Working as an intern while an undergraduate, Arnav Dalmia was tired of sitting down on the job. After his company denied his request for a standing desk, Dalmia, AB’13, got the idea for Cubii, an under-the-desk elliptical machine.
“I always had the idea in the back of my mind that there must be something out there to help people stay active in the workplace,” Dalmia said.
Dalmia, along with Shivani Jain, AB’13, and Ryota Sekine, AB’13, are the founders of the company Fitness Cubed, whose product Cubii was recently promoted during Chicago Ideas Week. As fourth-year students, they presented their proposal to the New Venture Challenge, a competition run by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
The New Venture Challenge is designed to help students turn ideas for nonprofit and profitable ventures into viable businesses and showcase those ideas to potential investors. For the competition, the three friends presented the concept of a discreet, under-the-desk exercise machine for offices that was quiet, small and portable. The trio won second place, as well as the opportunity to refine their idea and develop their first prototype.
They did not immediately pursue the idea; instead, they took full-time jobs after graduation.
“We always called ourselves accidental entrepreneurs,” Dalmia said. “I’ve always had this bug inside me to create something from scratch. I think that bug caught on with all of us, and we decided to quit our jobs and focus on creating Cubii.”
As the idea gained traction and strong encouragement from family, friends and professionals, they developed prototypes and presented them at incubator programs such as the Polsky Accelerator, 1871 and Healthbox. These programs helped refine their marketing strategy and develop the final prototype of Cubii.
All three founders then were still working full-time. Jain was the first to quit.
“I thought, OK, it’s time that I start giving this a shot. I saw that the idea had some potential and wanted to see where it took me.”
She quit in June 2014 to give her full attention to the Kickstarter campaign. The campaign, which garnered 1,070 backers and raised nearly $300,000, put them on the radar. It was one of the year’s most funded campaigns in Chicago.
For Dalmia, however, the money raised was secondary. His main Kickstarter objective was to see if people liked Cubii—and whether they were willing to pay for it.
“I find 1,000 people supporting our campaign more valuable than one person writing a check for $300,000,” he said.
Trial and error
Even after the Kickstarter success, getting Cubii off the ground involved trial and error.
“Often, our prototypes didn’t work the way we had planned,” said Sekine, the team product manager. He is responsible for working with the people who help build all aspects of Cubii, including mechanical and electrical engineering, software development, industry certifications and shipping to customers.
“For example, we intended for Cubii to make no noise,” he said, “but one of our prototypes squeaked every time the wheels made contact with the metal base. We fixed this problem right at the factory by adding a thin mat on the base. The lesson here is that plans change along the way as you experiment, and we have to be flexible and swift with decisions.”
The biggest surprise in developing Cubii was the amount of time, effort, money and resources needed to bring the product to life. The partners came to realize that the Kickstarter funding was inadequate for launching a sustainable business. They started approaching and raising money from angel investors.
From UChicago they received help from Chicago Booth scholars, who drew upon a broad network to help them get connected with industry professionals and who also coached them on presentations, business plan competitions and investor pitches. Career Advancement introduced them to interested alumni who mentored them in building a team, navigating hiring and other startup details. A few alumni became investors themselves.
“It came down to us being proactive and trying to leverage the resources of the University,” said Dalmia. “And even today, even though it’s been two years since we graduated, we can still meet with members of the University to brainstorm.”
Currently they are focused on launching the Cubii. Early next year, the trio plans to start working on the next product and launch it by the end of 2016.
“We didn’t think that Cubii would have so many applications,” said Jain. “We have been approached by schools buying it for children, senior citizens and nursing facilities, and a rehab hospital. It’s exciting to see people find potential in Cubii, and seeing people use it.”