Being a college student in New York City can take a toll on a student's bank account, but Columbia Business School students hope their startup website will help cut down on costs.
Marc Lombardo, Josh Kaplan, and Justin Belmont, all Business ’14, are the cofounders of Perk.la, a startup that is a hub of online discounts for students. Deals offered on the site run the gamut from high fashion brands like Cole Haan and J. Crew to New York Times digital subscriptions and Apple products.
The site, which recently expanded to allow all students with .edu email addresses to sign up, authenticates student IDs digitally, so brands that would normally require in-store proof of a student ID now will allow students to get the discounts online.
“When we came to Columbia, we realized how many amazing perks you can get just by being a student,” said Lombardo, who is also the co-president of the Business School’s student government. Most retailers, however, don’t offer those same perks to students buying from their website.
“We bridge that gap and connect students directly to retailers through online discounts,” Lombardo said.
“The dream for us is to be your digital student ID,” said Kaplan. “If you’ve got an internship or a job, you’re not going to want to be wearing sweatpants—you need professional clothes and our goal is to help you get suited up smartly.”
“Back to school is always talked about, but no one ever considers back to work,” he said.
Lombardo, Kaplan, and Belmont began working on Perk.la last June through Lean LaunchPad, a summer course offered through the Columbia Business School designed to act as an idea lab for student startups. According to Kaplan, Perk.la’s cofounders have been “riding a wave of resources from Columbia” ever since.
“Carrying a full MBA course load and splitting focus literally every day between an emerging, early-stage business is challenging,” said Business School professor Bob Dorf , who coached the Perk.la team through an independent study last semester. “Perk.la could be moving far faster if it had a management team working full-time,” Dorf said, but “startups are an all-in, full-contact engagement that it’s extremely hard to do part time.”
“They’ve worked hard,” Dorf said. “They’ve divided the roles and responsibilities clearly. ... They were among the hardest-working startup team in my Launching New Ventures class.”
During their time in the Lions Lab, another startup accelerator open to students across Columbia’s schools, the students behind Perk.la say they benefited immensely from the new perspectives afforded them by the shared space.
“They were really good at finding an opening in the market. They found a problem and they solved it,” Chris McGarry, director for entrepreneurship in the Office of Alumni and Development, said.
“Entrepreneurs are very opportunistic people. They’re resourceful and aggressive. Columbia offered the Perk.la team a broad array of resources, and they’ve taken advantage of all of them,” McGarry said. “More than that, they haven’t had to slow down the process to take advantage of those resources, and that’s one of the characteristics of a great entrepreneur.”
Lombardo said that Columbia seems like the ideal location for aspiring entrepreneurs. And, the University is expanding its entrepreneurship efforts, launching Columbia Entrepreneurship, an organization within the Office of the President, last year, and has expanded the number of shared lab spaces for students.
But Lombardo thinks that the University can still do more.
“The College has a lot of bright ideas and a lot of bright students. The engineering school has immense development power, and the Business School has strategy, scope, and financial acumen,” Lombardo said. “The puzzle for Columbia is, how do we pool all these resources?”
Kaplan said that while developing Perk.la, the students worked all over campus to get a better sense of what undergraduates want.
“We stopped working in the Business School and started moving all over campus,” Kaplan said. “We realized that if we just sat in Watson every day, we’d have no idea what’s going on campus—no idea what people are talking about.”
“At the end of the day, the actual idea is such a small portion of the business,” Lombardo said. “Having the education we’ve had—both inside and outside of the classroom—has helped us shape something we would never have been able to do otherwise.”
Lombardo, Kaplan, and Belmont said that they hope to set an example for other students interested in entrepreneurship, and they credit the University’s resources as the best foundation.
“The advice we got and the advice we give is, now’s the time to take a risk,” Lombardo said. “If the worst thing that comes out of you starting a business right now is that it doesn’t work out, that’s still a big win. We’re students. We’re here to learn.”