Fabio Berger

The Cube: experiments in building a startup community

Duke University's Selective Living Group for Entrepreneurs

Back when I was a freshman at Duke, I took the leap of working on my first startup. It was hard and I quickly realized that I was swimming in the deep end. I decided to try and find other students who had started companies, so that I could learn as much from them without having to make all the mistakes myself. They were hard to find. Later that year, I stumbled upon a blog post by then Sophomore Sidney Primas who wrote about his vision for an E-House on Duke's campus, dedicated to building a community of entrepreneurs. I decided to get in touch with Sidney and together with a couple of friends we started what is now The Cube on Duke's campus. As a second semester senior, the time is ripe to reflect on the 4 years invested in building The Cube into the thriving entrepreneurial community it is today.


People are Everything

When we began recruiting our first class we had no idea where we would find our first 15 members. We were able to recruit my then co-founder but after that small win, the two other founders we knew on campus turned us down as they were not convinced of the value we would bring to them, instead of seeing the opportunity and impact they could have on others. We therefore had to switch gears towards pitching the general student body about the merits of startups and why they would want to be a part of The Cube.

Many events later, we had convinced a small but significant group of apply. After interviewing them all, we decided to take almost everyone who had applied. Some of those who applied had an idea and were on their way to building their startups but by and large these were students intruiged with entrepreneurship. Some would later blossom into incredible founders while most would eventually drop from The Cube realizing that startups was not for them.

Over the last 4 years, The Cube has had an attrition rate fo 80% and I am constantly reminded of the fact that startups are not for everyone. Some of our members were too enamored with academia to put themselves through the load of grunt work every startup requires. Others we later found out saw The Cube as merely resume fluff that would make them look more "entrepreneurial" for employers (Yuck!). And still others just didn't feel ready to take the leap, throw their weight behind their idea and give it a go. Instead of trying to resist this, I have found that you cannot convince someone to be a founder.

As a selective living group, our greatest asset as a group are our members. This has reminded me again that every organization is only as great as the people who make it up. This cannot be understated. We have therefore evolved our recruiting strategy into a very selective process that tries to give us a wholistic view of a person prior to membership. We want to get a sense of a persons ability to achieve, willingness to learn and personality. These are the three dimensions for a person that will inform us whether they will not only a great founder but a great InCuber. InCubers are a subset of founders, they are founders who are willing to help, mentor and collaborate with other founders for the betterment of everyone in the entrepreneurial community.

Know your mission

At The Cube we have been constantly defining our mission as an organization. Are we a social group for entrepreneurs, an incubator, an aggregator of startup resources, all of the above? It has taken us a while to figure this out but now that it has taken shape, it has given us a laser focus that can guide all our activities.

The Cube is a community of student entrepreneurs who support one another through mentorship, advice and friendship.

Instead of replicating many of the startup resources available online or by Duke, The Cube has to focus on perhaps the most important resource for a founder: their support network. Startups are hard and it's when things are not working out or when you're feeling down that you need the most support. Having role models, others you can go to who have gone through what you are experiencing, offer useful advice and be there for you as a friend is priceless. This year I had the immense pleasure of living with Devin Solanki, founder of PowerHouse Protein. Not only have we become great friends, he has taught me an incredibe amount about manufacturing and selling physical products, while in return I helped introduce him to e-commerce and online ads as a way to boost his sales. It is these kinds of exchanges that exemplify The Cube's mission.

Personal relationships are paramount

When we first began, we did not realize how important it was for members of The Cube to be great friends first a foremost. In order to become invested in one anothers startups and truly want one another to succeed you first have to spend a lot of time with a person and become invested in their well being. Once we had realized that, we began to focus much more on organizing social events, getting members to party together and make The Cube not only a formal commitment you have decided to partake in but also a group of friends you hang out with on friday night.

The effects have been dramatic. Not only do members now know one another more intimately and therefore constantly have an eye out for opportunities, individuals and information that could help the startups of others, there has been a much greater involvement from members in the group. Members feel emotionally attached to the group and the friendships that hold it together and this is a solid foundation that will allow The Cube to flourish.