Tuck’s alumni network, curriculum key in new online shopping app’s journey from concept to startup.
T’12s Nathan Sharp and Greg Kimball teamed up early in their first year at Tuck, determined to start a business together. They quickly ran into a number of dead ends. “Together we brainstormed, wire-framed, and pitched several truly awful business ideas,” says Kimball.
Eventually a managerial economics course at Tuck spurred what they hope is a winner. Now just over a year after graduation, they’ve secured $800,000 from Google Ventures and other angel investors for their online shopping app, Nifti.com.
Their idea was to create a tool that would disrupt all kinds of Internet shopping the way Priceline upended the pricing model for travel purchases. Just as Priceline allows consumers to bid on flights or hotels for less than retail, Nifti allows users to put a desired price tag on goods from toasters to dress shoes to computers from any of hundreds of online retailers.
When the price for the good drops to the desired level at any site that sells the product, Nifti fires off an email to the would-be buyer. Not only does this save users from having to constantly check prices on different sites, it also levels the playing field for consumers in an environment where online prices can change by the minute or vary based on the web browser or zip code of the online shopper. Unlike other online shopping tools or recommendation sites, Nifti advises customers not just what they should buy, but when they should buy it. Retailers benefit too, gaining demand and pricing information for products directly from interested consumers.
“We’re essentially creating the universal shopping cart,” says Sharp (at right). “For retailers, the idea is that we create the most pervasive and actionable shopper preference profiles that exist. There are very few companies that have data that show exactly what shoppers want across a number of different categories.”
Now with seven employees and an office in Boston’s North End, Sharp and Kimball credit their time both in and out of the classroom at Tuck with starting them on their path. They honed their pitches for financing in the school’s entrepreneurship courses, and their plan won a top prize at the 2012 Dartmouth Ventures conference, which brings together students, faculty, researchers, alumni, and staff from across Dartmouth and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
“Nifti’s foundation is deeply rooted in concepts and methods acquired at Tuck,” says Kimball (at left). “Nifti constantly evolved as we became exposed to new ways of thinking about business problems in courses like Operations Management and Strategic Principles for Internet Businesses.”
Tuck alumni have also played important roles in helping Nifti move from concept to startup. One key addition to the team came in November when Abe Gurjal T’08, who developed the popular iPhone document scanning application JotNot, joined as a co-founder and technical leader. Seed investors included serial entrepreneur Andy Palmer T’94 and Errik Anderson T’07, co-founder of biotech firm Adimab.
“Tuck served as a career incubator for us. It offered the perfect set of resources to explore problems across industries, from health care to retail,” says Sharp. “If you’re young and haven’t seen a large cross-section of businesses, your thinking is often limited to your perspective as a consumer. Tuck helped us look at things from a business perspective and develop a concept that will appeal to merchants who want to access consumers who are already interested in their products.”
Kimball and Sharp are also mapping an entrepreneurship path that may prove useful for future MBA students who are considering starting their own business. Sharp raised $50,000 through Upstart, an online venture-funding business similar to Kickstarter. In return, Sharp agreed to pay Upstart investors 2.5 percent of his income over the next 10 years. The funds helped him stay current with his student loans as he and Kimball moved forward with their plan.
The duo have big plans for the site after it goes live later this year. They plan to add features that allow users to compare historical prices of a product and view geographic price variances—similar to the service offered by online auto-buying tool Truecar. An additional feature will allow consumers to create, share, and browse shopping collections that serve as planning tools for the difficult purchases around life events like having a baby or moving into a new home.
“We want to be a repository for all the research people do around purchase events, which is different than just deciding which vacuum to buy,” says Sharp. “We’ll enable you to share your collections with one click so that others can piggyback on all the work that went into finding the very best combination of items. There are tons of recommendation sites and price comparison engines, but there’s no service that combines the power of tracking anything you want from any site with practical decision tools that tell you when to buy.”