No matter how big or small the idea may be, college is a great time to start a company. Whether your company is a success or failure, there is a lot of real world learning that happens. Oftentimes, students don’t know where to start once they have an idea — but the good news is, we do!
There is a place on campus which is open to all UC Irvine students and solely dedicated to helping students learn how to start their own companies. This place is called the ANTrepreneur Center, with its innovative name combining the words Anteater and entrepreneur to match its focus. Launched in February of 2014, the center has already helped thousands of UCI students conceptualize and even launch their own companies. The center takes pride in creating an entrepreneurial ethos in UCI students, teaching them about resilience and risk-taking. It has become a safe haven where ideas are produced and explored; but most importantly, the center ensures that UCI students enter any workplace with a well-rounded understanding of how a business operates.
The Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning sat down with Arthur Avetisov (Class of 2015) and Brian Leung (Class of 2016). At UC Irvine, Arthur studied political science and business economics and Brian studied international studies with a minor in management. Their team utilized the resources at the ANTrepreneur Center to grow their idea into a thriving business.
We invite you to join us on their journey to create the company BottleRocket.
How did you initially come up with this idea?
Arthur: I’ve had personal experience in recycling, and Brian had experience in the startup culture, in the tech space. We were part of the same organizations. We knew we wanted to be next-level entrepreneurs. We wanted to have our own startup together, and essentially, we just combined experiences. My recycling experience and his tech experience created BottleRocket, which is the next level of recycling in the nation.
And what is BottleRocket?
Arthur: BottleRocket is the first on-demand service that pays you to recycle bottles and cans at home. Before you would have to physically take your bottles and cans to a recycling center, whereas now, BottleRocket can come to you (making it a lot more convenient).
Brian: And to provide some context, this is a huge pain for people with large households or with families that just don’t have time to simply take stuff to recycling centers. Arthur had owned and operated this chain of recycling centers for about six to seven years. He started right after high school, but he noticed the same events would occur. People would have to drive their recyclables in their cars, unload, spend about 30 minutes sorting through bottles and cans, just to get a few bucks back. So with technology, BottleRocket wants to completely eliminate that inconvenience, and provide a direct service so that everyone can get their money back for bottles and cans and help the environment at the same time.
What type of resources did you tap into early on to gain the support and traction that you needed?
Arthur: We both really had this idea together, and we just didn’t know what the next step was. We came to see the ANTrepreneur Center and they helped us out. They helped us identify who we were actually targeting, and what our problem was, and from there we started building the company out of that information.
How important is it for college students to go through the experience of starting their own company?
Brian: It’s everything. I mean I feel like previously it’s been a linear path for college students, you know? You go to class, you get an internship and you get a job. And you eventually learn these business and these work skills through the progression of your career. You move up from an associate, to an entry-level, to a manager. And only then can you have these leadership skills. The ANTrepreneur center teaches these leadership skills. You’re literally getting ahead of everyone else, of all your peers. You’re learning these skills with a hands-on kind of project.
Arthur: I also think that kids come to college, with one path in mind and they want to stick with that path and learn all the classes about it. I think that if they actually go ahead and try to found a startup or a business of their own, they’re opening their mindset to a whole range of fields. They can learn from different types of marketing, finance and they can identify whether entrepreneurship is actually for them, or if they don’t want to stick with that, they’ve experienced everything, and they can pick the right path for them to go on from there.
I mean, people come into college, myself as example; I came in wanting to do finance, and then over time I realized that I wanted to do something different. But maybe for someone else, they’ve started with startups and if the path isn’t for them, they can pick the field that they prefer.
For college students who haven’t started a company or don’t have an idea to run with, what are some of the tangible lessons that you’ve learned as a result of working with the ANTrepreneur center and starting your own business?
Brian: I think one of our early problems is just identifying who we were targeting. Who our audience is for our business. I think any entrepreneur or student wants to think that everybody wants to use their product. And so we came in thinking almost the same way. Why wouldn’t they want to recycle bottles and cans for free money? Or just for money. I think the ANTrepreneur Center helped us hone down who our target is. We realized that people who actually recycle now, are our number one target base.
