In a city where it rains over 150 days a year, there’s nothing more frustrating than being stranded without an umbrella when an unexpected downpour begins. Fortunately, a local company is hoping to prevent that from happening.
Inside the labyrinth running underneath the Institute for Computing, Information and Cognitive System (ICICS) building at the University of British Columbia, Amir Entezari and Babak Assadsangabi operate UmbraCity—a fully automated umbrella-sharing service. Since launching their prototype in 2015 with the support of the UBC Alma Mater Society, the duo has grown the company to have six active kiosks across campus.
“When we came up with the idea, we wanted to see if there was demand for this. We wanted to see if we had the solution and if it was a profitable business,” explains Entezari (the plan is to make money from companies that pay to have a kiosk installed, or pay to advertise on the kiosk itself). With a background in computer science, Entezari gained experience in software development before shifting his focus to entrepreneurship. Together with friend Assadsangabi, the pair sought advice from engineering consulting companies before going forward with their concept. “I had the software background, Babak had the hardware background, and so we worked on creating the prototype,” Entezari says. After a nine-month pilot, the program proved successful among students and faculty and became a permanent project on campus. To date, they’ve had more than 6,500 users and over 15,000 rentals.
So, how does it work? Much like a library system, customers can sign up with UmbraCity for free online or at one of the designated kiosks. Through a touchscreen pad, users enter a phone number and password to rent one of the canary yellow umbrellas, which were designed in-house. When it’s time to return the product, simply leave it inside another designated kiosk. Should members forget to return their umbrellas within the free 24-hour rental period, a rate of $2 per day is charged to their accounts up to a maximum of $30. Although this is a small price to pay for these durable, windproof products, Entezari encourages users to return them. “We don’t want to get into the umbrella-selling business,” he says. “We want to make sure that people use them only for the duration that they actually need them and return them so somebody else can borrow them. That’s the value that we’re trying to create.”
Designed to make rainy cities livable by providing people with greater mobility and peace of mind, perhaps the most noteworthy thing about UmbraCity is its sustainability aspect. In North America alone, over 33,000 umbrellas are sold per year, resulting in landfill waste; UmbraCity aims to reduce the number of low-end umbrellas being manufactured and discarded. As well, in partnership with Common Thread—a local non-profit that employs newcomers to Canada—the canvas from unusable UmbraCity umbrellas is repurposed into backpack covers, bicycle seat covers, and other eco-friendly designs.
As 2018 quickly approaches, the two entrepreneurs diligently prepare for expansion into the downtown core. Focusing on highly populated locations including shopping areas and the financial district, Entezari and Assadsangabi plan to introduce UmbraCity to more of Vancouver by early February.
But like with other start-ups, the journey hasn’t been easy. Even today, Entezari’s demonstration of the automated kiosk ends in embarrassment—an error due to a weak WiFi signal. He assures that switching to cellular data will create a more reliable service. “Every day we face something different,” he says. From user behaviour to the technology itself, they have realized that some challenges don’t get easier over time; but as a result, they’ve become adept at solving problems.
“When I talk to other entrepreneurs when they want to start something, I do warn them that this is going to be a difficult ride,” Entezari chuckles. “It’s like a rollercoaster. One day things are going great, but other days it’s downhill. You got to make sure that if you really believe in your concept; specifically when you try to change people’s behaviour, you have to be consistent and keep at it.”
This positivity and determination echoes through all their hard work. Even as Assadsangabi tinkers alone from their workshop across the hall, he is all smiles. Despite the dreary downpours that are synonymous with Vancouver, it’s refreshing to know that start-ups like UmbraCity can be rewarded for their ingenuity. As the latest game-changer in the sharing economy, these bright umbrellas make rainy days not so bad after all.
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