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Blugolds’ app idea earns them top honors at an Eau Claire contest for aspiring entrepreneurs

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Blugolds Connor Smith, left, and Leyirabari Gininwa meet in a collaborative workspace in downtown Eau Claire to continue developing their idea for an app to make it easy for community members to find students looking for part-time, flexible work. The UCO app team, which included UW-Eau Claire entrepreneurship students, won Eau Claire’s Startup 48 contest this fall. (Photo by Shane Opatz)

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire business students are working to build an app that would connect community members who want to hire people to complete tasks for them with students interested in part-time flexible jobs.

“Students are incredibly busy and on top of their studies, clubs and other organizations, they need to find a way to pay rent, groceries and other expenses,” says Connor Smith, a business management and entrepreneur major and music minor from Apple Valley, Minnesota, who proposed the idea. “Full-time jobs are difficult to hold as a busy student and can cause a ton of stress and pressure.”

Their app would easily and quickly connect community members who have jobs they want done with college students who are looking for work that fits into their busy and often-changing schedules, Smith says. 

“Like Uber, a community member could post a job, and the job can be accepted at any time by a college student,” Smith says. “It’s an app that connects students with part-time work around the community.”

This fall, the Blugolds’ idea for their app, UCO, earned them top honors at Startup 48, Eau Claire’s annual business jumpstart competition open to anyone interested in entrepreneurship.

Alexis Gonzales, a business management entrepreneurship major with a minor in marketing who was part of the UCO team, says the app’s strength is that it will help both students and community members.

It’s a “connecting platform” that will help community members “get work done faster and cheaper” than they could using other more traditional tools because they can connect with students who are immediately available to do the job, says Gonzales, a junior from Wausau. Since students can accept a job the same day it’s posted, they can make “fast money” that works with their schedules, she says.

Aspiring entrepreneur

Smith says the idea for the app came to him as he was sitting in a class “super stressed” about his schedule. He had class assignments due and an online quiz to complete as well as lacrosse practice. After practice, he still had to work his shift at Menards.

As he ran through his to-do list, Smith found himself wishing there was an easier way to fit a part-time job into his busy schedule so he could earn money but also keep up with his classes and sports.

“That’s when the idea came to me,” Smith says. “I did not know the business’ name yet, but I knew that a company that would make it easier for college students to make money could be huge.”

Smith started college elsewhere but transferred to UW-Eau Claire partly because it has a “business school that is amazing.” As a Blugold, he realized his “true passion is becoming a business owner.”

“My classes have expanded my vision of what it takes to run a business, and they’ve prepared me to take on the various challenges I will face,” Smith says.

Competition for aspiring entrepreneurs

The Startup 48 contest — a collaborative campus-community event — is an excellent opportunity for UW-Eau Claire students to build skills and connections in the Eau Claire area, says Ann Rupnow, who coordinates UW-Eau Claire’s entrepreneurship program and is one of the contest organizers.

“Getting out of the classroom and off campus to mingle with professionals from the Eau Claire area can be life-changing for these students,” Rupnow says. “It’s not unusual for students to tell me or share in reflection papers that Startup 48 is one of their best experiences as a student at UW-Eau Claire.”

The three-day event for people with business ideas begins with participants making 60-second pitches about their business ideas. The 30-plus participants then formed five teams based on the pitches and their interests. Each team worked to create viable business models to meet identified needs.

Local entrepreneurs and industry experts act as mentors throughout the weekend to assist the teams, all with the goal of cultivating new business ideas and leaders in the Eau Claire area.

Participants include developers, coders, designers, marketers, financiers and business owners as well as college students. The annual event attracts everyone from experienced entrepreneurs to people who are simply curious about what it would take to start their own business.

Gonzales says it was “so much fun and such a great learning experience” to be part of Startup 48, which she says was an incredible opportunity to learn more about starting a business and to connect with others on campus and in the Eau Claire community who share her interest in entrepreneurship.

“We had guest speakers on Friday night, could pitch business ideas and then got to pick what group we wanted to be a part of,” Gonzales says. “We then had the rest of Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday morning to figure everything out and prepare a pitch.”

During their work time, they had to validate their idea by surveying community members, Gonzales says. They also met with mentors, who helped them troubleshoot issues and pivot as necessary, she says.

“The best part for me was getting to bond with others and work really hard on something everyone was excited about,” Gonzales says.

