When 23-year-old Dhanraj Bahety went to Boston for a summer exchange at Harvard University, he had to spend quite a fair bit of money on buying essentials such as pillows, blankets, and bedsheets.
But after the end of his 6-month stay, the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) undergrad had to throw them all away because he didn’t want to waste on luggage space.
In other words, it was a waste of time, money and resources.
And during a Minor in Entrepreneurship programme back in NTU in June last year, the same problem recurred – albeit to other exchange students this time round.
“More than 60 students came from all over the world came for the 4-week programme, and all of them automatically went to IKEA to get their daily necessities,” said Dhanraj.
He reasoned that foreigners are familiar with the brand. Since they are new in Singapore, they are not acquainted with alternative retail options that could offer more variety and at lower prices.
After spending their first night here, they realised that they needed to get other essentials like ethernet cables and routers – and this took up more of their time and money.
“When they were all packing to leave Singapore at the end of the programme, they tried to offload all they could on the new local friends they had made.”
“The rest of their stuff was thrown into overflowing trash cans around the halls, which caused a huge mess since NTU does not have any recycling drives during the Summer.”
Cashing In On A Problem
The final course of the said programme was Business Venture Implementation.
In this course, students were required to start up a business venture using hard and soft skills learnt in other modules.
Bearing the earlier pain points in mind, Dhanraj figured that this project could serve as the perfect platform for his group mates to resolve this pertinent problem.
Hailing from different courses, six other NTU undergrads were on the same team as him, namely Koh Sheng Jie, Pey Siya, Rinie Gupta, Pratyum Jagannath, Mah Wei Ren, and Peh Qian Hui.
They are all aged between 21 and 25, but their young ages did not hinder their entrepreneurial streak.
Together, they came up with the idea of Dorm Buddy, which is a one-stop dormitory essentials rental service for students.
We are a friendly service that helps to make dorm life easy, especially for exchange students. We want to help them get settled down as soon as possible so they can get the most out of their stay here.
Dhanraj said that the team understands that searching for dorm necessities can be quite a hassle, especially in a foreign country.
It will take a lot of time to search for these items, as well as a lot of effort to carry them all back.
“Past exchange students have told us that they spent multiple days at multiple stores to get all their basic dorm necessities.”
“With Dorm Buddy, all you need to do is to place your order on our website, update where and when you want us to deliver your stuff, and we will deliver all your items to your door step.”
They conceived this business idea in September last year, and officially launched the business in December 2016.
“This venture is completely self-initiated and self-funded. All of us started off putting $500 of our money – $3,500 in total – into it to get the starting inventory and set up the basics.”
Getting You Sorted Out
Dorm Buddy offers a wide range of products and necessities that students will need throughout their stay in NTU.
“We rent out all the essential goods such as pillows, blankets, bedsheets, towels, hangers, laundry bags, plug adaptors, extension cords, ethernet cables, routers, trash cans, and even brooms and dust pans.”
“We also make sure our linens go for commercial washes, so they’re as clean as the linens you get in hotels. All other items are sanitised before renting, and we never reuse pillows or laundry bags.”
Students can opt to rent single items; or go for various combo bundles, which range between $35 and $100 (excluding a 50% security deposit).
Individually, prices can go as low as $3 for plug converters, or up to $18 for a router.
“All our prices are 20 to 50 per cent lesser than market rates, which helps our customers save money.”
“Moreover, reusing and recycling these items are also in line with NTU’s eco-campus initiative.”
Sold Out At Launch
The Dorm Buddy team approached NTU’s Office of Global Exchange and Mobility to help them reach their initial target audience: the exchange students.
According to Dhanraj, they were extremely supportive of their initiative and granted them an opportunity to present at the January 2017 intake briefing.
We had a booth outside the briefing for on-the-spot orders, and we sold out. We bought more inventory, and sold out again and again.
“We had an insane amount traffic driven to our website, to the point that we exceeded the number of emails our email service provider allowed us to send, as they thought it might be spam!”
Customers also asked them to include more items in their rental service such as fridges, fans and calculators.
But since they were all high-value items, and we were using our own rooms as warehouses at that time, it was difficult for us to accommodate to these requests.
Following the good response, the 7 members had trouble keeping up with the demand.
“We personally make all the deliveries and collections to the first 150 customers, coordinating every order, making sure that every payment comes through, and even reaching out to every exchange student we could find on Facebook.”
“My room was converted into a mini warehouse, Pratyum used every free coupon he could find for server and payment gateways, and Siya used her own car to collect supplies and deliver orders.”
But now that Dorm Buddy has tied up with a professional warehousing company to take care of their storage needs, they are looking at exploring the opportunity to expand their product portfolio.
They’ve also outsourced their marketing design work, as well as collections and deliveries to help alleviate the manpower crunch.
To date, Dorm Buddy has served about 320 customers, chalking up a revenue of about $12,000 for the past year.
“We are completely in the green as far as our finances are concerned. We’ve got no debt, and we haven’t needed to raise capital externally, and are in a position to run the company completely on the profits we’ve made so far.”
“It’s not too shabby for a group of 7 uni kids who have zero experience in business, and the business that we built from the ground up is still going strong.”
When asked if they intend to expand their business, Dhanraj said that they want to expand their reach to include local students as well.
He added that they are also looking at introducing their service to other universities, such as National University of Singapore, Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore Institute of Management, and Singapore Management University.
“Graduation and work life have slowed down these goals for a bit, but now that we’re used to juggling Dorm Buddy and work/student life, things should get rolling soon,” he said.
When asked to share some business advice to fellow young entrepreneurs, he said that one’s business must be able to solve a pain point.
Finding a gap in the market is hard, but it is borne out of being observant and having a frantic urge to solve it.
“Never back down from a challenge or dismiss an opportunity before you analyse every nook and cranny out of it.”
Featured Image Credit: Dorm Buddy