Three years ago, Thomas Genua was a high school student in Toronto. He was known by his peers for his cross-country running and interest in finance. William Liu was a second-year Pharmacology student from Winnipeg. NYC-based Abdoulaye Mouflet was wrapping up his first year at McGill, a university he had always dreamed of attending. Today, the three have something in common: they’re emerging student entrepreneurs.
Thomas and William, respective founders of Oodler and Nimbus Tutoring, both started with an observation that inspires many entrepreneurs: that, in one way or another, things could be better. For William, this related to tutoring services for students:
“…back when we were in first year and looking for a tutor, it was hard to find a tutor through a student organization, and most tutoring businesses didn’t offer student-friendly prices.”
Many students might experience this frustration, complain and move on; William saw it as an opportunity. Along with co-founder Hamza Jaffer, who has since graduated, William envisioned a platform where people who were passionate about teaching could be connected with those who are eager to learn. Two and a half years later, the idea has manifested into an app called Nimbus Tutoring.
Nimbus Tutoring is different than most tutoring businesses. The company enlists students who have done well in a McGill course, carefully vetting them to ensure that they are knowledgeable and helpful. Through the app, Nimbus connects the tutors with students who are struggling in the same course. Tutors normally charge $15-25 per hour, far lower than the marked-up prices that frustrated William and Hamza in first-year, and coordinate a time and place to meet with their students. Since many of the tutors are McGill students themselves, most meetups happen on campus — often in a Redpath study room or a table on the second floor of Bronfman. While many students have joined and left the team, William has been at the helm of it through thick and thin. His Chief Marketing Officer, Abdoulaye, has been heavily involved since May.
It was hard to find a tutor through a student organization, and most tutoring businesses didn’t offer student-friendly prices.
Similarly, Oodler’s Thomas Genua jumped at a different opportunity. He noticed that small businesses, especially independent cafes, usually couldn’t afford payment loyalty software:
“[We’re looking at] businesses who are not sitting on hundred of millions of dollars, with a few employees who work different shifts and sell you coffee.”
Over the last summer, Thomas put together a team of students studying computer science or software engineering to build software and a corresponding app named Oodler. Oodler tackles the problem head-on: the software seamlessly integrates into cafes’ existing technology, and cafe-goers download the app on their phone. When visiting a cafe, users can pay using the app on their phones, collecting loyalty points that can be redeemed at any participating cafe. In a city like Montreal, lined with cafes, the app is poised to be a hit.
“I’m friendly with the baristas and the owners, I talk to them about this app and whether they’d be interested, and I’ve never had someone not be interested in it.”
Even beyond the coffee, life in Montreal has been instrumental in helping these student entrepreneurs get off the ground. With more postsecondary students per-capita than any North American city, not to mention a strong reputation for innovation and creativity, Montreal is an ideal location for a student-founded app to flourish. Student entrepreneurs use this to their advantage, networking with one another to share ideas and find ways to collaborate. The idea for Oodler sparked from Thomas’ conversations with fellow ambitious McGill students, and as for Nimbus, their six-person development team was recently contracted out by a different McGillian who also wanted to build an app.
There’s an increasingly popular sentiment that university is a waste of time and money, but these student entrepreneurs couldn’t disagree more. The entrepreneurs point to some useful things they’ve learned inside the classroom — critical thinking for Thomas, the scientific method for William, and rational decision-making for Abdoulaye — but their main source of excitement comes from the people they’ve met. “That’s definitely the biggest value of McGill,” says Abdoulaye, “the huge amount of human capital and intelligent people who are willing to work on projects like this.”
While university life is great, it would be unfair to give all the credit to the setting. The three entrepreneurs are not interested in a traditional career path, and they’ve always been eager to make their mark. William started a business when he was only 14, pawning electronics online, and managed to pay for the majority of his tuition with the profits. Abdoulaye manages a promotional company on the side named KAJ, and Thomas sees market opportunities wherever they arise:
“Recently I went to this place called Local Jerk. Their pork is the most tender thing in the world, and one thing they could easily do is sell their hot sauce. I don’t like hot sauce normally, but their hot sauce is fantastic. So where I come in is that I always see things that could be run better, and I’ll go to management and say “you guys should be doing this.”
Thomas also has other ambitions for the future: many of his ideas relate to his Italian heritage, such as co-writing a cookbook with his grandmother and importing wine from her hometown of Vita in Sicily. But in many ways, he’s an entrepreneur in the truest sense:
“What wakes me up in the morning isn’t that someday, I’ll be a big wine importer from Sicily… but it’s knowing that people rely on me, and that if I don’t create this product and don’t create it well, I’m depriving society of a great product.”
These entrepreneurs feel a larger purpose than simply developing an app; they want to change the way things are. Nimbus Tutoring hopes to change the landscape of education, and Oodler sees opportunities throughout the world of financial technology: social media integration, currency exchange, and so on. They’ve devoted more time to the startup than to anything else in their lives — and they’ve had to make some sacrifices. William, who recently graduated with a pharmacology degree, even turned down a tempting offer for a Master’s program at UCSF and chose to pursue Nimbus Tutoring full-time:
“I’m 21, and if there’s any time that you’re going to take a risk on something you really believe in, it better be when you’re young. As you get older, your life becomes more settled, and it’s harder to take those risks.”