Student to Founder Series: DukeGEN sits down with Shaan Puri of Sabi Sushi (formerly Wasabi)

By Howie Rhee '04; Published December 20, 2010

Earlier this month, DukeGEN
tracked down Shaan Puri, Trevor Ragan, and Daniel Certner, the three fast moving Trinity '10 graduates and founders of Sabi Sushi (formerly Wasabi), the Overall Grand Prize Winner of the 2010 Duke Start-Up Challenge.

Before Friday, April 16, 2010, Shaan Puri shared, "The Duke Start-Up Challenge literally changed my life. Not to be dramatic, but it opened doors for students like me that just have an idea and passion but no idea where to start. It gave us a place to start, a place to grow, and a chance to succeed."

On Friday, April 16, 2010, this photo speaks for itself:

Let's see where they are today:

How did you three meet?

Trevor and I were randomly assigned to be roommates freshman year of college, and Dan lived right next door.  We were all laid back guys - so the living arrangement worked, and has continued to work for the past 5 years straight!

We’ve had some unusual living arrangements. When we studied abroad in Australia, Trevor (in the dining room) and I lived with four awesome German guys we met randomly. During senior year, Trevor lived in my walk-in closet so we could all save money and live in a nice apartment.

Since we’re doing the start-up lifestyle, we live together and work together all day every day.  Isn’t that intense? We’re all pretty much legally married at this point.

Tell us what it was like to win the Duke Start-Up Challenge in April 2010. Were you surprised?

Huge surprise. As far as we knew, in order to win we were going to have to become the first all-undergraduate team to win, and the first non-technology based start-up to win. The night before the final pitch, we couldn’t figure out how we would beat the tough competition because they were what you think of as traditionally lucrative businesses: innovative web and biotech start-ups.

You know, big market, big margin ideas founded by Professors and MBA/PHD students, not a restaurant concept by undergrads with no experience. It seemed hopeless.

Around 2 a.m. the night before the final pitch, we decided to embrace who we were rather than wishing we had a biotech invention and MBAs. We stayed up all night making this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jpHVf62zEM) to start our presentation. We then wrote a more passionate than professional final pitch, because that was the truth. Rather than pretending to be business men, which the VC judges would’ve seen through, we just acted like ourselves. That meant taking risks, being creative, and telling our story with conviction.

What was your reaction to the winning announcement?

It took a week for the actual announcement of the Grand Prize Winner, and by then we had talked ourselves in and out of thinking we won about a hundred times.  The announcement took place at 9 p.m., and we had to be in NYC at 7 a.m. the next day because we were going to be featured as one of the Top 100 Innovative Student Businesses of 2009.

This meant that we’d have to find out the results, then drive all night to NY and we would either be extremely happy or devastated based on the results of the Start-up Challenge.

One of our teammates had gone up to NY early because he felt it was irresponsible to try and pull an all nighter before we would be pitching to some big execs in NYC, and he was probably right. But that resulted in him watching our victory on a live stream onto his phone while in a parking garage in NY. While we would’ve loved to have been all together when we got the news, we were thrilled either way.

The next day in NYC, we were fueled from the excitement of the victory, and we garnered so much attention during our pitches to execs at the NYC conference that we ended up getting featured on CNN Money! 

You were about to graduate, and had plans for the next step in your lives. How did your plans change once you won?

Completely. I was a pre-med student, had my MCAT scores and everything in place. Dan was interviewing for finance jobs in NY, and Trevor had a basketball head coach job available back home in Wyoming. All three of us couldn’t deny that we were creating something special here, and had to do more than just ‘give it a shot’. We had to commit fully, and that meant putting our pre-planned careers on hold as we pursued this adventure.

While we wouldn’t have admitted it before, we needed this prize money. Being a Duke student comes with great opportunities, but also great pressures to perform and earn money when you graduate. The money didn’t give us a free ride for the venture, but it did give us the opportunity to give this a chance. That’s not to mention the numerous times we’ve name dropped Duke Startup Challenge 1st Place Winners to get our foot in the door for a meeting with someone way out of our league. 

So you have settled on starting in Colorado, tell us more about that?

