Being at university means that I am surrounded by talented people: those who have a gift for music, those who can solve complex mathematical problems, those who understand politics and want to solve the world’s problems, those who have business ideas that could bring value to society… and those who act on these ideas.
Ange Blécon and Nylan Raufaste belong to this last category. Along with Vincent Ledez, they are the co-founders of Entrepotes, an online community platform that offers peer-to-peer storage solutions to students. Having heard their pitch when I first met Ange, I wanted to know more about their project. They agreed to meet up with me (over Zoom of course!) to talk about their entrepreneurial journey, their startup and to give advice to students who have a business idea and want to get it off the ground.
To begin, could you introduce yourselves and your roles at Entrepotes?
Nylan: I am Nylan Raufaste, a third year business student at HEC – a business school in Montreal, Canada – I am specializing in finance, and I’m from Martinique. At Entrepotes, I am in charge of partnerships, brand management, long-term vision and marketing. Keeping in mind that since we are a small startup, we are all very versatile!
Ange: I am Ange Blécon and in short, I study the same thing as Nylan, but I’m from France. At Entrepotes, I work on anything that requires IT skills: web development, video production, what we can see on the website but also everything behind it, such as the algorithms, the coding, etc.
Nylan: As for Vincent Ledez, who unfortunately could not join us today, his role is to make sure that Entrepotes remains the cheapest storage solution in Montreal through market studies. He is also in charge of the legal side of business and customer service. Overall, the workload is well balanced!
In a nutshell, what is Entrepotes?
Nylan: Entrepotes is essentially an online community platform that connects individuals looking for storage space with those who have unused space in their home, such as a garage or an empty room. The first are students – our target market – and the second are who we called “Entrepotes”.
[In French, entrepôt means “warehouse” or “storage space”, entre means “between”, and potes is a conversational term for “friends”, so the name is a clever play on 3 different words.]
How did you come up with the idea?
Nylan: I was talking to Vincent about a project I had thought about, which was slightly different from this one. We brainstormed and came up with the idea of Entrepotes. We realized that it had a real potential and started working on it. This was in December 2019. We had some knowledge about different topics related to business, but not about web development. That’s where Ange stepped in. After working intensely throughout the first half of 2020, we officially launched on June 16th, 2020.
Ange: What we realized was that there was a real need amongst students. Whether they were going on exchange or even just going back home for the holidays, there was a demand for a cheap and easy storage solution. Even for ourselves! We needed a space to store our belongings, and without a car we couldn’t go too far…
Nylan: Of course there is a large gap between idea and execution, but I think that at HEC, there is a strong notion of entrepreneurship, so we are less afraid to give it a go. Eventually, it really just happened without too much thought. Each week, we would give ourselves a goal. The following week, we would see that we were progressing. Step by step, we tackled the different challenges and eventually Entrepotes was born!
You talk about a notion of entrepreneurship at HEC. Has the university environment been a motivating force in the creation of Entrepotes?
Nylan: Entrepreneurship is a big unknown for a lot of people, but at HEC we interact with people who have launched their startups, whether they are friends or classmates. Eventually, you are less afraid to follow.
Moreover, HEC has a lot of resources for entrepreneurs. In particular, we had the chance to receive the HEC entrepreneurship scholarship in May 2020. This allowed us to cover our first expenses linked to the website and other costs. HEC also has a number of programs for startups, such as the Rémi-Marcoux Entrepreneurial Track, which we aim to join in the future.
Overall, there are a lot of resources, including professors and TAs who are always happy to meet up with you to discuss your project and give advice.
Ange: When we started Entrepotes, our academic program (business administration) was still very general and we didn’t have any entrepreneurship-specific courses. Entrepotes was really a side project, even though we were supported by HEC.
One aspect I found very impressive was the sophisticated legal work involved: you have a lawyer who reviewed your business model and terms and conditions, you have insurance for your clients… How did you get access to those services?
Nylan: Not only is entrepreneurship the unknown for us, but we are also the only ones to offer this type of service in Canada, so the unknown is twice as big! And the sharing economy isn’t very regulated. For instance, each Canadian province has its own laws targeted towards the largest companies in the sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb…)!
So help from a lawyer was necessary for us. We needed to guarantee that our customers would be protected by the law and also that we would be acting completely legally. We have a lawyer who reviewed our terms and conditions and Vincent is also in contact with other people who are active within the sharing economy. He is in charge of ensuring that we are as transparent as possible with our users, and remain on top of any legal changes in Canada.
You mentioned the sharing economy: could you explain the concept and how Entrepotes fits in?
