The Daily Illini

Graduate students win second at Student Startup Madness

By Stephanie Kim

On Monday, graduate students Liz Li, Gong Chen and Tobias Lei won second place among eight finalists at Student Startup Madness, a national entrepreneurial competition. Their submission, a mobile app called StylePuzzle, is designed to create outfits tailored to a user’s closet and fashion preference. 

As a result of placing as the top three teams, the StylePuzzle team was awarded $5,000 of credits for Google Cloud Platform to help build web applications and mobile app backends. 

Student Startup Madness first launched in 2012 at South by Southwest Interactive Festival, an annual festival in Austin, Texas, featuring emerging technology. As the director of the Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, Sean Branagran developed SSM as a way to acknowledge student entrepreneurial efforts and phenomenal business plans. 

“These students amaze me because they’re off executing and they become inspired by each other,” he said. 

Looking to put their skills into practice, Li, Chen and Lei were inspired to create StylePuzzle after a friend asked for fashion advice last October. Initially, StylePuzzle worked as a Q-and-A forum in which users could exchange questions and answers about their fashion dilemmas. But after they competed in startup contests and worked with professionals such as Plug and Play Tech Center in California, they amended StylePuzzle to make it more personal to its users.

“We found out that people have problems but don’t want to post it online and want people to answer,” Li said. “They wanted instant, real-time solutions to their fashion problems.”

After several months of coding and marketing, the mobile app is currently in the private beta version, meaning that a select few subjects test the product for efficiency, usefulness and overall performance before it goes out to the public. 

“We want to let a few people try it out first and then improve,” Li said. “So we’re moving step-by-step, little-by-little.”

And yet, although the mobile app is not available to users, fashion fanatics already await its debut from places in the U.S., Europe and Japan, evident by emails and tweets the StylePuzzle team has received. 

“We’re still in a very early stage. The process is more like hacking it together, and then we try to reach out to customers,” Chen said. “So I think one of the validations and interest we received online was just by people emailing us that this is something that they really need.”

However, after competing in SSM, the StylePuzzle team does not see its second place victory as the end means of the app’s success and development. Rather, the group sees it as another opportunity to increase exposure and public interest. 

“You don’t actually win until you make the app successful,” Gong said. “It’s not like you win the competition and that app automatically goes for a billion dollars.”

Although the second place victory helped to boost their confidence in success of their mobile app, their end goal remains the same. 

“(We) want people to like our idea and use it every day. That is (our) goal,” Tobias said. 

Stephanie can be reached at [email protected]

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