For this feature, we spoke with Josh Kim, CEO and Co-Founder of The Cubby, an online marketplace where college students can buy and sell items from their classmates on campus. Josh is a junior at Colby College, where he studies Product Design and Psychology. He was recently awarded the Emerging Leader Award for central Maine.

The Cubby: Origin story

In December 2018, Josh Kim was finishing his semester at Colby College — a small liberal arts college located in Waterville, Maine — when he had an idea.

As he was packing up to head home after finals period, he noticed he had a pile of textbooks he would likely never open again. His first thought was to sell them, but when he brought them to the campus bookstore, the worker at the desk turned him away, saying that the bookstore didn’t buy used textbooks—but a third-party textbook company that had come to campus did.

Josh handed over his haul, and as he recounted to us, “They took my books, and offered me a value that I will never forget: $32.60. I still remember the number, because I was so sure they made a mistake. Can you imagine getting $32.60 for six textbooks that had originally cost over $400?”

Frustrated, Josh turned down the offer — and in the waning hours of his semester at Colby, he gave himself a new test: “Someone needed to solve that problem.” Josh had grown up as a financial aid student in schools with close proximity to power and privilege. That had always motivated him to “do everything in [his] power to make real change.” Now, confronted with the inequity of the textbook company profiting off of students with no other choice, Josh saw a chance to take action.

Building The Cubby

As soon as Josh returned to campus for January term, the next step was to go from idea to execution. Bad luck struck when Josh broke his collarbone in the first week, but instead of just ruminating on the textbook issue, Josh got connected to a visiting professor, Nick Rimsa, whom to Josh is “truly the person I owe all my success to.” Nick, a product designer and Colby alum, took Josh under his wing and gave him what Josh describes as a “full-on bootcamp on building products out of nothing.”

This mentorship relationship became “the voice that pushed [Josh] to really pursue this problem that [he] felt so passionate about. Working with Nick and software engineer Brendan Barr, the team conducted over 200 interviews with college students and collected over 2,000 items they could sell, using “crazy brainstorm sessions during countless late nights” to design a product people would use.

It paid off. In January 2020, Josh launched Sklaza at Colby, his custom-built online marketplace where college students can buy and sell items from their classmates on campus.

Why ecosystems matter

As is the case with many successful rural entrepreneurs, the path from potential to product was paved with the help of many people in Josh’s community. Thanks to Nick’s connections and dedicated mentorship, Josh became integrated in the Maine and Waterville startup scene.

In Fall 2020, Josh won a grant from the Maine Technological Institute, which gave him the resources to get the idea off the ground. Once he received funding, he began working at the Bricks Coworking and Innovation Space, where he joined four other students working on their own projects — each feeding off each other’s energy.

As The Cubby kept developing, the Central Maine Growth Council (a member of CORI’s Rural Innovation Network)  became a powerful ecosystem connector, helping connect The Cubby with a SCORE mentor and getting Josh to participate in multiple pitch competitions including Greenlight Maine.

In addition to the direct support these organizations provided, Josh says that through these experiences, he “got to see the powerful ecosystem growing here in Maine first-hand” — and it’s that same ecosystem he credits as a major advantage for starting The Cubby in a small town like Waterville.

Local leaders “have gone the extra mile to support” Josh’s work, Colby gave him “creative space” to pursue his passion, and the collaborative atmosphere in Maine let him feel like his work was possible.

The Cubby today

When The Cubby launched at Colby in January 2020, it successfully captured initial market traction at Colby, resulting in 480 active users with over $6,000 in transactions completed.

COVID-19 forced the platform to shut down, but Josh, always intent on finding ways to push forward, went heads down to solidify the foundation of the venture moving forward. Through an intensive interview process, Josh identified a CTO and COO — both college students — and since bringing them on has been laser-focused on scaling The Cubby’s reach.

The platform has now expanded to five schools in New England: Boston College, Colby College, Northeastern University, University of Maine, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. And in September and October 2020, over $32,000 of transaction value was processed through the platform, with over 1,200 transactions completed and 5,500 active student users.

With that success, Josh has big dreams for The Cubby. He wants the company to be more than just another marketplace—and sees it as “a community that truly empowers and highlights the work of college students.”

Looking toward the future, Josh wants the marketplace to grow into a space that showcases student artists and creators. As The Cubby keeps growing, Josh knows he’ll continue to have the rock-solid support of the Waterville ecosystem that has played such a key role in his success so far.

The Rural Edge series

At CORI, we are interested in broadening the conversation about rural America and sharing stories from local change agents and entrepreneurs who are driving innovation in the small towns and communities they call home. Our Rural Edge series features conversations with the people who are changing the narrative about what’s possible in rural America.

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