Nylan: Of course! What we call the sharing economy – also called collaborative economy – is anything relating to peer-to-peer services. What we do with Entrepotes is expand the concept of sharing to storage. People will be able to store their items at their neighbors’, which is more convenient and more advantageous for them.
For me, the sharing economy is the future, as this concept is increasingly developing in today’s society and really is a business model that works. Before Uber, no one would ever consider getting in a stranger’s car to get somewhere, while we do so without thinking about it today! Same thing for Airbnb. With Entrepotes, we aim to pioneer this progress for storage.
Concretely, if I am a student with 3 to 4 luggages to store for a month, why should I come to you?
Nylan: We are the cheapest storage solution in Montreal. And if you find cheaper, we will meet that price. That is our main competitive advantage. For instance, in your example, 3 to 4 luggages represent about 2 square meters of storage, so you would pay CAD$40 for 1 month. This is very affordable compared to the market, which gives real flexibility to students. I myself was one of the first people to use the platform and ended up storing my items to an Entrepote living in my building! All I had to do was to get in the elevator with my boxes.
This is what Entrepotes is about: an affordable storage solution that does not involve traveling very far. Being students at HEC, we do observe an accumulation of Entrepotes around the University of Montreal campus. However, Entrepotes from all over Montreal are getting on the platform. Our aim is to expand throughout the city to reach more students from other universities.
So what are the benefits for the Entrepote?
Ange: In this particular case for instance, $36.8 of the $40 will go to the Entrepote directly.
Nylan: The way Entrepotes is sustainable is based on a commission fee, which is fixed at 8% for each booking. On a $100 reservation, we take $8 to cover the customer service and other maintenance costs while the rest goes to the Entrepote. However, the use of the website is completely free!
Speaking of revenue, you started with the HEC scholarship, but how are you financed now?
Nylan: Yes, this scholarship has allowed us to cover our first expenses, but we really wanted to expand our marketing further. We organized a fundraiser in July, aiming to raise CAD$15,000 in 20 days, which we did! We used an investment method called SAFE, which has been developed by Y Combinator – the largest startup incubator based in the Silicon Valley.
I highly recommend investment SAFE to any entrepreneur looking to raise funds, as it really gave us a lot of flexibility! We are still using this method today, and will be doing so until at least mid-2021. For now, all profits are reinvested in the startup to grow the service more rapidly.
You have just mentioned the growth and development of the platform, what is the next objective for Entrepotes and the long-term vision?
Nylan: We have multiple short-term objectives, which are linked to our current operations. In the long-term, we want to expand our service. While remaining in storage, we are thinking about targeting other markets. For now, we focus on students but we would like to reach professionals, with a service called EntrePros. We are currently working on it, so it will not be available before September 2021 or January 2022. We are also developing an express option for last-minute bookings. We have a few projects going on, but we mostly focus on operating and improving Entrepotes for now!
Of course, a COVID-related question: how has the pandemic impacted Entrepotes?
Ange: On one hand, we did lose demand that we could have had without COVID, such as exchange students who eventually did not go abroad. On the other hand, we did have some demand that we didn’t expect, from people who had to urgently go back to their home country for instance. Overall, it balanced out nicely for us!
Nylan: It is a little early for us to say, but in October we have seen a demand that was higher than expected. We think December and January will be calmer. Before the launch of Entrepotes we were all in lockdown, which gave us more time to work on the platform. Overall COVID has been an unexpected opportunity for us: more time to finalize the project, more demand in some cases…
And lastly, as young entrepreneurs, where do you see yourselves in the future?
Nylan: We’ve invested a lot into this project because we are convinced that we are offering a service of great value, and for now that is the feedback we have been receiving! But beyond being teammates, we are also friends, so when we have an idea, we talk about it together. We might start new projects in the future, but for now we’re focused on this one, which takes most of our time!
Ange: Absolutely, I didn’t count the hours, but it does take a lot of time! We have probably worked the equivalent of 3 to 4 years of 35-hour weeks…
Nylan: Oftentimes, people think that as entrepreneurs we work less because we choose our own schedule. In reality, if we were to count the hours, we would quickly realize that our weeks are longer than what firms usually ask of employees.
Thank you very much to Nylan and Ange for taking the time in their busy day to share their entrepreneurial journey with us!
From the initial idea to the implementation of their business plan to today, they have made effective use of available resources while using the pandemic as an opportunity to leverage the most important one: time.
Rather than blocking them, being university students has been a motivating factor and a catalyst to their project. They have challenged themselves to make the most of this stimulating environment and have leveraged their capabilities and skills to their full potential. The result: a promising startup that creates value for students and their communities.
[Note: We enjoy this project and are inspired by its founders’ stories and journeys. However, Entrepotes has not applied for a Stardust Startups micro-grant.]