Editor's Note: This article is part of Inc.'s 2016 Coolest College Startups package.
Seung Shin was a freshman at New York University in 2011 when he decided to get a tattoo. He thought it would look cool--until spring break came along and he had to face his very traditional family with the word "faith" etched on his underarm in large, cursive letters.
That's when Shin began the long and arduous process of removing the ink. After one laser surgery session and only $500 into the $3,000 process, he was struck by an idea: What if you could apply a tattoo with permanent-yet-removable ink?
That idea is now Ephemeral, a startup run by Shin, who is an engineer, and a group of NYU co-founders, including COO Joshua Sakhai, a statistics and computer science major. "If he had gone through all the sessions he would have been left with a scar the shape of the original tattoo," Sakhai says. "Now it's still there, and it's a scary, bumpy thing."
The team, which last year won $75,000 in the technology venture category in NYU Stern's 200K Entrepreneurs Challenge, is opening a seed round May 1, and plans to launch its first product in the fall of 2017.
Perhaps tainted by Shin's experience, none of the other Ephemeral team members (which include engineers Vandan Shah, Brennal Pierre and Anthony Lam) have a tattoo--at least not until their product is released, when they will all be "fully decked out in tattoos," according to Sakhai.
One more accomplishment: Ephemeral is now Inc.'s 2016 Coolest College Startup after competing against 15 other startups in a March Madness-style tournament. To learn more about these college entrepreneurs' journey to the top, and their advice for fellow student founders, check out Inc.'s edited interview with Sakhai below.
Was it always your plan to start a business in college?
I have always been very into entrepreneurship. But Seung had no clue he was going to start a company during college. He just had an idea that became really big, really fast.
How do you balance both work loads--any all-nighters?
Early on in the company I had to choose between going to all the classes I possibly could or pushing this company forward. We've definitely had some 4 A.M. sessions and sleepless nights. And everything that could go wrong, did. So you have to de-risk your R&D and your business and have protocols set in place in case something does go wrong.
What is your team dynamic like?
Anthony is the serious one; he is always grounding our ideas and putting them into actionable visions. Brennal [who is 34] gives valuable, high-level overviews of the arduous process of bringing the product to market; it is great to have an older brother to guide us along the way. Vandan is in the middle; he has a lot of experience but he is also on the ground with us. Me and Seung butt heads all the time but we are always coming up with something better, with ideas that wouldn't have come up if we weren't butting heads all the time.
Why do you think the tattoo industry is ready for disruption?
Based on our own research last summer during the NYU Launchpad Program, when we talked to hundreds of potential users--we even put up a lemonade stand in Washington Square Park--60% of those who didn't have tattoos wanted to get one but didn't. They are into fashion or think it's cool, or hip...people are hungry for ink and not getting it because of its permanence.
There has not been much innovation [in the tattoo industry], even though it has been around since ancient times. There are a bunch of new companies, like Tattly and InkBox, offering two-week tattoos but those platforms aren't satisfying the huge demand in removable tattoos. No one is doing what we're doing.
What advice do you have for other student entrepreneurs?
You are going to get lots of different advice and you need to be resourceful and filter out what you need, and when you need it. No one is going to know your business as well as you do, and you need to go with your gut and what you're passionate about. It's better to be wrong quickly than to make the right decision too late.
How has the company evolved since winning the NYU 200K Entrepreneurs Challenge?
It's been a crazy journey. We had an "aha" moment when we realized we're real now, and we have the money to do what we want to do--so we went into the Launchpad program in the summer and moved into Harlem Biospace [a biotech incubator that offers lab space] to build our products and do R&D.
What were your goals when you started developing the new products?
The first step is to make sure that all of our ingredients are non-toxic and totally safe. Everything we're using is organic and FDA-approved. We have to be as good or better than what there is out there today, otherwise it's not going to take off.
What do you think your biggest challenge will be going forward?
Getting the tattoo artists on our side, philosophically and ideologically, since they live and breathe permanence and place value on what they are creating. We have to explain that it is not about a one-time shot. It's about restyling and editing your tattoos to evolve with you. Artists live on reputation and repeat business, so it would benefit them too.