After toying with the concept of a ‘student airbnb’ service for students, by students, long-time friends Luke Iida, AB’19 and second-year Melody Li knew they had to execute it—quickly. Nearing the deadline of the 8th annual College New Venture Challenge (CNVC), they decided to enter and, months later, Subli, a peer-to-peer rental service, was born.
“It is much easier to come up with a sound idea than you would think. But putting in hours exploring how that problem actually presents itself in the world, listening thoughtfully to people’s stories, and helping the first few customers was extremely demanding. All of these elements over time act like a form of resistance—requiring much openness, patience and heart—that you each have to individually overcome,” said Iida, who graduated from the College in 2019 with a degree in philosophy.
Subli is a short-term rental service for students, by students. Iida and Li observed that the common methods of subletting either through Facebook or through a friend were “difficult, insecure and inefficient,” and they sought to make a secure and dedicated marketplace for college students to organize subletting arrangements within their peer group.
Launched in 2012, the College New Venture Challenge is the College track of the Edward L. Kaplan, ‘71, New Venture Challenge (NVC), a top-ranked accelerator program that has graduated over 330 startup companies under the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. This three-phase program culminates at the end of winter quarter when the finalist teams pitch their ideas in front of a panel of investors, entrepreneurs and industry leaders, splitting a prize pool of $75,000 in seed money as well as over $1 million in in-kind startup support services. For students in the College, this is a transformative opportunity to hone their entrepreneurial skills and bring their ideas to life.
The CNVC process contains three phases. The first has all interested teams attend Polsky events on entrepreneurship and idea generation before applying by November 18. In the second, selected teams enroll in a Chicago Booth class for undergraduates, where they fully develop their plan and are mentored by faculty, coaches and experienced investors. In the third and final phase, which takes place at the end of winter quarter, the finalist teams compete for investment by pitching their ideas in front of a panel of renown and experienced judges. After months of hard work, Subli took home first place and $25,000 to fund the growth of their company.
The team’s journey to success was not without its challenges. One of the greatest ones was coming to the realization that turning an idea into a practical, useful solution was harder than expected.
“Throughout these stages we had to abandon many of the old ideas about how we wanted Subli to be—we had to listen to what was there rather than what we wanted to hear—and that took effort. Finding and maintaining the levels of dedication necessary for this was (and is) one of the more difficult parts of working in a startup. Certainly a rewarding one, though,” Iida said.
After months of hard work, the finalist teams were told the results shortly after presenting to the judges in the finals on March 11th. As the first-place winner, Subli was awarded $25,000 in funding.
“The moments leading up to and following Subli’s win were very surreal. I remember feeling an incredible and newfound validation, responsibility and hope,” said Iida.
Li, a sociology and economics double major, shared the same sentiments: “I was both nervous and excited to present to the judges. CNVC has been an incredible journey, and I have learned much about building ventures and myself throughout.”
Lucas Peralta was impressed with the team’s dedication and sees the company’s immense potential. As the associate director for college programs at the Polsky Center as well as the manager of the CNVC, he has had the unique position of observing them throughout their whole journey.
“Melody and Luke are incredible. This is a team that went from ideation to execution in front of us. They saw a problem, validated it, solved it and launched. We’re excited to see where Subli goes,” he said.
Looking back at their experience, the two co-founders are grateful for the CNVC program and are excited to continue to grow their start-up.
“Before the CNVC, Subli wasn’t anything—at best a vague idea ignited by some of our personal problems. During my senior year at UChicago, I had to forfeit an opportunity to study abroad in Japan largely due to not finding a subletter. Melody, too, felt the weight of this problem when she couldn’t find a subletter for the summer after months of searching. The CNVC experience gave us some important tools and guidance which ultimately turned an idea to solve this problem into a real, tangible thing in the world, one that hopefully makes people’s lives a little bit better. Participating and watching others participate on that journey was very rewarding,” said Iida.
Currently, Iida and Li are both working on Subli full-time, updating their website, partnering with landlords and listening to the shifting problems that students are facing. Because of the difficult and uncertain climate, the two co-founders decided to waive all service fees in order to support students who need to sublet due to COVID-19; they worked closely with the community organizers from UChicago Mutual Aid to open Subli’s web platform.
“We believed that this was simply the right thing to do, especially when the reason we founded Subli was to help and support students,” said Li.
For people that identify a problem and are passionate about fixing it, Iida is confident that the CNVC would be a great place to start.
“If you’re passionate about solving a problem in the world and willing to work through the errors you’ll make along the way, go for it!” he said.