They jokingly called themselves the "losers" of an entrepreneurship class they took last year at the University of Ottawa, because no one else wanted to pair up with them on projects. But now, Frank Bouchard, Thomas Sychterz and Toby Maurice are winners.
A project that stemmed from Mr. Bouchard's simple idea turned into an online phenomenon and earned the team nearly $500,000 after the campaign they started on crowdfunding website Kickstarter.com went viral last December.
The very "non-sexy" idea, as they say, is called the Wipebook. It's a notebook with whiteboard pages that are completely erasable and reusable.
"Beautifully simple," says Mr. Bouchard, a 25-year-old Ottawa native. "Everyone's reaction once they see it is, 'Why didn't I think of that?'"
In their entrepreneurship class, part of their master of engineering management program, they were asked to develop something that garnered quick feedback from customers, so Mr. Bouchard presented his erasable notebook concept.
"I was getting frustrated doing tons of assignments [and] I wanted something where I could do some math and wipe the pages clean. I had some irk that I was wasting so much paper. I had this prototype developed with transparencies – like what you use on an overhead projector – and I just had that, in a binder," Mr. Bouchard says.
"It's simple, clear and easy-to-use. It's open and go. There are no obstacles to creativity," says Mr. Sychterz.
"Creativity without remorse," adds Mr. Maurice.
The team initially put Wipebook on crowdfunding website Indiegogo in an attempt to raise funds as part of the class assignment.
"It was set up to see if these crowdfunded campaigns actually worked. We had no clue if these were a viable way to actually get money," Mr. Bouchard says.
"Our objective of that crowdfunded idea was actually to drive traffic to our website," explains Mr. Maurice.
They managed to raise $200 and were excited at every dollar they got.
After selling a few more units through student associations at the University of Ottawa, Mr. Bouchard drafted up one more campaign, this time using Kickstarter, and launched it at the end of November in line with Global Entrepreneurship Week.
Their objective was to raise $4,000.
"The initial premise was to see if we could hit this goal. We'd reinvest the revenue generated from that and we'd augment that with some of our own cash and investment to build a new version," Mr. Maurice says. "This was different. You could tell immediately this was going to take off."
Within one day, the team had beaten their goal.
"Our Kickstarter was like a startup on steroids … and crack," says Mr. Sychterz with a laugh.
Mr. Bouchard constantly updated the Kickstarter page and interacted with people who had commented on the product during the 30-day campaign, making sure their momentum never slowed.
"What we did in 30 days a good company couldn't do in eight months," Mr. Maurice says. "It was the longest 30 days of my life."
Thankfully for them, Mr. Bouchard and Mr. Maurice followed up with another entrepreneurship course with the same professor at the University of Ottawa.
"Essentially, you had to set up the foundations of a business and that was very important. We had a lot of the groundwork done," Mr. Bouchard says.
Nearly three months after the completion of their successful Kickstarter campaign, the business has evolved, the product is hitting the hands of the people who funded it on Kickstarter, and the men are deciding how involved they want to be with the product moving forward.
"This has been so sudden," Mr. Bouchard says. "This thing comes along in a month and changes your entire life in 30 days. Even the dean [of engineering] has said, 'You have to pursue this thing.'"
It won't be that easy for the group to continue as they do now.
Mr. Bouchard now works full-time at the university as the director of outreach programs in the engineering faculty. Mr. Maurice, 40, has worked for 10 years at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office and has a family. Meanwhile, Mr. Sychterz, 26, is taking his MBA at HEC Montréal.
All three will remain on the project as founders, but Mr. Sychterz, once his studies are complete, is the lone co-founder to confirm he will be involved in the day-to-day operations of Wipebook.
Regardless, they all know it will be a long-term business.
"We have identified that there is a market for a reusable, whiteboard notebook. We know it's there, we did nearly half a million [dollars in fundraising] in 30 days," Mr. Maurice says.
(Sales of the Wipebook 2.0 to the public opened March 1 through its website at a cost of $29.99 each. To help with their operations, they've hired four people.)
Mr. Sychterz says he'll be going to California this summer to set up a Wipebook office in co-ordination with an MBA consulting project at HEC. They have also been selected by Quebec-based Pléiade Capital to take part in its three-month entrepreneurship program, a small venture fund that supports young entrepreneurs.
"I'm very excited about this, since the fund is associated with the HEC business school. There's a communal effort to get Wipebook to the next level," Mr. Sychterz says.
The student crowdfunding option
Crowdfunding is beyond a passing fad. According to the National Crowdfunding Association of Canada, it's a $5.1-billion industry, and there are 70 crowdfunding portals in the country – beyond the well-known ones such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
Students have realized the potential this has for financing their business ideas.
There is a demand from students to learn more about crowdfunding, says Stephen Daze, who teaches as entrepreneur in residence at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.
But it's not as simple as posting your idea and waiting for the money to roll in, Mr. Daze says.
"There's a lot to learn. You can't just put a campaign up, you have to have an idea that's well supported by social media. Crowdfunding is a great validation point. It's easy to set up a campaign, but you need to make sure that you support the crowd part of crowdfunding," he says.