Arthur: And for students who don’t necessarily have an idea of their own yet, I think just engagement in the startup community and entrepreneurial community has a lot of positive benefits. I think for us at the beginning it was an idea but it wasn’t a solid cemented idea. And we didn’t have the business strategies and the avenues to pursue it ourselves. Speaking with the ANTrepreneur Center made us pick up on that. It inspired us to do a lot of reading on our own too. And also hearing the speakers from the events was really eye opening. I think that’s actually one of the most highly underrated things the ANTrepreneur Center offers. They have CEOs and managers of companies come in on a weekly basis, and have a small fireside chats. This allowed us to learn from their experiences.
Did you compete in the New Venture Competition?
Brian: Yes, we did. We had to start from scratch and write out all the details of our business. We had the idea and we were going with it but we never actually sat down and saw what our business looked like on paper. It was a great experience for us to actually write down and analyze what we’ve done so far. We looked at our numbers. We narrowed down our target audience even more. And we focused on the fundamentals of our business because prior to that, I don’t think we’ve had anything written on paper. So that experience alone, of us actually just writing it down, helped us see the bigger picture of the company. I think it really helped us a lot. At the same time the presentation itself was just fun. Having the feedback from the different judges was critical and we learned a lot from it.
Arthur: I think for us, we initially felt it was a setback. Because as young startup entrepreneurs, we wanted to win the competition.
Brian: We did get best undergraduate team.
Arthur: I mean we won best undergraduate team but given the experience with other competitions we had in the past we wanted to take the whole competition. To be fair though, the New Venture Competition was the longest pitch competition we’ve had to do. They brought in real angel investors to be judges. And from what we heard, they had pretty thorough evaluations and criticisms from an angel investor standpoint. I think after hearing all that and having not won, that really forced us to double down and work twice as hard.
Brian: And we totally re-evaluated our business model. We pivoted from that point and expanded our business model. We cut costs, we restructured the business to increase our margins — those kinds of things. I think it was through repetition and practice of how to structure a business that we were able to actually go out there and do it.
Are you also utilizing The Cove?
Arthur: Yes, The Cove is great! I think just the physical office space was a big deal for us. We tried working from each other’s homes, but oftentimes we would digress and do something else. I think having a physical office space for us to actually all meet up, helped a lot. Once we get there we know we essentially have to do work. And so I think that gave us the motivation to keep going to the next level for our business. There are mentors that we talk to, who give us great advice regarding our term sheets. So that resource alone I think is really valuable. Because otherwise we’d have to go pay someone a few hundred dollars just to look at our term sheets.
What are the next steps for BottleRocket?
Brian: Right now what we’re doing is that we were testing our model in the city of Orange. Once we generated that proof of concept for an investor they were like “hey, we like what you’re doing, let’s upgrade you”. They saw that we were using cardboard boxes and laundry baskets to collect all this material. They invested $200,000 dollars into our company! With this money we are going to make professionally designed bins so that user adoption rate is a lot higher. It is all really exciting.
And so that’s the whole name of the game now, we want to re-release our product with better materials, ease of use, better infrastructure in terms of operations and polish the customer experience. And once we have a few target areas down, we can raise our Series A and hopefully go from there.
What would you like to tell other students about recycling?
Brian: Sustainability is fun, sustainability is cool. You know what I mean? Recycling is the new wave of the future. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, created Tesla so that environmentalism would be cool for the standard consumer, you know what I mean? The younger generation has an opportunity to pursue in sustainability in order to make our world a better place. It really has to be something that everyone adopts.
Arthur: Currently it’s just really complicated to recycle. People don’t really know which material goes in which bin or how to take it to recycling centers. Nobody really markets that. We want to make the process effortless and fun. We want to make it easy for people to recycle and earn cash back. We want to show them the actual reward, the actual physical, tangible reward of recycling with us. That way it can encourage them to not only recycling bottles and cans but pursue other sustainable efforts. We think that starting with bottles and cans now can push people towards having stronger and better sustainable habits.
And where can people find more information about you online, and how can they support you?
Brian: They can visit bottlerocketrecycle.com, they could sign up there on our webpage. There is our Instagram, @gobottlerocket and our Facebook.
Arthur: Yeah, like us on Facebook!
Brian: And if you have any comments or suggestions for us, we’re all ears. You know anything we could do together to increase our impact in the local community. We’d love to hear.
If you are a UCI student, faculty, staff or alumni with a business idea, and you don’t know where to go, visit antrepreneur.uci.edu to get help learning where to start.