Six members of the ESTEEM Class of 2014 went out to do an assignment aimed at building their survey-taking skills last summer. They came back with a new business to help University of Notre Dame graduate students find local off-campus housing – South Bend Student Housing, LLC.
After conducting some 100 interviews with students, landlords, and University officials revealed the need, the students figured they could come up with the solution, said Sean Liebscher, a member of the team with Conor Hanley, Nathan Higgins, Amanda Miller, Eric Tilley, and Keith Marrero.
“Our goal was to identify pain points that they had in common with a lot of people,” he said. “It was to get us used to going out and talking to people and how to conduct a good survey – that would help us with whatever product or service we decide to develop as entrepreneurs. What we found through these interviews was this is something people are really excited about and interested in. They were asking, ‘When is this going to happen?’ We looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s give this a try and make this happen.’”
Seed money from a donor through Innovation Park enabled the group to advance, with regular advice from the experienced ESTEEM faculty and other business leaders in Innovation Park.
The survey revealed 10 leading features that drove students’ decisions; landlords’ interest in protecting their brand and controlling their listings; and Notre Dame’s desire to help graduate students find living situations outside of O’Hara-Grace. One leading student complaint was the inconvenience of juggling numerous individual websites on different tabs while attempting to compare features and costs.
“Taking all those different pain points, we went and designed a website trying to address those concerns,” Liebscher said. The group developed a prototype after about 50 interviews, then took it for testing with some of the initial contacts and some different people, then refined the program based on the users’ experience.
The result: www.southbendstudenthousing.com, a one-stop site for exploring, comparing, and contacting housing options in the community, and a real-world business experience for the ESTEEM students. Three of them were undergraduate science majors, three were engineering majors; three were from Notre Dame, one from Saint Mary’s College, one from Juniata College in Pennsylvania, and one from University College Dublin in Ireland.
“For a lot of us, this is the first time we’ve had business exposure,” said Liebscher, who plans to go to medical school. “We have basically learned by trial and error what to do and what not to do when starting a business. You realize how many details you have to pay attention to, how many i’s you have to dot and t’s you have to cross to take it from conception to an actual product.
“It’s been great working with the mentors who taught us how to conduct contract negotiations, helped us get lawyers to form the LLC. Now we’re right there doing it in conjunction with our ESTEEM theses. For me this has been great. It’s a side of the world I would not have had exposure to until I got out of medical school. This is something you can actually do. While challenging, it’s not impossible. It’s gotten me excited about the prospect. This may be something we can keep up and running going forward into the future.”