Startup Mission: On a wing and prayer

by The City Wire staff ( 5 views 

Weiting Tan and Anthony Chew were best friends almost instantly when they met in the seventh grade in their native Singapore. Little did they know then, they would one day spend nearly a whole year and a long way from home trying to launch a business venture of their own.

In January of this year the duo took part in an accelerator competition in Chile trying to get their business venture, Epic Pledge, off the ground. In August they hopped a plane to Northwest Arkansas with hopes of getting into the ARK Challenge with a platform that still needed work.

They didn’t know a soul in Fayetteville, but saw an opportunity they just couldn’t refuse. There were more than 80 teams from around the world submitting applications for the ARK Challenge, but that didn’t scare this young team away.

The Epic Pledge team hung in and made the cut to the 15 final ventures, which wrapped up their 14-week competition on Nov. 8.

Epic Pledge is an accountability program that helps adults pass their professional certification exams. Epic Pledge uses a mobile application that leverages upon social forces to give people that extra push to accomplish their goals.

The business model urges users to make personal goals and share them with the online world. The end thought being that we are all more capable of accomplishing our goals if we are held accountable to them.

Chew said the idea came from their own relationship as the two have always challenged each other in regard to academics and business. Both admit they weren't great students in the seventh grade. Though childhood friends in Singapore, the two would go their separate ways to college. Chew earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy at the University of California Los Angeles, and Tan studied finance at State University of New York at Buffalo.

But following graduation, they didn’t want to secure an 8-to-5 job in city government or the corporate world but decided to roll the dice and launch a company of their own at the ages of 24 and 25.

The dedication these two entrepreneurs have shown is amazing, according to mentor Judith Tavano.

“When you think at how they have hopped continents without hesitation, their tenacity is just asounding," she said.

Tavano, director of Professional Development Programs at the University of Arkansas Global Campus, has been a sounding board and mentor for the Epic Pledge founders during the past few months.

“When they first pitched me their business idea it was pretty broad in focus, but I immediately saw that it would be applicable in adult education. They also had a web-based platform, but really felt a mobile application would be a more nimble and usable product,” Tavano said.

Tan said the original premise they brought to Arkansas had some flaws, but over the past 14 weeks they have honed it into a viable product ready to market.

They pitched their idea to investors at last week’s Demo Day in Bentonville, asking for $250,000 needed to market their product into the education industry. They were not among the three teams chosen for top seed funding but said they will contiue to beat the bushes for angels and start-up funds, across the globe.

"I think coming to (Arkansas) has been a big step forward for our company because it took away a lot of the distractions we would have otherwise had to deal with," said Tan. "We feel confident about our product. We have learned a great deal about the details of running a business thanks to this program."

Their finished product – Epic Pledge – is a mobile application downloadable for $9.99. But the real opportunities lie in getting the product bundled with textbook companies and educators who teach professional certification courses.

Tavano said working adults often need an incentive in their busy lives to stay focused on courses and certification programs they may be taking to move up in their careers.

She said learning cohorts who network together during their studies will outperform those who don’t. This could be everything from study groups to using an accountability system like Epic Pledge that allows them to share their accomplishments, ask for help and get accolades from others who are also working toward the same goal.

Chew said when they arrived in Fayetteville in August, they were in heavy overcoats and warm clothes as they had been living in Chile in the dead of winter.

“I couldn’t believe how hot it was. We were able to sublet a small apartment near the University of Arkansas but spent the majority of our time at the Iceberg co-working space,” Chew said. which was their office provided by the ARK Challenge program.

The guys said they slept at the Iceberg on more than one occasion because they had so much work to do, but one tradition that they always made time for were the half-price hot wings at Hog Haus Brewery on Dickson Street each Wednesday.

“We really love the food here in Fayetteville, the wings are awesome and Mama Dean’s soul food is so good,” Chew said.

Keeping the business alive is the main focus for Tan and Chew going forward.

“We would like to keep the company in Arkansas, but we will have to secure more funding and my visa status is also key,” Tan said.

Chew has a green card, but Tan is in the U.S. on an temporary entrepreneur’s visa.

Tavano has no doubts this duo will succeed based on the performance and determination she has witnessed since meeting them in August.

“They have a special bond, their personalities are quite different, but their friendship and ability to work together unselfishly is a rare combination. It has been such a pleasure to work with these young men, I can’t wait to see what their future holds,” Tavano said.