Andros Wong founded Silo to connect fellow students with funding institutions. He recounts the giddy moment when his new enterprise took off — and the gruelling realities of entrepreneurship.
I’m writing this article early in the morning after enduring an essay crisis, hosting a successful Silo event and meeting my research project deadlines. The exhaustion kicks in, but I think to myself — nothing worth doing is ever easy.
Being an entrepreneur has always fascinated me. My first venture at the age of 16 was a digital marketing firm for restaurants near my school. I still remember the moment we first made a profit — the euphoria that hit me was indescribable and from that point I knew that this was my career path.
My motivation for starting Silo began when my girlfriend was accepted into her Master’s degree at Oxford but was unable to finance it herself. For weeks we tried to search for grants and scholarships applicable to her studies, only to be met with irrelevant results, incomplete information and dead ends. She also created a crowdfunding page, but was still unable to meet her target. She eventually achieved full funding through an unadvertised scholarship from her college and the considerable generosity of a family friend. Despite her good luck, I realized that many others around me were also unable to find financial support for further education. I wanted to find a solution to this problem, of not being able easily to navigate potential sources of funding for study.
During the development of our first product, I would work on my degree from 8am to 3pm and then I would go to St Anne’s College to code from 4pm to 12am with my co-founder Howard Tam (St Anne’s, 2013). This continued for two terms until the summer of 2016. By then we had found a place in the St Anne’s incubator — the first college incubator in the University.
Silo’s Du’aine Davis, James Morrill and Andros Wong after the Freshers’ Fair at the start of this academic year
Silo is a software platform which connects students with funding institutions whilst allowing them to crowdfund. It reflects the fact that funding a degree has become vastly more complex than it used to be in the halcyon days of local authority grants and generous central government funding. Users can search for scholarships, bursaries and grants whilst receiving support from friends, family and individuals/organisations interested in their research or their cause. We are currently also trying to create a profile for donors where they can have a more personalised connections with students they have sponsored.
Silo is a startup that aims to maximise social impact alongside profits for shareholders and our mission is to reduce inequality in education funding. That means that it is for-profit but with social good as an explicit aim: welcome to the social enterprise.
There were lots of obstacles. Many funding institutions had obsolete application systems — i.e. they still relied on letters of applications. They were unwilling to be digitised and they were inefficient in communication. Despite our clear value propositions (reducing administrative burdens, increasing publicity and most importantly, helping students) they were unwilling to engage with us. We decided to shift our focus to getting students on board first. By the end of the summer we had produced the largest, most up-to-date database of scholarships and grants in the UK; a superior search engine that returns relevant results and a crowdfunding platform for users to give and receive online payments. We even gained an extra developer from the incubator.
Entrepreneurship isn’t glamorous. The grind is real and disappointments occur more often than not. The question becomes: how much pain can you tolerate? During the second week of our launch in Michaelmas term 2016, despite high rates of growth, a key member of our team decided that he would not continue at the company due to personal issues. A week later our new developer also decided that he could not handle the stress of balancing his studies and Silo, and quit. As my only other co-founder was on his year abroad, I was suddenly alone. As someone who has always prided myself on mental strength, I became increasingly anxious, worried that the time and effort we had all put into Silo would end in an embarrassing failure. My mind was scattered, and I found myself unable to concentrate on any work.
Then I realised how stupid I was being — despite these setbacks I was still doing what I loved and I was working towards a worthy and potentially profitable cause, which could have a positive impact on many students. I picked myself up, tried to gather new talent, and applied to TheFamily — one of Europe’s largest accelerators for startups.
With a stroke of luck, members from TheFamily came to speak at an Oxford Entrepreneurs event two days later. I skipped dinner in order to attend the event. After the lecture I started talking to one of the partners. I told him about our platform and that we had made an application. He seemed impressed and decided to check our application on his phone. It was then that he told me that the founder of the incubator (also the speaker at the event) had accepted our application. Suddenly I was talking to the founder and we made further arrangements to proceed. I will never forget crying with relief and exhilaration on the phone with my co-founder whilst finally managing to grab some food from my favourite pizza van opposite Christ Church.
The original Silo team that went through the St Anne’s incubator — Du’aine Davis, James Morrill, Howard Tam and Andros Wong
Since then, things have been looking up. We now have over a thousand students on our platform and have partnerships with the Rhodes Trust, Weidenfeld Hoffman Scholarships and the Fulbright Scholarships. My search for talent paid off, and we now have a team of five and the chief operating officer (COO) has returned as an advisor to the company.
However, there is still much work to be done. The traditional method of funding applications is inaccessible, outdated and flawed. Silo hopes to open up the funding process, not only through the possibilities of easier online access to funding opportunities and through crowdfunding, but also by connecting students with alumni, companies and organizations that are interested in giving back to the student community.
We want to create a network of individuals and organisations interested in giving back to the student community by sponsoring their research or their cause. Silo is now looking to get commissions from companies (from startups to corporations) who may be interested in sponsoring student research or education in return for part-time work, projects or specific tasks. Against the backdrop of rising tuition fees, students will become more reliant on alternative sources of funding. We want to be the matchmaker between students and funders — the primary source of conventional and unconventional funding opportunities.
Andros Wong is a fourth-year undergraduate studying engineering, economics and management. He is the CEO of Silo, spending half his time coding and half his time on marketing and development.
Howard Tam (St Anne’s, 2013) — Howard is a fourth-year engineer at St Anne’s college who is currently doing a year abroad in Princeton. He is the CTO of Silo and designs much of the architecture of the platform.
Du’aine Davis (Balliol, 2013) — Du’aine is a recent graduate of Economics and Management. He is the COO of Silo and is head of business development at Silo.
St Anne’s College Incubator: St Anne’s College and The Danson Foundation jointly supported an Incubator Project to help three teams of students start their own businesses. As well as receiving working capital and accommodation, the teams were offered dedicated mentoring from the Danson Foundation and St Anne’s alumnae. The awards applied for nine weeks, covering the long vacation of 2016, and were premised on a full-time commitment during that period. Aside from Silo, the other two winning teams were Will Bell’s Near Cut (www.nearcut.com, an online booking platform for barbers) and April Pierce’s Oxford Writers House (www.oxfordwritershouse.com, seeking to coordinate a hub for writers in the University and city of Oxford).
Photos of the Silo team © Silo / Andros Wong. Oxford skyline image © Oxford University Images / Greg Smolonski. £5 note image © Stephen Plaster via Shutterstock.