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Two years ago, when Kathleen Ward graduated from Texas Christian University and moved to Dallas to start her career, she needed furniture for her new apartment. “I didn’t have the money to go buy something new. So I got on Craigslist to buy some furniture. But it kind of scared me to think of going to a random person’s house,” she said. That’s when Ward, now 24, was inspired to start her own technology company catering to the college crowd. Based on e-commerce classified listing websites such as craiglist.com, uChilla is an online marketplace designed exclusively for college students and faculty to buy and sell with one another at their university. The site provides a safe and secure platform for students and teachers to trade with one another.
Ward launched uChilla at TCU earlier this year and has since expanded the concept to other major universities. “I thought it would be easier, cheaper and safer to buy from another TCU student, someone I knew who I was dealing with,” she said. “The best thing about uChilla is that everyone has a profile so you’re not dealing with a random person. It’s got the safety factor.” The site is also free for students to post their goods or services for barter or money. “It’s completely free for students. That’s the way I wanted it,” Ward said. “I know college students are stingy about spending money.” Ward says she had dreamed of owning her own business someday but never thought she would take the entrepreneurial plunge so soon. She graduated in 2011 with a finance/real estate major and energy minor and accepted a position at Silicon Valley Bank as a financial analyst.
“I really don’t want to sit behind a desk and crunch numbers all day. I saw all these entrepreneurs come in and out of the office and I thought, if they can do it, I can do it, too,” Ward said. “And if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. I just jumped with both feet in. I took the risk because now’s the time of my life to do this. I went for it. That’s what you have to do if you want to start a company.” Ward kept her day job while researching the e-commerce industry and raising $50,000 in start-up capital for her new venture. After incorporating the company in June 2012, she found a team of website developers in Lithuania that created her website there. “I really wanted a co-founder or developer to come on board but couldn’t find anyone here so I went overseas,” she said. “It would have been three times as expensive to do the development work here, too.” After introducing uChilla at TCU on March 1, Ward quit her banking job at the end of March to fully market her new startup. The company, with its catchy name and logo that resembles a university, created a buzz at TCU; there are now about 330 active users on the campus. uChilla is now online with a growing number of registered users at Baylor University, Texas Tech University, the University of Alabama, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Mississippi. With the recent addition of a chief technology officer, Bradley Joyce, and a chief marketing officer, fellow TCU alumnus Steve Hofmann, Ward is preparing to expand to other college campuses. “There’s no one in this industry focused on the college market,” she said. “Our goal for 2014 is to launch at two new campuses each month.” The uChilla vision Similar to other e-commerce classified listing sites that offer goods and services, uChilla is simple to navigate. Users register using a “.edu” email address and are then verified as members of a university community. Users then create a profile and post/search for items or services at their university or expand their search to other universities. Products and services are categorized, show the name of the registered user posting, the user’s college, a brief description and asking price. The buyer is then able to contact the seller through the site. Although Ward says transactions are safe from fraudulent activity, she recommends buyers and sellers meet in a public location. “It’s an easy concept. You just have to have an edu email address,” she said. “And the items should be something students are actually interested in buying or selling.” Popular items that are listed include used furniture and textbooks; sporting event tickets; real estate; and services such as tutoring, baby sitting and lawn mowing. “It’s an easy, secure way to make money and save money on products and services,” Ward said. “It’s also a great internship and a good opportunity for a part-time job for students.” Two uChilla representatives are hired at each campus. They promote the business by handing out fliers at sporting events, meetings and organizations, and are compensated for the number of posts generated. The company is implementing a credit card system, which will require a small transaction fee. Advertising on the website also is available as another source of revenue. A blog is being built that will include restaurant and apartment reviews and topics of other interest for each uChilla campus location. “By January the website will be spruced up and perfect just in time for students coming back for the spring semester,” Ward said. “We hope to turn a profit next semester,” she added. “It’s sweat equity for now. As we start making money, we want to give back to the schools in the form of scholarships. It’s another way that will set us apart.” uChilla Inc. 214-755-8037 www.uchilla.com