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Inspiring millennials to make smarter choices

Student startup relies on crowd to provide advice on navigating the real world

Computer science concentrator Ryan Lee, A.B. '20, is launching the startup Vaultima, which uses crowd sourcing in an effort to help milennials adjust to life on their own. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Lee)

After graduating from high school, Ryan Lee wanted to see what the real world was like, so he took a gap year before enrolling at Harvard. Lee lived on his own and worked a full-time job, but life was more difficult than he anticipated.

He paid his taxes late because he didn’t realize he needed to file; his vote was redacted because he filled out a form incorrectly when he registered; he faced a nightmare to replace a lost retainer because he didn’t understand how his insurance worked.

Lee’s struggles are not unique. A recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that only 24 percent of millennials (22- to 37-year-olds) demonstrated financial literacy. The real estate firm Zillow reported that 23 percent live with their parents, up 10 percent from a decade ago.

“I just wished there was a centralized resource with everything I needed to know now that I was out of school and entering the workforce for the first time,” said Lee, A.B. ’20.

When he couldn’t find the all-inclusive online resource he was looking for, he decided to create one.

Before the computer science concentrator even started taking classes at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, he had begun working on Vaultima, a crowd-sourced life skills guide aimed at millennials.

“I think the biggest issue with these resources is that they are scattered all over and incomplete,” he said. “By making this a community-driven effort, people will be more emotionally invested. They’ll see how their input improves other people’s lives directly and it will lead to a more organic and wholesome experience.”

Vaultima is a repository of tutorials for different facets of life, from how to fill out a W-4 form to advice on where to start investing as a student.

With a user-driven, Reddit-style structure, individuals make additions and revisions to content. Others then ‘upvote’ or ‘downvote’ those contributions based on how useful they are.

“In a community like Reddit, people really take the time to explain pros and cons to others who are looking for advice,” he said. “Of course, there is heavy moderation, but the community self-filters its own content and I think the experience of what you actually learn is better because of that community-driven element.”

Lee expects maintaining quality control to be the biggest challenge as he publishes new content. But as more contributors participate, that issue should become easier to manage, he said.

A second aspect that makes Vaultima unique is its focus on incentives, Lee said. He plans to create a karma system that rewards active contributors and also provides incentives for users to achieve certain milestones.

“When you are out in the real world, there is so much going on and it’s tough to manage everything, especially when tasks aren’t as clearly defined as they are when you are a student,” he said. “We want to gamify life a bit so there are clear-cut objectives.”

For example, voting may be an objective, and a user can improve his or her score on the site by completing that task. Users can also earn points by making edits to guides that are well received by the community.

Lee and his team are currently writing, editing, and publishing the initial guides that will be on the site when it launches later this year. The tech-savvy CEO enrolled in the SEAS course Startup R&D (ES 95r), taught by Paul Bottino, Executive Director of Innovation, to gain experience in entrepreneurship.

He has relied on the input of business experts and the support of entrepreneurial-minded peers as he works through the day-to-day challenges of launching a startup.

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that nobody is Steve Jobs. Hubris and ego get in the way of building a product,” he said. “It’s much better to breathe, take your time, really know what you want to build and why; have answers to those tough questions before diving in and writing a single line of code.”

And while there are many challenges ahead, he is looking forward to the opportunity help young people have an easier time adjusting to life outside their parents’ basements.

“Life is so complicated. It’s hard to make the best choice at any given moment,” he said. “If people are better on-boarded to reality and better prepared, then in the long run they’ll make smarter decisions that will hopefully improve their lives.”

Topics: Entrepreneurship

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