On a pair of black couches in the central hub of Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, I sat down with Krystyna and Shinri to discuss their last year with Tray Bien. Last week, they celebrated the one-year anniversary of winning the Dartmouth Ventures contest, in which they competed against over a hundred other startup projects begun by other students, alumni, and faculty. The contest gave them the capital they needed to get started—and now, one year later, they took the chance to reflect on their experiences.
Q: So, Shinri and Krystyna, thinking back to when you first started Tray Bien—did you have any expectations when you started?
Shinri: I thought it would be harder than it has been. I always joke that I’m someone who’s always trodden the beaten path—I don’t like to do things that feel particularly risky. The stereotypical definition of entrepreneurship is pretty much the opposite of that. We started out because a lot of people – professors, people around Thayer, and a lot of waitpersons in town we spoke with – were saying “wow, this is a really cool product, you should try to take it to market.”
We sort of stumbled into trying to apply for a patent and then stumbled into a meeting with Professor Greg Fairbrothers at the Tuck School of Business, and he was the one who really opened up all the doors for us. Mentors like him are the ones who have made this process really possible, and there were a lot of challenges along the way that we wouldn’t have been able to get past if it weren’t for our many mentors.
Krystyna: Because we were coming out of an introductory engineering course, I couldn’t imagine that people who had been in the industry for a long time would actually want a product that we had designed in a course, and it was pleasantly surprising when we started getting a lot of real interest outside of the Thayer community and the Dartmouth community. So that was unexpected for me I guess—maybe I had low expectations (laughs). I think I had initially been worrying more about the patents and the intellectual property, but I don’t think that’s the most important part of the business right now, and there are a lot of other ways to push our product and learn other than securing a patent.
I think one of the hardest parts for me was sourcing the people that we’re paying – attorneys and our manufacturers. It was kind of easy for us to find free mentorship from the Dartmouth and Thayer communities, and once we had to start actually making big decisions about who we were writing out checks to and getting to do specific jobs for us, that was hard as students—navigating all these different kinds of resources. How do you trust someone from one phone call or a couple phone calls? That felt a little bit scary and nebulous for me, but I think our decisions have turned out well in the people we’ve chosen.
Q: Have there been any major defining moments in your first year as a start-up?
Shinri: There have definitely been a lot of defining moments, some more exciting than others. One of them for me was getting the Kickstarter campaign alive and seeing the first backings come in—seeing a bunch of names that we didn’t recognize was exciting. It wasn’t just people that we knew like our friends, who were probably thinking “oh they’re doing a Kickstarter campaign, I have to donate,” but also people from the Kickstarter community who saw a cool product online and wanted to back it. That was amazing to see—that they were actually willing to put their dollars on the line for our product.
Krystyna: I think there are smaller things that excited me more than I expected—like the other day this woman who was a backer for our Kickstarter product messaged us and said “Hey, I was at a conference in San Antonio, and I supported your project four months ago and here it is being used at this conference I’m at.” As one of those first synapses, it was really cool to see.
Shinri: And even other standard sales have been exciting—the first time for everything is exciting. Our first partnership with a beverage company as part of their promotional items was really exciting.
Krystyna: And the Nightclub and Bar Show was really cool, because that was our first tradeshow where we were actually selling and not taking pre-orders or leads, and we were just taking hard orders.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge, and how have you addressed it?
Shinri: I think the biggest challenge without a doubt is being college students and running Tray Bien. It’s not like we’re in a club, where if we don’t do something, maybe the club doesn’t make as much of an impact on campus—if we don’t do something, if we miss a major lead, that’s tens of thousands of dollars that we’re essentially leaving behind. And so that’s pretty stressful. I guess there’s a sense of responsibility, and managing that and classes and trying to be a college student with friends and a social life has been hard. But I think that it’s been a great growth opportunity for us regardless, and has pushed us further in good ways.
Krystyna: Yeah. I would definitely agree, that’s the big challenge—the work-life balance already as a student has been a struggle. And I’m still learning how to balance it. Still. (laughs) Maybe I’m not balancing it. I don’t know. Another challenge—I guess when we had our first final tray out in the market and getting individual customer feedback from our distributor, hearing the positive comments but also hearing the negative comments when we had just put so much money into manufacturing our first product, and already hearing ways that it could be improved was at first a little sad, I guess. But it ended up being an opportunity for growth because we were able to improve and do better on our second production run.
Q: Do you have any advice for other students or people who might be struggling with a work-life balance?
Shinri: I think you’re going to make time for the things you want to make time for. If you start working on a startup and it’s really fun and you find it really rewarding, you’re going to spend time on it. If your classes are going to suffer from it, well, so be it. I think it’s more of a valuable experience – it’s a really valuable experience, and if you find yourself dreading spending time on your startup – calling people, talking to people about your product and so on – then it’s probably not the best fit for you. But I would just recommend that you try it out anyway. I would definitely say that when we first started out with Tray Bien, I already felt completely overwhelmed by other commitments that I had on campus, and one year later I’ve stopped doing a lot of those other things that I used to spend a lot of time on because I realized that Tray Bien was more important to me so I decided to carve out time in my life for it.
Krystyna: I’ve also stripped down on my commitments. I used to play a varsity sport and I used to do a lot of research, and I’ve had to stop those in order to make time—so I fill the free time that I do have with things that sustain my mental well-being, such as yoga or meditation or beekeeping or exercising or things that are classified as “me time,” and I really depend on those few moments in my day when I can recharge and be by myself. If I didn’t have those times, I think I would be way too stressed out—if I was just doing Tray Bien in every spare moment that I had.
Q: To end on a little bit of a cheesy note—why is Tray Bien important to you?
Shinri: Dartmouth has given so much to us; it’s really truly done incredibly things for us in terms of not just giving us money, but also giving us a lot of publicity, and I think that we have a responsibility to give back to Dartmouth. I think that in order to do that we have to do our best and do well to give our thanks, and also hopefully show other students just like us that entrepreneurships and start-ups aren’t just something for like – a boy whose family is all venture capitalists, I don’t know – that’s sort of what I had in my mind when I originally thought of entrepreneurship, as sort of this specific type of male person who was very very confident about everything. And that’s not what you need to be.
Krystyna: Yeah, Shinri alluded to this, but the “can-do” attitude of this experience has been pretty empowering as a female.
Shinri: Definitely empowering.
Krystyna: First of all, being female engineering students has been empowering. And then on top of that, entering into this entrepreneurship space that is so heavily male-dominated was a real surprise to me, because I didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship prior to this experience. So being able to hold our own, communicating with people a lot older than us on a daily basis and learning how to present ourselves and pitch our ideas, and run this ourselves has been really empowering. And I think I’ve learned that if you don’t have an underlying passion for something, you’re not going to do it.
Shinri: But then again, it’s not like we were particularly passionate about trays when we started.
Krystyna: I think we were passionate about learning something new. Yeah—I definitely wasn’t passionate about serving trays. (laughs)
Shinri: Now we are!
As we wrapped up the interview, an underclassman approached to ask Shinri a question for the same Introduction to Engineering class where Tray Bien was born—Shinri has since become a Teaching Assistant for the class, mentoring a group of five students through the same creative process they took on last year.