When asked, “If your life were a movie, what would the title be?” Sam Lillie responded, “Jumanji.”
Jumanji describes itself as “A game for those who seek to find a way to leave their world behind.”
Much like the game, founding Vinder and competing in the first ever MassChallenge Texas accelerator allowed Sam to leave his old life as a recent grad, living in his mom’s basement after being rejected for jobs at over 100 companies behind.
Here at MassChallenge Texas in Austin, we kicked off our second accelerator with a cohort of 76 startups and initiated our inaugural Alumni in Residence (AiR) program with two finalists from our inaugural 2018 cohort returning as AiR mentors to the current startups. Meet Sam Lillie, CEO, Founder and Co-President of Vinder and MassChallenge Texas in Austin AiR mentor.
Who’s Sam Lillie and Where’d Vinder Come From?
Originally from San Diego, California Sam grew up in a seaport community. In 2015, Sam graduated from San Jose University with a Bachelor of Science in Business and proceeded to go on a 5-month journey hiking from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. Following his journey, Sam was rejected from 106 companies across 4 states.
A bit beaten down from over one hundred rejections and the fact that he was still living in his mom’s basement, Sam attended a Young Professionals meeting in Port Townsend, Washington, where the community talked about local problems. One of the problems was not having access to local food at a reasonable price.
On his walk home, he saw many home gardens and thought “why isn’t there a system where you can buy all of this from your neighbors?” This idea spurred the founding of Vinder, an app that connects home gardens with people looking to buy locally sourced produce at a reasonable price.
Vinder launched July 11, 2016. On foot and bicycle, Sam went door to door asking his neighbors about their home gardens and if they had ever thought about selling their produce. Within 3 months he had connected 30 home-growers with 15 families and personally delivered over 300 pounds of produce. Since then, Vinder has grown into a high-tech solution available for both Apple and Android.
The app allows you to find local produce grown by people in your community. You can choose to buy, sell, or trade produce, and are able to visit the grower, work in their garden “putting your hands in the soil,” see the growing conditions first-hand, and ask questions about the fertilizers and soils being used.
Vinder aims to “build stronger, healthier communities while creating a transparent and eco-friendly agricultural system.”
Sam applied to MassChallenge “for the life changing opportunity to work with experienced mentors and accelerate our fledgling startup,” and it didn’t hurt that it gave him the chance to “move out of my mom’s basement.”
Over the course of the 4-month accelerator program, Sam was able to attend curriculum, speak with mentors, and deeply engage in opportunities within the Texas innovation ecosystem, helping him build a network in Austin having just moved from Seattle.
Additionally, the resources and experience gained from competing in a MassChallenge program helped Vinder launch the educational Agtivist Volunteer program, a nationwide initiative that is helping local growers and farmers get more connected to their customers.
Sam accredits his MassChallenge experience for teaching him a number of things as a startup founder, including, using the network around him, “grit creates opportunity”, and “monitor your mental game.” Additionally, MassChallenge Texas creates a unique community of startups that work together to help each other grow their companies while competing for zero-equity funding. “Lift others up where you have fallen,” said Sam Lillie in regard to this unique community.
Continuing with MassChallenge as a Mentor
We asked Sam why he was willing to accept the responsibility of mentoring this year’s cohort and he answered, “MassChallenge changed my life and the life of my company, so I wanted to give back to the program.”
As an Alumni in Residence mentor, he continues to lift others up and give back to the community here at MassChallenge Texas in Austin. He is able to recreate the great experience of learning from other startups and the network as a whole for the current startups, and further the mentorship even more having already competing in the accelerator himself. He advises the current cohort to not focus on the prize money but instead, “focus on building traction and doing things right, and leverage the connections you’ve made for investor introductions.”
If Sam had never attended the Young Professionals meeting in Port Townsend, he may have never known of the community problem that allowed him to bring a solution to market.
Sam encourages startups, entrepreneurs, and other innovative creatives to “attend as many events as you can and talk with as many people as you can,” because there is always more to be learned and applied to everyday life and startup creation.