Friday Entrepreneurs: Kenneth Shaw, Jennifer Gee, and Mickey Asavanant , Homeslyce

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Here’s a little bit of a different entry for Friday Entrepreneurs. Normally I don’t pick sites/ideas that aren’t fully live and working great. And today’s entry, Homeslyce–a site to help friends aggregate spending for buying birthday gifts–is indeed live and fully working. But is it ready for mass-market adoption? I don’t think so. In fact, I read about it through Rafe Needleman’s blog, where he wrote:

Right now the site is slow and the product selection is weak. Homeslyce feels like a well-functioning proof of concept. But the Stanford trio working on Homeslyce has done a good job, and is smart to focus on one market. In the post-college world I could see this working beautifully for wedding presents and for other gifts as well.

Still, the people behind it are 3 Stanford seniors, and I have a soft spot for them. And if you look at their answers below, they know the site is just in the beginning stages! That’s the funny thing about starting something entrepreneurial. Most people (who are by definition not entrepreneurs) will expect your prototype to be perfect. “You haven’t added a login page! You haven’t added text-message support! What about paying by check?!!?”

Seth Godin writes about this:

I’m a huge fan of prototyping. Prototyping just about anything is faster and more effective than ever before. It makes hypothetical questions go away and surfaces real issues. It gets things moving. And most important of all, prototyping eliminates fear.

BUT

If you use a prototype to try to persuade someone of an idea, be careful. Most people you know are not as conceptual as you are, especially about stuff you really care about….

Too many times, I’ve gotten excited about an idea and created a conceptual prototype. And almost every time, people, smart people, didn’t get it.

Right on. The real nitty-gritty entrepeneurs know that it’s a low process of getting it right (as opposed to the flashy end results you see, like “THIS COMPANY SOLD FOR 1 BILLION DOLLARS!!!”). Getting there takes tons of hard work.

I hope you’ll check out their site and send them feedback. That’s how you get to be bigger–by releasing an early iteration, getting lots of feedback, and improving again and again.

Notice a few things are you read this:

  • They actually retained a lawyer and got incorporated before launching, something most other Friday Entrepreneurs haven’t done.
  • They talked to lots of professors and experienced entrepreneurs, which I think is the smartest thing you can do.
  • I challenged them a little, saying that I don’t know if Homeslyce would really be more effective than having a friend call up other friends to try to get a birthday gift together. Their response is great–they acknowledge that I might be right, shrug, and then basically say “we’ll see.” Those are the kind of entrepreneurs you want to see winning.
  • Why are they doing this? I love what they say: “So far, we’ve learned so much. And, we still have lots to learn. So if we succeed, we’ll be ecstatic; if we fall, we’ll fall forward and at least have a lot of experience under our belts.”

What is Homeslyce?
Homeslyce is an online service that helps groups share the cost of birthday gifts for their friends. All you have to do is come to Homeslyce.com, choose a gift such as an iPod for a friend’s birthday, and invite friends to contribute by entering their email addresses. We’ll take care of the rest. We’ll help coordinate money collection from friends, send out reminders, and ship the product and email the birthday wishes once your group collects enough money. If not, no credit card will be charged.

Why’d you name it that?
Jen Gee came up with it. It’s from the slang, “What’s up, homeslice?” However, “homeslyce” is the plural form of “homeslice,” which means friends or buddies according to Urban Dictionary.

We never realized how hard it was to come up with a name that everyone liked, was still available as a domain, or would comply with the Secretary of State. We went through several names, such as Partypurchase.com and Group2O.com. Hopefully, everyone likes Homeslyce.com!

Where did the idea come from?
I’m sure you’ve probably experienced it. A special occasion such as someone’s birthday or anniversary arose, and everyone decided to pitch cash together to purchase an expensive gift for a friend. However, it’s a difficult process. First, there’s the inconvenience of dividing up costs and obtaining money from each individual, where location could cause difficult or less money transactions. Second, someone probably doesn’t pay up and the person organizing the gift purchase, usually the best friend, always ends up taking up the bulk of the purchase or the purchase just doesn’t come through. We just thought this process would make everyone much happier if it was done online.

And what did you do after you thought of it? (Literally, what were the next 2-3 things you did as next steps?)
To be honest, I think I called my mom first, and then my friends. But afterwards, I ran to the Stanford Bookstore, browsed the Small Business section, and purchased “Launch it!” by Molly Miller-Davidson and JoAnne Stone-Geier. I never realized it before, but these types of books just become ten times more interesting when you have an idea in mind. More ideas jump out at you, too! It’s as simple as a cookbook when you have an idea. You follow instructions and sometimes tweak them a bit to fit your idea.

