MIT entrepreneur automates e-commerce ordering process

After trying to solve a problem he had while running another business, an MIT computer science student found himself launching a startup.

Doug Feigelson is a true entrepreneur, one who has built a successful business out of a custom solution he designed as part of another venture. He says he’d rather "fail completely" than sell his company, and, as a third-year computer science student at MIT, he regularly turns down job offers so he can focus on his startup.

But he hates the word “entrepreneurship.” It’s a title too many people adopt these days, he says, and it attracts too much unwanted attention. He’d rather be working than talking about his work.

“The very worst startups, even if they have a good idea, they just don’t work,” Feigelson says. “There are people who talk and talk and talk, and they don’t work. That’s part of why I don’t do a lot of interviews. I’m always scared that I’m going to spend more time talking about something than doing it.”

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Especially recently, the success of his startup has landed him in the spotlight at several MIT events focused on entrepreneurship.

“Between today and yesterday, I’ll probably spend more time doing tangential things than actually working,” he says.

Regardless of whether he likes the attention, Feigelson will have trouble escaping it. He’s the founder of Zinc, an API for ordering products from online retailers. Zinc’s origins date back to Feigelson’s high school days, when he made good money exploiting price discrepancies on e-commerce sites. He would buy college text books on Amazon.com and sell them on eBay, where book sellers were over-charging college students. By under-cutting the high prices on eBay, Feigelson was able to steal some customers and turn a profit.

As demand grew, so did his frustrations. By his freshman year of college, Feigelson found himself spending too much time simply ordering books from Amazon to sustain the business he was attracting on eBay. When he couldn’t find the solution to his problem elsewhere, Feigelson built it himself. That’s when he realized that he might benefit from refocusing his efforts.

“From the very beginning when I made this, I was looking for an existing solution, and it always struck me how many people were looking for it as well,” Feigelson says. “So I thought there might be something there even three years ago. We were still running that other business, and we said ‘there’s a lot more opportunity doing this, so we should start to do that,’ and that was a couple years ago. And that was a lot of work, a huge amount of work.”

Feigelson is glad to take on the extra work for a business that fits his model for a good startup.

“I think the best startups are the ones that found a very specific problem that hurts a lot for people, and then they solve it,” Feigelson says. “And then people, even if they’re hesitant or it seems unfamiliar, they’re willing to embrace it because it fixed a pain point.”

Without actually establishing a working relationship with Amazon, Zinc has been able to simplify the ordering process down to just one call to the API. The customer only needs to set up an account with Zinc, add money to the account, and then set up Zinc’s API to order and ship the products they need. As long as they have the Amazon ID for the products they need to order and the addresses where they will be delivered, customers can set up recurring automatic orders.

Zinc’s customers have found the API useful for both convenience and cutting costs. Companies selling their products through multiple online channels are using Zinc to avoid missing out on sales when demand outstrips supply. Others have been able to reallocate their resources to more productive tasks.

“A couple of our customers literally had people working full-time, one of them was full-time and another was just spending a lot of time, ordering things from Amazon, just a lot of clicking,” Feigelson says. “And with us they could automate that and just save all that effort.”

However, Zinc hasn’t been restricted to the B2B world. Feigelson says some of the more creative cases have been for individual use, where hackers apply the technology to interesting real-life purposes. In one example, Zinc could be set up to automatically order more ink when a printer runs low. In another, a developer inquired about using Zinc to create a Facebook app allowing people to set up small accounts with their own money, say $50, and inviting friends to buy him gifts with it. Another developer wanted to create an app that automatically orders a random object to be delivered to his house every month.

With at least another semester remaining at MIT, Feigelson has refrained from promoting Zinc too heavily. He turns down most media requests and hasn’t participated in many startup conferences or competitions, save for the MIT 100K competition, where the company was a semifinalist. So far, most of Zinc’s customers have found the company organically, simply by searching “API for ordering from Amazon” on search engines.

Once the summer break provides some free time for Feigelson and Eric Swanson, Feigelson’s high school friend and Zinc co-founder who currently lives in their native Ohio and attends the University of Cincinnati, the company plans to dive into its promotional stage. Feigelson says they’ll pursue some relationships with other online retailers, like Walmart.com and Target.com, or will at least attempt to automate the process of ordering from their websites.

He plans to spend the summer working from San Francisco. Not to open an office – the company will probably work full-time out of an apartment – but just to be around the startup culture. Feigelson likes the environment, the coffee shops full of entrepreneurs talking about startups, in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley area. But, even while running a successful startup in the startup culture’s epicenter, he doesn’t expect to be spending much time talking that way himself.

“I usually like to say ‘I’m working on a project,’” he says. “I usually prefer not to say the word ‘startup.’”

Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is cneagle@nww.com.

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