A team of Blugolds

Smith says that after he and others pitched their ideas, he was fortunate to have “seven amazing UW-Eau Claire students pick my idea and want to grow and start the business.”

He especially enjoyed collaborating with the team, producing new ideas and aspects of the company, and getting to know everybody in the group, Smith says.

“Deep down I knew we were going to win,” Smith says of his team, which was made up of current Blugolds. “The team worked extremely hard; we stayed the latest and showed up the earliest.”

Leyirabari Gininwa, a senior from Mounds View, Minnesota, also was impressed by the team’s commitment to the project, saying “the best parts of my Startup 48 experience revolved around the cohesion of our group.”

“From the start, our group seemed the most immersed in our idea,” says Gininwa, who is pursuing a major in Latin American and Latinx studies and a certificate in entrepreneurship. “My favorite facet of the weekend was feeling as though I was working with a real business team on a real business project. It was a very immersive and helpful experience that boosted us further than I was anticipating.”

Rupnow says she was impressed by UCO team members who “kept an open mind and were willing to pivot” depending on what their research showed them. The team went above and beyond in their interviewing and surveys to determine if their idea would address a community need, she says.

“They got over 300 pieces of validating information from people saying they are on to something,” Rupnow says. “It’s exciting they went that far in their research to get that validation of their idea.”

While he knew “from day 1 that this was a winning idea,” Smith says every member of his team helped make the Startup 48 win possible.

“The idea would never have even gotten off the ground if it weren’t for everybody putting in 100% effort and reshaping the idea into a viable business,” Smith says of his UCO team.

Looking ahead

Gonzales came to UW-Eau Claire as a nursing major but soon realized her passion is in business, a field she says she “never knew I was interested in until I got here.”

While Gonzales is no longer involved with the UCO app project, she says Startup 48 reinforced for her that changing majors was the right decision and it inspired her to think differently about her future.

“Winning helped me feel more confident and comfortable in my new major and further piqued my interest in entrepreneurship,” Gonzales says. “It motivated me to not give up on my business idea.”

Gininwa also came to UW-Eau Claire to study nursing, but he changed his path after COVID-19 closures gave him time to reflect on what matters most to him.

“My time away from school showed me just how much I missed learning about the topics of Latin America as well as the language and culture, which is where my academic passion lies,” Gininwa says. “Outside of this, my biggest passion is to be successful and to provide for those around me who I love and care for. The path we are going on with UCO seems to be a great way to get me there.”

Being part of the startup contest convinced her that she can someday successfully launch her own business, which likely will be something relating to childcare, Gonzales says.

“This experience has really helped to fuel my fire to do those things and helps me believe that I can be successful right out of college doing them,” Gonzales says.

Startup 48 was a great experience that will help her be successful in her future career, says Kaitlyn Madole, a management major with an emphasis in entrepreneurship and a marketing minor from Owatonna, Minnesota. It was rewarding to work as a team to develop a new business idea, she says.

“I would love to someday build my own business from the ground up, but for now, I’d love to be a part of helping build someone else's dream,” Madole says.

The best part of the startup event was meeting with their mentors, Madole says. Her group worked with “a group of awesome mentors who were very knowledgeable about various topics,” she says. The mentors answered questions about their business idea but also about “just being an entrepreneur in general,” she says.

UCO app is still a concept, but Smith hopes to bring it to market soon. As the contest winners, the UCO team received a prize package that includes office space and an array of consulting services, such as finance, intellectual property protection and marketing.

The Startup 48 win also qualifies the team to advance to the Wisconsin Big Idea Tournament, a statewide pitch competition with prizes of up to $2,500 in startup capital. The competition is open to undergraduate and graduate students attending any two- or four-year UW school except UW-Madison.

The UCO team now has a collaborative workspace in downtown Eau Claire, where they meet “to shape the idea, crunch numbers and get ready to move forward in attracting investors,” Smith says. They are contacting app developers and looking for other pitch competitions to gain additional funding, he says.

“We’re starting to develop the app and make the business come to life,” Smith says. “We plan to move forward and never give up on this idea because it’s something every college student can benefit from.”

In addition to Smith, Gininwa, Madole and Gonzales, other Blugolds on the UCO Startup 48 team include Kim Sieja, a biology major from Chippewa Falls who is pursuing an entrepreneurship certificate; Caden Petersen, a management entrepreneur major from Rockford, Minnesota; Breann Cagle, a management entrepreneur major from Merrill; and Clarke Mouw, a business finance major and entrepreneurship minor from Marathon.