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Building a Marketplace for College Artists
Matteo Cugno ’22 enjoys the creative thrill of building something from scratch. As a kid, that meant constructing giant snow forts in his front yard, creating intricate designs with his Lego collection, or building a new world in Minecraft with his friends. When considering an academic direction at WPI, mechanical engineering made sense.
But lately, Cugno has discovered a passion for building something entirely different—as an entrepreneur. He partnered with his best friend, Josh Kim, to cofound The Cubby, an art marketplace for college students to sell and showcase their work to the public. Their mission is to empower college creatives by allowing students to retain 100% of their listing price, unlike other existing marketplaces such as Etsy, Society6, or Redbubble.
“The Cubby is built by college students for college students,” says Cugno, who serves as the startup’s chief operating officer. “We want college creatives to be able to support themselves through their artwork, whether they are fine arts majors, or someone in STEM whose passion is to create.”
In addition to keeping 100% of the price they charge, artists work with a third-party vendor that provides shipping labels through the site, making the transaction process as smooth as possible. “We also focus on marketing the artist as a student, rather than just the product they’re selling,” he says. Each profile includes a personal bio, a portrait, the name of the school they are attending, and goals of their artistic and college careers. “We want buyers to know their purchase has a real impact on that student’s college career.”
Since February 2021, The Cubby has attracted more than 500 student artists from 37 schools across the country—with 3,000 monthly users, and growing.
We want college creatives to be able to support themselves through their artwork, whether they are fine arts majors, or someone in STEM whose passion is to create.
Cugno surprised himself with how much he loves working on a startup. He notes that the same skills are needed by an engineering major—the ability to multitask, problem solve, and collaborate—have helped him as an entrepreneur.
The Cubby began as a campus marketplace for college students where they could sell each other items such as textbooks, dorm appliances, or other college-related essentials. Kim launched the small venture—originally called Sklaza—from his residence hall at Colby College in Maine, and experienced modest success before the pandemic shut down the world in March 2020.
“He was running it by himself, keeping me updated. I was just offering motivational support,” Cugno says. On the weekend that Colby students (and most other college students) were sent home to continue their education remotely, Cugno happened to be up visiting his childhood friend. “We ended up packing up his entire inventory in my truck and taking it home.”
The two decided to find a silver lining in pandemic-forced isolation and explore whether the business was realistic as a going concern.
“That summer, internships were closed and there was no work, so we said, ‘We’re going to dive head first into this and see where we can take it,’” he says. They rebranded their venture, and when the fall 2020 semester began, launched The Cubby at five colleges: Colby, Northeastern, University of Maine, Boston College, and WPI.
Although the pandemic kept many college campuses empty, and users were wary about meeting in person, they noted one category of items for sale was very popular: student-made items.
“We had people reaching out from other schools who wanted to sell their student-made stuff on The Cubby. We thought, we have something here that we should look into, because we’re solving a real problem now.” They spent winter break conducting customer discovery interviews and market research, speaking with a hundred potential buyers and sellers, and pivoted the site again to become art focused.
Growing The Cubby has been a life-changing experience that has made me a more wholistic student and engineer in the process.
Since relaunching in February 2021, The Cubby’s main source of income has been grants and prize money from business plan pitch competitions, including a $25,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute. A condition of that prize was that the team begin working full time, in-person in Maine, so Cugno, Kim, and Chief Technology Officer Domenico Ottolia, a Harvey Mudd College student from Los Angeles, moved to Portland, Maine, during the spring 2021 semester.
“The pandemic was a blessing in disguise, because typically if you’re working on a startup, you have to drop out of school,” says Cugno. “We were able to take classes full time remotely and still grow the startup.”
Because the site does not charge users, the team needed to figure out a different kind of revenue model. Their conclusion was that The Cubby community itself has value. “As our generation gets older, we’re the next biggest consumer in the U.S. economy. Companies don’t really know how to market to us. Our users know what’s cool, what’s trendy, and their creative nature is valuable to brands and businesses who are looking to grow rapidly,” he says. This fall, The Cubby will begin testing what this revenue model looks like.
The start-up is also gaining attention as it begins to enter the growing crypto currency space of non-fungible tokens (NFTs)—digital asset that can be recorded in a database and purchased or traded from person to person. With the future of art now shifting to a more digital medium, The Cubby plans to encourage college creators who make digital art to explore this new space.
While they have the potential to enter a seed round of funding this fall, the six team members are all seniors eager to finish the last year of their college careers. “There’s no question our team will continue to receive attention as we grow The Cubby throughout the fall. Our motto is to focus on the next small win that puts us in a greater position for success: Small wins add up.”
“I’m always chasing new experiences. Growing The Cubby has been a life-changing experience that has made me a more wholistic student and engineer in the process,” he says. “I can’t wait for what comes next.”