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Startup: Vincent Cheung

Can you describe where the inspiration for Shape Collage came from, and the process of getting it started?

I was down in California working at Google in the summer of 2006. All the other interns I was interning with, every time we'd go out, we were taking pictures. By the end of the summer, I had literally hundreds of thousands of photos, and I wanted to commemorate the end of the summer with a photo collage so people didn't have to look through the hundreds of thousands of photos I had. So how do you share photos with other people? I looked into different photo collage software that was out there; the problem was that most of them only let you deal with a small amount of photos or put them in these random arrangements where you couldn't even see the entire photo. About a year after that, I came to the realization that I could have used some stuff that I learned while doing my PhD and do something better, or at least do something that would make my life a lot easier, make it faster. So the idea was to be able to make a random arrangement, but where I can see each photo. After that happened, I realized I could make these pretty quick, and I wasn't restricted to arranging them in, say, a box, but could do a heart or spell out a word or logo. And then I decided to make a software program that people can actually use to take their photos and make these creations themselves. I put it up on my website, and people started using it.

You took the top prize at this year's ACE competition. Can you tell me how you became involved and a bit about the process?

The first release of the software was in April of 2008, and then in February of 2009, I started emailing a bunch of blogs and websites and explaining what I made. Then it got picked up by some blogs, by Lifehacker, and that resulted in 20,000 hits on my website in one day, and it snowballed from there. I incorporated the company in March of 2009, and in August 2009 I started selling the software. Up until that point, everything was free ÔÇô but even when the software was free I was making money because people were sending me donations. So when I started with ACE in January 2010, I filled out the paper application, got accepted; did the regionals thing, and did the nationals thing.

Do you have any mentors?

I have a lot. I originally started with some people from the Commercialization Group at the University of Toronto. I have some connections that I've made with professors at the Rotman School of Management in the MBA program. I've met up with a couple of the judges after each competition, primarily the judges that are either in my area or they had an interest and wanted to meet up afterwards. So I'm getting advice from people all over the place. When I have a particular question in mind, I can go and sit down or phone two or three advisors and get their opinion on it.

What advice do you have for other students looking to start their own company?

Do things that solve your own problems ÔÇô there are tons of problems that are out there ' do things that you're passionate about, that you'll enjoy doing, especially if its digital media or software, do them. I didn't care or think about who was going to use the software, I didn't think about the marketing plan or all this other stuff that you would see in the business plan; I just did it. I figured out where the market was afterwards, I figured out the usage afterwards. The more I learned about entrepreneurship, the more I became discouraged about it, which is a strange thought. But when you learn about entrepreneurship and business in a formal sense, you learn all these things that you are not supposed to do, you see all these failure cases, you see all the challenges that you have in front of you. I took a very na├»ve standpoint because when I started this I was just coding, I was just doing this for fun. I didn't think of any of these steps; I just approached the problems one at a time as they came to me. Had I known a little bit about business and entrepreneurship, if I had taken a business course or business minor, I may have actually been discouraged to actually start it. So I think a lot of times you just have to pull a gun and do it. And so what if your market size isn't a hundred million users, so what if it's not a billion dollar industry or billion dollar opportunity ' a lot of times you just have to do it and see where it goes. jp