models in order to impress potential investors. As of Tuesday night, Unitiques won first place prize of $96,000.
Unitiques, a Web site and free marketplace for college students, gives users the opportunity to sell products such as women’s and men’s clothing, electronics and furniture, as well as make purchases.
Unitiques was among the five finalists including Alt-Options LLC, CloudSolar, Downtyme and Sub-It. According to Hoffman, finalists could win prizes worth $5,000 to $96,000 in legal services from Wilmer Hale, a $10,000 cash prize, a $1,000 audience appreciation aware, $20,000 in rent credit from Cummings Properties and packages from Open Desk and Microsoft BizSpark worth $60,000.
The site is available on campuses including Boston University, Boston College, Emerson, FSU, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Suffolk, Syracuse and Wentworth. The company is focusing on New England college students, said Hoffman.
Founded by Shadrow, Unitiques, which started at BU, is now operating at a dozen schools, according to Hoffman.
Since being launched in September of last year at BU, Unitiques has recorded over $10,000 in transactions, said Hoffman.
“Unitiques is basically a consignment shop for college students,” said Hoffman. “Unique boutique is the best way to remember it.”
Hoffman met Shadrow at Johnson and Wales University while she was visiting the campus. Shadrow shared her ideas about her Web site. Hoffman looked into it, and soon became her marketing partner.
In the beginning stages, Hoffman and Shadrow did not have the product they wanted, and soon began developing and updating their Web site to make it more user-friendly.
Hoffman transferred to FSU in his second semester, and began searching for new partners to develop a Unitiques site at FSU.
Hoffman and Mathieu are in charge of launching Unitiques at FSU.
Originally, Unitiques was a Facebook page with 300 users that Shadrow created to buy and sell clothes. After the page grew to 2,500 users, Shadrow shared her success with Hoffman, and soon a partnership and Web site was created.
From once being a door-to-door knife salesmen, Hoffman considers himself an entrepreneur after finding his niche in management and team building. Hoffman said he feels more comfortable being in “charge of operations.” Hoffman joked about the times his friends teased him for having to plan every activity they did.
“I like to work along with people, not for people,” said Hoffman.
Mathieu, a marketing major, grew up around business. His parents, who both majored in accounting, and his sister, a pre-med major, are all in sales. Following in his family’s footsteps, Mathieu is now running a Web site that is used by college students across the country.
“If you love your job, you never work a day in your life,” said Mathieu.
Hoffman and Mathieu met last year while playing for FSU’s men’s hockey team. Being on the same team opened the door to their friendship.
“Did we miss our anniversary?” asked Hoffman, laughing.
“Since day one, my goal was to find people to attack this thing,” he said, regaining his composure. “Andrew stood out.”
Unitiques team members are all students, and the five of them meet up for weekly meetings to discuss trends they have noticed, new ideas and ways to create better results.
“For us, it’s kind of a part-time gig with the other million things we each have going on,” said Hoffman.
According to Mathieu, Unitiques’ is big on social media, and Elise Arsenault, a freshman, was recruited as their “social media expert.”
Unitiques has multiple accounts, said Mathieu. There is a Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram account, to advertise and set up promotional deals. Unitiques’ page on Facebook has over 7,400 likes from students across New England.
As the first female team player, Arsenault not only is in charge of the media campaign, she also sells her own custom-designed shoes.
Recently, Hoffman hired two new team members – juniors Mikaela Green and Josh Ehrlich.
Green said she heard about Unitiques from RamTrack, where the company was looking for a social media intern. She checked out the Web site and saw potential in expanding their products. She signed up immediately.
Currently, Unitiques is more of a boutique. However, Green hopes to see more students creating businesses for themselves in the future. For example, student photographers can sell their prints, she said.
“That is the image,” said Green. “The idea is to have [a Web site] that is a safe environment for students to sell.”
It is important for students to realize they can accomplish anything, said Green. She added that having options is “refreshing.”
Ehrlich became part of the “Uniteam” last week. So far, he sees it really taking off, and looks forward to the upcoming events sponsored by Unitiques, such as “Rams go Hams,” a 21+ event to promote the company.
“FSU students can sell unneeded clothing, books, jewelry and pretty much anything they no longer need to make some extra cash,” said Ehrlich. “God knows we need it.”
“If a student thinks something is overpriced, they can bargain with the seller to get a better price,” he added. “The best part is it’s only for college students. … There’s no worrying about meeting up with potentially dangerous strangers.”
Unitiques is considered a safe outlet for students to use, said Hoffman.
To register, a student has to have a valid “.edu” email. This way, the site can verify whether someone is a college student. If a person were to message a student online asking about a product, the message would be the color red if the person was not a student.
“We are trying to preserve your safety as much as possible,” said Hoffman.
Once someone is in the market, it is as though a person has his or her own personal store. Students also have the option of creating a URL to refer other users and friends to their page.
Recently, Unitiques 2.0 was launched to make the Web site more user-friendly, said Hoffman.
Additionally, brands such as Mass Apparel and Deep Funk collaborate with Unitiques. For a discounted price, these brands can sell through Unitiques, earning the company more users and more business for everyone, said Hoffman.
Most of the time, Shadrow has given her pitch and negotiated with companies which use their Web site to sell their products. Other times, “brands come to us,” said Hoffman.
To promote Unitiques, Hoffman has initiated clothing swaps, promotional items and upcoming student activities.
Students have hosted and participated in clothing swaps where students bring in five articles of clothing and eventually leave with five new pieces. In other words, students would swap across a room and have a new wardrobe.
Hoffman said the “Uniteam” has attempted to collaborate with clubs on campus. However, technicalities prevented this from happening.
“Until we have more support from the school, we can’t really do that,” said Hoffman.
Spreading awareness of the Web site while abiding by university rules has proven to be difficult, said Mathieu.
“The University doesn’t want us to appear like we are exploiting,” he said.
Hoffman added, “That’s probably been our biggest [issue] – being restricted around campus.”
Currently, Hoffman is in the process of creating an entrepreneurship club.
Member of Unitiques have been working on getting faculty behind the vision, said Matheiu. Some of the members will be giving presentations in their classes about their work and design for the Web site.
According to Mathieu, Dean of Students Melinda Stoops is supportive of their student-run business, and has offered advice and tips on the process.
“I think any opportunity students have to apply the knowledge and skills they are learning from their classes and co-curricular experiences is wonderful,” said Stoops. “This would include student development of Web sites or businesses. There are various ways the community can support these efforts, including: mentoring, participating in informational interviews and educating students about available campus resources.”
Stoops added, “We have specific policies and processes for business transactions on campus. I encourage students to familiarize themselves with such policies and practices that might impact their work.
“Also, we’ve got a great number of faculty and staff with expertise that may be helpful to students who are trying to start a business.”
Mathieu said, “Everything is non-profit. Except for the exchange. As workers, we are not making any money unless we sell something. That is the profit we make.”
Hoffman said, “A big value behind Unitiques is that it’s by college students, for college students. We are working off of merit, because we believe in the vision.
“It’s in our users’ hands,” he added.