by: Megan McPherson
This summer, the Dingman Center will be conducting interviews with the eight student startups who are participating in the Terp Startup summer incubator phase of our Fearless Founders accelerator program. Participating student entrepreneurs received $3,500 stipends that would enable them to work exclusively on their startups over six weeks in the summer.
I am still relatively new to the Dingman Center, so when Sam Feldman was called to the stage at this year’s Rudy Awards to accept his award for Student Entrepreneur of the Year, I could not fully appreciate how deserving he was of the title. After talking with him more at Terp Startup and interviewing him for this blog post, I would like to give my full, ringing endorsement of Sam, not only for his accomplishments as an entrepreneur but for his strength of character.
Sam Feldman is a serial entrepreneur. CardBuddy, his company that makes high-quality leather stick-on phone wallets, was the third of three ventures he started as a Computer Science student at the University of Maryland. The first, QuickMailCheck, which allowed people with “dumb” phones to receive email via text message, earned him second place and audience choice at Pitch Dingman Competition. When implementing the QuickMailCheck business model proved too complicated, he started an entirely different venture: Yolk’d, a healthier alternative to traditional protein powders. When he discovered that the margins for a protein powder business were too low, he sought a means to help finance it. Little did he know at the time that he was on the brink of launching his most successful venture, CardBuddy.
The idea for stick-on phone wallets came to Sam when he noticed the cheap-looking plastic versions many people were using. Sam explained, “They all had random company logos on them. I would tell you what the companies were, but they were so forgettable. Does someone really want a forgettable logo on their expensive phone?” With that in mind, he looked into designing and sourcing a more stylish, high-quality leather phone wallet that users could wear with pride. He didn’t expect that CardBuddy would turn into more than just extra cash flow, but once he put his product on Amazon his sales steadily rose—from five a day up to more than 40. As sales surged and glowing customer reviews came pouring in, he built CardBuddy’s website and opted to pursue his startup full-time.
An idea so simple and yet so brilliant lends itself to the question, “Wouldn’t it be easy for competitors to do the same thing?” But Sam isn’t sweating over the competition. “There’s a difference between knowing [competitors] exist and being scared of them,” he said, adding, “I’m doing my best to create the best product and best experience that I can. I’m trying to be a leader compared to a follower.” And it’s working. One competitor redesigned their website to resemble CardBuddy’s, while another blatantly ripped off a thoughtful founder’s note Sam wrote for his packaging. No cheap imitation can replicate the hard work Sam is putting in toward reaching his customers. During Terp Startup he is working on a sleek retail packaging design for CardBuddy’s imminent debut in brick and mortar stores. Beyond breaking into retail, Sam has been experimenting with using a laser-engraver to inscribe his CardBuddys with a customized image. The Maryland flag has been one popular iteration of this idea, but the possibilities are endless for making each customer’s CardBuddy unique and special to them.
Therein lies Sam’s true strength as an entrepreneur: his genuine desire to connect with and understand people. Sam displays a level of maturity well beyond his 22 years. During our conversation, he reflected upon the importance of listening and of the value in collecting a wide variety of perspectives, not just in customer discovery, but in life: “Everybody has something you can learn from.” When I asked him about whether he enjoyed working alongside other entrepreneurs in the Terp Startup incubator space, he reflected on the quote “you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with”, saying, “Spending as much time as I can here makes me more of the person that I want to be.”
One of the most illuminating stories Sam shared with me was about his friend Bai, a student around his age who lives in Sierra Leone. He met Bai in the summer of his freshman year through a program called Engineers without Borders, which sends students to developing countries to conduct helpful engineering projects. During his stay, Sam and other students helped to install solar panels on the roof of a school. Sam eagerly embraced the opportunity to connect with students in a completely different part of the world, and forged a lasting friendship with Bai. Four years later, they still keep in touch through Facebook a couple times a week, and Sam has even helped finance Bai’s education by paying for an important school exam. “The first thing I want to do when I make a lot of money is figure out a way to either bring Bai to America or give him some sort of better life,” Sam told me excitedly.
While Sam has big dreams for how his entrepreneurial pursuits may come to positively impact the lives of others, he remains humble. Sam referred to another mantra, one previously uttered by Paul Graham, the founder of startup accelerator Y-Combinator: “Keep your identity small.” He is working on CardBuddy because he enjoys it right now, but he shrugs off the limitations of labeling himself as an entrepreneur, forever and always: “I don’t see myself as an entrepreneur, I just started a company. So I’m not going to restrict myself to just doing another company.” Wherever he may end up in the future, one thing is clear for Sam: “I want it to be interesting, whatever I do.” Given his track record so far, I’m on the edge of my seat to see what Sam does next.
To learn more about CardBuddy, visit the website: www.cardbuddywallet.com