I quickly formed my team with Jen and Mickey, toyed with several names for our site, wrote an executive summary, and talked to several professors and entrepreneurs for advice. To get the ball rolling further, I started the incorporation process. My professor put me in touch with his son who owns a law firm and we began to accrue from them (which basically means to put all expenses on a tab until capital is raised). From then on, programming and building the website consumed most of our time.

To be honest, I’m not sure this is something I’d bet on. I think there are certain things that require offline participation. For example, if one of my friends wanted to get a bunch of people together to buy me a Christmas gift, he’d probably call them up. If he sent them a web site where they could chip in, I bet they’d all get confused and just do nothing. So some things require the offline touch, I think. What do you think about that?

It’s true. I still prefer calling my friends rather than emailing or messaging them. But I feel like more and more people are becoming Internet savvy and are using a lot more electronic communication, like Evite.com to invite their friends to events. People use a lot of services online now because it makes their lives easier. Especially with the feature where gift givers can all pitch in with different credit cards from anywhere around the world, hopefully Homeslyce.com will make everyone’s lives easier, too.

I feel that we do try to add the offline touch. When your friends receive an email from Homeslyce, they will see a picture of their friend whose birthday is coming up as well as a message from the organizer. Moreover, on the page where they can chip in, they can post messages to everyone excluding the gift recipients and leave birthday messages. Maybe down the line, to make it more personable, we hope to make it possible for the organizer to send voice messages along with the email.

Tell me about yourselves.
We’re seniors this year at Stanford University. Jen Gee, Mickey Asavanant, and I all lived together freshman year in Paloma. Jen and Mickey are both very talented computer science majors. Jen is from Maryland, while Mickey is from Thailand. I’m an Economics major from Texas. To us, Homeslyce became something we loved talking about, we’d take time away from studying for classes to improve the idea, and something we kept between the three of us. We can’t believe our idea materialized and we’re actually using our own service to slice gifts with our friends.

How did you actually build Homeslyce (how much did it cost, where do you host, what did you need to do in terms of paperwork, coding, finding people, etc)?
Let’s see… to build the site itself wasn’t very expensive. So far, we have spent no more than a thousand dollars to build the site. This includes hosting at bluehost.com, and recently, we’ve had to move to our own server to handle the additional traffic and all the emails sent out. Our own server at aplus.net costs about $100 per month. Paperwork included many legal documents, which we had to take care of to incorporate in Delaware (tax rates are far better there), file as a foreign corporation in California, obtain a business tax ID number, and open a small business bank account. We are currently accruing from the law firm and owe a couple thousand dollars in addition to 2% equity. As for coding our site, we’ve been programming with PHP, MySQL, javascript, and HTML. Jen has been primarily in charge of the Homeslyce’s beautiful user interface making great use of Photoshop and Dreamweaver. Mickey has been in charge of the server-side programming connecting all the pages and making our site fully-functional and dynamic. I picked up some programming languages over the summer to help these two, but what I got most from learning these new languages is that I learned what is and isn’t possible and with that, was able to generate new features and add new functionality to the site. We also asked lots and lots of questions from many professors, entrepreneurs, and friends and attended many entrepreneurial conferences. If you’re passionate about your idea and are willing to make it happen, talk to people who might be able to help you and keep your ears open, and you’ll find that you have so many resources at your fingertips.

What are your goals with Homeslyce?
We’ve always wanted to start a business of our own and see the whole process through from the beginning and on. It was really cool that we solved a problem that many people could relate to. This was the perfect opportunity to take our goals and act upon it. So far, we’ve learned so much. And, we still have lots to learn. So if we succeed, we’ll be ecstatic; if we fall, we’ll fall forward and at least have a lot of experience under our belts.

Also, we love to make people happy and we love to celebrate birthdays. We feel that birthdays are really special days when people will put in an additional effort to celebrate and make someone feel special or to even use as an excuse sometimes to keep in touch with an old friend. I guess the goal/mission of this site first of all is to make it a lot easier for friends to pitch in money together for a gift (everyone can pay with credit cards, the person organizing it doesn’t have to handle and gather all the money, and friends all around the world can help “slice a gift”). We want to keep the birthday spirit alive. With people inviting friends to contribute for a gift, it will help people remember someone’s birthday is coming up even if they don’t pitch in, and if they do pitch in, it becomes really easy because they don’t have to decide on a gift to purchase. Moreover, we just think people would like great gifts that are sometimes too expensive for someone alone to pay for. And aggregating lots of money together allows people to be creative with so many more gifts to choose from. We were thinking that instead of getting a friend a bouquet of flowers, you can purchase them a room full of flowers. Or maybe even catered dinners, DJs… Also, this site will be able to let friends catch up with each other during each of their friend’s birthdays with messages to each other on the contribution page in addition to the birthday wishes you leave for the receiver of the gift.