Chipotle, Noodles and Company, Qdoba, Quiznos, Smashburger…Colorado has been the mother of so many fast-casuals that it caught our eye. First the market is perfect, health conscious, trendy, high disposable income, and accustomed to fast-casual. Secondly, there is a huge amount of investment capital and experienced fast-casual workforce (at all corporate levels) already in place.

Of course, we only knew some of that going in. After we graduated, we did a month of intense research into census data, cold calling, and advisor recommendations. We created detailed maps of several cities, and did a cross country tour looking at each one. Chicago had a lot of promise, but in the end, we wanted to make sure we wouldn’t get lost in a big city. Boulder has many of the great aspects of a trendy big city, yet it maintains a small town mentality and personality.

It also made sense for us as 22 year olds to live in an amazing college town like Boulder. We’ve been able to make an impact in the community already because we relate and connect with so many of the people who will soon be our customers. It has been at the top of so many lists, best place to live, brainiest town, best place for start-ups etc…and while we didn’t come here because of that, it does sound good, doesn’t it?

Tell us what it's been like to be an entrepreneur these past six months?

Fun and tough.  It’s been fun being our own boss, our work schedule looks something like 9am-4pm, and then 10pm -4a.m 7 days a week. You learn a lot about yourself and how to motivate yourself. Money is sometimes tight, but it’s a fun lifestyle to live for sure, especially with my two best friends.

The biggest challenge has been managing people. In my opinion, it’s easy to be an entrepreneur. All of the success, failure, and burden is on you. When you’re trying to delegate important work, or manage other people, it gets tricky. Firing someone face to face is still the hardest thing we’ve encountered during our venture.

What advice would you have for current Duke students who are thinking of starting a company?

Go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you what you can do, or how to do it. Just do what you do.  That doesn’t mean be stubborn. Take advantage of all of Duke’s connections to get as much good advice as you can, but understand that each person is limited by their individual experiences. If you’re going to pursue a venture, then you want to do it your way – win, lose or draw.

Don’t be in denial of your weaknesses; instead try to parlay them into an advantage. If you’re young and have no experience, be honest about that, and you’ll find that people love to help a newcomer. 

How has Duke's entrepreneurial network been helpful to you?

Howie has done a great job giving us the resources to be successful. In the Duke network, everyone knows someone that knows someone.  For example, we’ve had the chance to bounce our idea off of people such as Dan Levitan. That one conversation has a career’s worth of wisdom in it, and has proven to be invaluable to us. 

Overall, there are a lot of high energy, ambitious and creative people in the network, but we haven’t had the chance to meet too many of them yet. Feeding off of your peers’ entrepreneurial energy is often more valuable than investments or advice. We hope to find ways to access more of that.

What help do you most need from Duke's entrepreneurial network?

Collaboration.  We hate networking. That’s because most people use it as an excuse to trade business cards and get free food. While we love free food, we’re more interested in making our business a success.

So if you’re an entrepreneur, let’s find a way to work together. At first glance, the synergies may not be apparent, but if you look at it from a creative perspective, there are many connections that could be beneficial to all parties involved. If you’re making iphone apps, we’ve got a need for you at Sabi. If you’re doing things with online music platforms, we can work together.  I’d say that creating opportunities for real collaboration is the best possible use of the Duke entrepreneurial network.

What's your goal for the next year?

Simple - Open the store, and shock the world.

Two and half years of planning have been about much more than the menu and recipes…and I can’t wait to show the world what we have in store for them.  

You guys love Duke basketball.  Where were you, and what was it like when we won the championship?

We were in Cameron Indoor Stadium, watching the game on the big screens with most of the student body. It was an incredible. We chose not to go to Indianapolis for the Final 4, because we’d rather be with the rest of our class when we finally won it. We lived through the Paulus and McRoberts eras – so we weren’t spoiled by Duke basketball success. To win it as seniors after 4 years of re-building was especially sweet. 

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Keep tabs on Sabi Sushi at http://www.sabisushi.com/, check out their blog, or like them on Facebook

Read more profiles of Duke alumni entrepreneurs


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