This year marks the 9th annual Cupid’s Cup business competition chaired by Founder & CEO of Under Armour, Kevin Plank. Plank partnered with the Dingman Center to find the most passionate student entrepreneurs running impactful businesses and in 2013 they took the competition national. Before this Cupid’s Cup was a University of Maryland-only competition and in 2007 the winner was Goozex.com. Today’s guest blog is from Goozex.com co-founder, Valerio Zanini. Read about his journey with the Dingman Center and where Goozex.com is today.
When Jon Dugan pitched Goozex.com at a Pitch Dingman event in 2005 he lost the competition. The idea was great, but his business plan needed further exploration and development. Just one year later, Goozex.com was open for business and in a few months had gained thousands of users and won the prestigious IMA Interactive Media Award for best website design. How Jon was able to create a viable business and launch it while still in college is a fascinating story that shows how the Dingman Center can have a huge impact in shaping entrepreneurship in the DC region.
In all senses, Goozex is a Dingman Center success story of teaching the right methodologies to start a company, providing the right support, and trusting entrepreneurs in their vision. Jon Dugan was a senior at the University of Maryland when he pitched the Goozex idea at the Dingman Center. One of the judges who voted against his business plan later invited him back to the Center and offered help in developing a better model for the company. I was that judge, at the time a second year MBA student and Dingman Scholar helping local entrepreneurs start their businesses. I paired with Jon and together we brainstormed product ideation, refined the business model, and connected with key suppliers.
Within a few months we had a working model of Goozex and a team to launch the business. We partnered with a software development company in Italy to cut down on costs, and brought in another MBA classmate to lead the marketing strategy in preparation for the launch. Mark Nebesky joined the company eager to jump on an entrepreneurial opportunity and excited to be working in the video game industry.
I had come to the US from Italy to obtain an MBA degree at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. I had received offers from other MBA schools around the world but chose UMD for one key reason: the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. Smith was the only business school with an in-house entrepreneurship center and a curriculum designed to foster entrepreneurship among the student body, and support new entrepreneurs in launching their ventures. To me, UMD was the best choice and I joined the 2006 MBA class with the clear intent of participating to the Dingman Center’s activities, and one day starting my own company.
The Dingman Center supported Goozex in so many ways. It provided the very first seed capital that was used to sign the contract with our first supplier and incorporate the company: we were in business. The Dingman Center gave the newly born startup its first office space: it was just a room shared with other businesses but it gave us a sense of stability and belonging. The then-Director of the Dingman Center connected us with the founder of another video game company: over the years this proved to be the most productive partnership for Goozex. The Entrepreneurs in Residence provided us with advice, support, and even participated in the seed stage round of financing. I am sure that Goozex would not have existed without the Dingman Center and its great people.
Over the years Goozex.com grew to become the #1 online platform for used video games in North America. We were consistently rated the best trading platform for several years in a row by third party websites. We created an engaged community of users many of whom are still with us years later. And we received multiple offers for acquisition, including one from one of the largest media conglomerate in the US (the owners have a castle in California!). We were excited by the opportunity, but even more excited by the growth prospects of our company and turned it down. We had recently launched our Facebook application (at a time when the Facebook App marketplace was considered the ultimate thing in business and everyone was striving to get there). And we had two big partnerships lined up and ready to close. It made sense to us, at the time.
But by 2009 things had started to get sour. The economy was in chaos. Entertainment spending declined, as did Gamestop’s used market for the first time in a decade. Prospective investors disappeared, followed by the two big partnerships. In just a few months we were back to the drawing board figuring out how to pivot and grow Goozex again.
We owned a solid and appreciated brand, a loyal user base, and played in a very large market that, despite the continuous challenges posed by digital games, showed little signs of shrinking. We knew Goozex could make it, and we decided that if we didn’t find the resources needed to grow the company, we wanted to find a new acquirer who had the possibility to scale it up. We rolled up our sleeves, cut down our costs, and doubled up our efforts.
Things really turned around when we finally found an interested buyer, a company who believed in the Goozex’s vision and wanted to restore its growth potential. We sold the company on November 15, 2012.
The Goozex story is one of endurance, passion, and ingenuity. It was a bumpy ride, but a fantastic ride nonetheless. It has shaped my life and that of all Goozex founders and associates. And I believe it’s a great Dingman Center success story. The resources, trust, and support offered by the Dingman Center were priceless. And it certainly proved that I made the right choice in attending the Robert H. Smith School of Business!
Co-founder and CEO, Goozex.com