How’d you pick 3% to charge? Where did that number come from?
Learning lots of Excel this summer, I had a lot of fun coming up with a financial model comparing Google Checkout and Paypal taking into account all their transaction costs. Generally, credit card companies charge us 2-3% for every transaction made. So with a site like Homeslyce.com with several transactions made for a single item, the costs can become very expensive. The model also revealed the minimum amount each individual had to contribute (which now there isn’t one) if we wanted to get away with charging a certain percentage over the cost of the product and shipping. We chose Google Checkout because for every dollar spent in AdWords, it waived ten dollars the following month in transaction costs. This has helped us reduce the percentage we charge tremendously. Moreover, 3% is the percentage where there’s no profit to be made. We’re really hoping lots of people use our site and enjoy making birthday wishes come true!

Our goals right now with Homeslyce.com is to really focus on getting our site out to the public. Also, we have so many features and new ideas to add to make gift-giving and receiving more user friendly and fun. Lastly, we would like to reward the organizers who initiate the giving process for their thoughtfulness and lively spirit. We’re collecting their emails right now, so once we have substantial funding we’ll find something very cool for them.

And how do you get there?
We feel like we’re in the perfect position to target our audience of college students. This won’t limit our scope of marketing, but currently we’re spreading the site through our friends, whom in turn slice gifts with their friends, spreading to other colleges and elsewhere. We feel like since our site is of a social networking nature, it should spread virally. We’re also going to advertise on Facebook.com, other social networking sites, and Google Checkout. And just as importantly, interviewing with great sites like www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com has been a tremendous help. Ramit, you are just awesome!

What’s the feedback you’ve gotten from people?
One feedback we’ve been getting from some users is that they were worried about security and thus, worried about inviting friends before they knew it was secure. Moreover, people still aren’t as familiar with Google Checkout as they are with PayPal. To help with these concerns, we’ve added visual images of Google Checkout and other secure services we’ve used. Moreover, we’re trying to emphasize how Homeslyce.com does not hold any credit card information and how Google Checkout handles all our transactions. We feel that the most important thing is to heavily advertise Homeslyce.com so that more people know about our site and feel safer trusting our site.

From our friends, they’re all very supportive and happy that we’ve come this far. They love the idea, and we love them!

There has been lots of other great feedback as well. Some other sites have contacted us wanting to work with us. We loved our fans from overseas, many asking if we were going to expand into foreign markets because they’d like to start using it now. And our lovely users who test every thing on our site and tell us how to make it better. And of course, we always love the occasional drop of the note, “Great site! Love the idea.”

Keep the feedback coming! We really appreciate it and we love hearing from you.

How do you use data in your design / iteration?
Right now we do monitor traffic, especially visitor paths and most popular pages. The most popular pages tells us which pages we need to optimize to increase conversion rates, and the visitor paths help us determine how users are using our sites. We have also been closely observing how people navigate through the store, if they primarily shop via prices, categories, personality types, etc. In our next iteration, we hope to add more flexibility in how people can find the perfect gift.

In addition, we’ve been constantly taking user feedback and fixing flows to optimize the user experience. We want gift-giving to be as easy as possible!

What about other people doing things like this? Billmonk, etc.
I feel like this is perfect timing for our website. There has been a trend of social networking and more specifically social e-commerce sites that have just been developed. There are so many great ideas. For example, Billmonk.com splits bills. When you’re on a trip, anyone can text message, for example, the restaurant bill and the people involved, and Billmonk.com will let you know who owes whom how much. Fundable.org is another great idea where people post things they’d like funding for, and others will donate towards it. Furthermore, there’s lots of new registry services for any special occasion.

What else should we know?
Thanks so much for giving us this opportunity, Ramit! We’re such a fan of your site!!!

MickeyAndJen.jpg
Now what? Check out Homeslyce at http://www.homeslyce.com. Read other Friday Entrepreneurs, sign up for my newsletter, and submit yourself as a Friday Entrepreneur.

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