It can take hours in the dressing room to try on an assortment of sizes and styles to find that perfect outfit. A few clicks on the computer may allow a shopper to replicate that experience, however, if a company started by student entrepreneurs hits the mainstream.
“The goal is to bring the experience you have shopping at the store to your home, so people can feel really confident shopping online that what they buy is going to look great,” said Caroline Pugh, a junior majoring in business information technology, who is also co-founder and chief operating officer for VirtualU. The company launched this summer. Pugh partners with two other co-founders, Louis Cirillo, a senior majoring in computer engineering and chief executive officer, and Nick Gagianas (MKTG ’12), who serves as chief marketing officer.
Using technology to improve online shopping
The idea is simple, although the technology is not. VirtualU is developing a scanning technology that would go in retail stores that would allow customers to scan their bodies to create personalized body models or “avatars.” The customer would get scanned once at the store. After that, they can go home, access their three-dimensional avatar, and try on clothes virtually when they shop online. “When you try clothes on with your model, you can even turn your avatar around and see how the cloth would move on your body,” said Pugh. “It’s very real, active. You get that perspective on what that piece of clothing would actually do on your body.”
The company co-founders say VirtualU will help customers buy with confidence and retailers improve struggling online sales. “Only about nine percent of the market is sold online, and 40 percent of that is returned, meaning retailers actually lose money going into the online market,” said Cirillo. “Another real problem is some women order nine pairs of jeans online and send back eight of them. That takes a lot of time and upfront capital for the customer. For the retailer, returns cost money, plus it hurts their inventory. We wanted to figure out how to fix that.”
Youth an entrepreneurial advantage
In a matter of months, the start-up has taken off. “We ask venture capitalists how long they think we have been around. Most guess around 18 months. When we tell them four months, they are shocked,” said Pugh. “Not many start-ups can say they’ve had a demo day, or they were featured in Forbes in that period of time. It's a testament to our team and what we are willing to do.”
The co-founders said their youth is a contributor to their success. “We have a competitive advantage that we are so young. We can work really hard right now, because we don’t have a lot of risk involved with having a start up,” Pugh said.
Still, it is hard for some of their friends to see entrepreneurship as a reality. “People ask how you can put so much time into it when it could fail,” said Gagianas. “That’s really what makes someone a successful entrepreneur — you just don’t give up.”
Pugh has been actively trying to promote entrepreneurship among students. Last year, she served as president of Virginia Tech’s Entrepreneur Club. Under her leadership, the club attracted a record amount in sponsorship and membership soared. She is currently president of the Washington regional chapter and director of partnerships at the Kairos Society, an international student-run organization of entrepreneurs and innovators.
“A lot of students at Virginia Tech don’t see a start-up as an option after graduation,” said Pugh. “As more successful spinouts come out of the university, there will be more enthusiasm for entrepreneurship.”
The co-founders have relied on the help of alumni, regional leaders, and local businesses, including TechPad, which offers entrepreneurs work space, resources, and mentors to help get start-ups off the ground.
Pugh and her co-founders hope their product will be considered a game changer in the online shopping market. “If we accomplished what we did this summer,” she said, “imagine what’s going to happen next year.”
Written by Alison Matthiessen, Division of Undergraduate Education