How Three Friends Moved from Pack Mules to a Multi-Million Dollar Startup Company

The work ethic and hustle of these Colby alumni have carried them through challenging times

On the first day of school in 2013, three first-year students from Bosnia, Italy, and Kosovo met during international orientation and hit it off.

Turns out, that meeting was serendipitous. It was the beginning of a close and enduring friendship, one that has led over the years to a business partnership that is making waves in the real estate investment world.

The friends—Amar Sehic ’17, Tommaso Montagni ’17, and Krenar Roka ’17—are the founders of New York City-based Rubik, a startup which this summer raised $3.55 million in seed funding. The money, a vote of confidence from investors, is the culmination of several years of work, sacrifice, and struggle.

And the friends are just getting started.

“We believe in the American dream, and we want to make it real,” Sehic, 27, of Bosnia, said. “What makes us successful is what we share, not just our friendship, but our ambition. We are never giving up.”

That kind of determination, along with hustle and willingness to do hard work, has been a hallmark of theirs since the beginning. It wasn’t long after they got to Colby that they began noticing many students lacked transportation to local stores. Sehic, Montagni, and Roka saw an opportunity. They found a classmate with a car and started an e-commerce store called “Pack Mules.”

“We believe in the American dream, and we want to make it real.”

- Amar Sehic ’17

“We could bring anything from local stores to people’s rooms in 24 hours,” Montagni, 27, of Italy, said.

Pack Mules proved popular. At its peak, a team of about eight people procured Doritos, other snacks, juice, ping pong balls, party supplies, and other non-alcoholic essentials for students on Mayflower Hill.

The business wound down during their junior year, when many of the team studied abroad. Upon returning to Maine, the friends contemplated their lives after graduation and figured their partnership seemed strong enough to make a go of it.

In their senior year, they started a second company, Fractal, this one based on the concept of making modular tiny homes in an environmentally sound manner. They pitched the idea for their company at the Colby Entrepreneurial Alliance business competition. Although they didn’t win, they earned valuable experience.

Krenar Roka ‘17, cofounder of Rubik, gives a presentation at the Colby Entrepreneurial Alliance business competition in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Amar Sehic.)

After graduation, they relocated to a place that’s long been a magnet for young people with a dream: New York City. Although they didn’t have connections there, they did have an early angel investor who helped them get through the hardest times. Susan Conant Cook ’75, who worked in Colby’s Advancement Office until her retirement, also served as Sehic’s host mom while he was at school.

She had received a small inheritance and decided to use part of it to help Sehic and his friends launch their business.

“It was just seeing the possibility and wanting to support some young men who were just so inspiring and creative,” she said. “He was just part of the family. … I took him to the bus to go to New York City and admit to getting a little teary-eyed.”

The money and support helped as the three began to navigate the big city.

“We basically were in a one-bedroom apartment at the time, the three of us, sleeping pretty much on the floor. We were Airbnb-ing the one bedroom we had,” Montagni said. “We were pretty much eating pasta, bread, and chicken for a year, on repeat.”

Though their diet was boring, they didn’t give up, honing their business idea and working on new software programs.

“What we did basically the first year was hustle. I don’t want to abuse the word, but it’s true,” Sehic said. “We met a ton of people and tried to understand where we could use our skills best.”

Each brought something special to the table. Sehic, who had double-majored in mathematics and physics, is good at getting people to build something together. Roka, originally from Kosovo, studied economics and mathematics. He’s a big-picture guy with a family background in real estate investment and development. Montagni, a mathematics major, has a knack for planning short-term strategies. He also has a family background in real estate investing.

“I think we all have different skill sets that we apply,” Montagni said. “I think that fundamentally, we understand that it’s very hard to have friendship and business at the same time. But if we have a mutual respect for each other, it works out.”

It didn’t take long for the fledgling company to grow. In June 2018, they received $100,000 from the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator, a New York City-based program that offers seed capital and hands-on help to early-stage startups.

“We soaked up as much as possible,” Sehic said. “I think it was quite valuable to go through that.”

“Fundamentally, we understand that it’s very hard to have friendship and business at the same time. But if we have a mutual respect for each other, it works out.

- Tommaso Montagni ’17

The experience helped them refine their business plan. They would use their technical and analytical skills to create a digital platform for institutional investors to find and purchase single-family homes. Without this kind of streamlined system, those investors rely on fragmented networks of local real estate brokers and wholesalers, which makes transactions more complicated and less transparent, Sehic said. They also have to compete with other investors and regular home buyers for the same properties.

But through Rubik, they could leverage data science to create a fully digitized acquisition process. The marketplace they wanted to build would enable quick, easy, all-cash transactions to simplify the process for both the buyer and seller.

To realize its potential, however, they needed more investors, and turned to the Colby community to see if others thought their idea had merit.

Others did. In two funding rounds in 2019 and 2021, the young entrepreneurs raised about $900,000, mostly from Colby College alums.

“We had the opportunity to meet some really amazing people, as investors and advisors,” Sehic said. “The best part is the community we’ve become part of. It’s a very tight-knit community.”

Rubik’s founders are proud of the business they have built. So far, nearly 100 homes in eight states have been sold through their platform, at a total transaction value of nearly $20 million. And even though the red-hot housing market is cooling, they don’t anticipate a slowdown.

“The way we operate is anti-correlated to price movements in the housing market. If there’s a decline in price, our buyers will purchase more,” Sehic said. “Basically, the peak of the market was the hardest time for us. There was such a huge demand for every home. Now, with interest rates rising, we see a huge shift in the other direction. There’s a huge supply coming online.”

The friends believe they can withstand the challenges of the volatile housing market. After all, they’ve already proven they can show resilience in the face of adverse events.

During the pandemic, a global push to do more remotely helped people become more comfortable with online businesses like Rubik. And when Roka needed to move back to the Balkans, he was able to create and lead the company’s 10-person engineering team there.

“I don’t know if it’s because we’re immigrants or we just have this attitude,” Montagni said. “We’ve always used critical moments and asked, how can we make this a positive?”

By Abigail Curtis

SOURCE https://news.colby.edu/story/from-pack-mules-to-multi-million-dollar-startup/
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