A college student has a great idea for a startup venture, builds it from scratch, takes a chance, leaves school early to turn it into a full-blown business, and finds success.
We’ve seen that story before—most famously at Facebook, which was founded by Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg and became one of the largest companies in the world. But Josh Kim ’24, who built a startup his first three years at Colby and took a leave of absence to focus on it full time, has made an intentional decision to follow a different script.
A year ago Kim, of Waltham, Mass., sold the technology for The Cubby, an online marketplace for college artists and makers, to an outside buyer for an undisclosed sum. After selling the startup, he took a few months to unplug and recharge by hiking, camping, and exploring the Southwest. Last fall he returned to campus to jump back into student life and finish his degree.
Kim’s experience in the world beyond Mayflower Hill has given him new enthusiasm for the opportunities and resources here and a desire to keep looking for ways to make a difference.
He’s just trying to pace himself this time around.
“I’ve had a good number of people ask me, ‘When’s your next venture? What are you going to do next?’” he said. “I am in no rush because I think at the end of the day, I have some time. There is a part of me that is itching to start something, get my hands on something. But right now I’m taking a step back and looking at the world, reevaluating what’s going on and what problems are arising. For my next venture, I want to solve a really meaningful and big problem.”
Finding the right problem
The root of the idea for what became The Cubby arose when Kim tried to sell five classes worth of books after his first semester and learned, to his dismay, that the third-party company for used textbooks paid students only pennies on the dollar. After he was offered $32.60 for seven textbooks, he declined in shock and lugged the textbooks back to his dorm room.
“I was like, ‘What did I just experience?’” Kim said.
Not long after that, DavisConnects put him in touch with Nick Rimsa ’13, a product designer and founder of Waterville-based product studio and startup incubator Tortoise Labs. Rimsa, a Jan Plan instructor, said the first step in creating any new venture is figuring out what problem needs to be solved.
So Kim interviewed scores of other students in order to test his hypothesis about the used-textbook market, finding that they shared his frustration. Then he landed on the idea of starting an online marketplace where students could sell textbooks, school supplies, dorm room furniture, and more to each other, thereby cutting out third-party sellers. Kim called it Sklaza, for school plaza, and it launched in February 2020, just before the pandemic temporarily shut the world down.
“I thought it worked quite well for a first launch and a first product,” he said.
The big pivot
Sklaza, it turned out, was very popular, but only at the beginning and the end of the semester, with little demand in other months. That didn’t make for a sustainable business model.
Then something unexpected happened. That fall, student printmakers, jewelry designers, digital artists, and other artists and makers asked Kim if they could use the website to sell their creative work to a larger audience.
“It ended up being the most wildly successful part of the venture,” Kim said.
Although the original college marketplace didn’t have the traction hoped for, the new category of student artists and makers definitely did. So Kim and the Sklaza team, which by then totaled five people, pivoted the venture and turned it into an art marketplace exclusively for student makers.
Sklaza became The Cubby, a place where student artists from all over the country could sell their work. It did well, and its success was especially thrilling to Kim because he thinks of himself as a maker, too: in his case, of wheel-thrown pottery.
“For me to be able to support other student makers like myself, it was a very meaningful endeavor,” he said.
Success, and a move west
Throughout his startup journey, Kim received support from Maine’s entrepreneurial community. He won two grants from the Maine Technological Institute, and in 2020 was named the Central Maine Growth Council Emerging Business Leader of the Year. The next year, he and Matteo Cugno, chief operating officer of The Cubby and a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, won the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs’ Top Gun Showcase and its $25,000 prize.
The company participated in Future Founders, a Chicago-based startup accelerator program through which it received mentorship and funding, and made it to the final round of Y Combinator, a prominent accelerator program in Silicon Valley. Kim began talking to investors and raised about $100,000 in pre-seed funding.
The Cubby—by then a full-blown business with six employees—was growing, but it felt like he needed to make some changes to adapt to the growth. After his junior year, he took a leave of absence from school and moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, to work on The Cubby full time.
There, the startup took off. Eventually, however, Kim had questions about its future and his own.
Something that one of Kim’s mentors told him stuck with him as he contemplated his next steps. “Good founders know when to start a business,” the mentor told him. “Great founders know when to end one.”
The words resonated.
After sleepless nights thinking it over, he decided to sell The Cubby’s technology to a group in Denver and split the money between the team members, all of whom had equity in the company.
Then Kim logged off networking sites, unplugged from electronics, and took a break from the startup world.
A return to Mayflower Hill
Kim’s decision to return to Colby to finish his degree was never in doubt. But he returned with a different perspective.
“It’s a very different chapter in my Colby experience,” he said. “Now that I’ve gone on a journey and back, I’m able to ask myself, ‘Why am I here? Why am I taking these classes? What am I trying to accomplish as a student?’”
To answer those questions, he made the decision to focus on anthropology and computer science. And though shifting his academic path has added time to his college career, he’s been enjoying his classes and the change of pace from the last few years.
“Honestly, I’m just grateful for all the support that Colby has provided, both from faculty and from the community as a whole,” he said.
Since returning to Maine, he’s joined Portland-based investment organization Maine Angels and served as a student representative on the search committee for the director of the new Halloran Lab for Entrepreneurship. Amanda Stent, director of the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence, said that Kim’s background as a startup founder made his contributions particularly helpful.
“He was really thoughtful,” she said. “He was able to comment on, for example, whether the candidates seemed plugged in to pitch contests or other entrepreneurship training opportunities in Maine and the Northeast.”
It’s all part of his intention to give back. Kim said he’s eager to share all his startup experiences, including the struggles and hard parts, with students.
“I want to give my all, my most vulnerable self, to demystify and share a real lens into the startup world,” he said. “I want to empower other students to try to solve the problems in their lives.”
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