Juggling Coursework, Jobs, and New Ventures at UIC

Daniel Natsagdorj paid his way through UIC’s entrepreneurship program in part by working long weekend hours as a server at a River North sushi restaurant. When he enrolled at UIC, Daniel had nearly a decade of food service experience, so the server work was nothing new. But when he started the job, the sharing economy was relatively new; Uber had recently arrived in Chicago. It got Daniel thinking about how restaurants managed their delivery drivers.

“In all my years of working at restaurants, it seemed inevitable that delivery drivers had too much downtime,” says Daniel. “Drivers want to be making tips; restaurants don’t want staff sitting idle–I wondered, could you make it more efficient by applying sharing-economy principles to food delivery?” So Daniel and his business partner, Dulguun Enkhsaikhan, launched Urban Delivery, now Deliveree, a recent winner of an EntrepreneurshipU Award.

Daniel is originally from Mongolia. When he was 13 years old, he moved with his family to Orlando, Florida, where the family opened a Japanese restaurant. Daniel started as a dishwasher. By the time he’d graduated from high school, he was working as a manager. But the family business wasn’t where his interests lay. “I went to Los Angeles to study fashion,” Daniel says, “and because L.A. was so expensive, I ended doing a lot more server work in Japanese restaurants.”

Though he had a strong interest in fashion, Daniel says he lacked the talent and drive to commit to a career in the field. He returned to Florida to help his family with the sale of their Orlando restaurant and the management of a new restaurant in Atlanta. Meanwhile, he was thinking about how he’d return to school, and his taste of L.A. had left him hungry for life in a larger city. “My sister had a friend in Chicago with a room for rent,” says Daniel. “I knew it was either Chicago or New York City–I liked them both, but I felt like my money bought me a higher quality of life in Chicago.”

When Daniel arrived in the city, he began taking gen eds at the City Colleges, and got the River North server job that would buoy him throughout his college education. It was at this server job that he and Dulguun hatched the idea for Urban Delivery. By the time he entered UIC’s entrepreneurship program, he’d already launched a business.

“The UIC Business professors are great about letting you generate and validate a venture. They’re at your side and support you from every angle, but they make sure that you’re feeling the pressures and steering the project on your own,” Daniel says. “I’m glad I could bring my Urban Delivery experience into the program. I learned quickly that there were right and wrong approaches to the entrepreneurship process.”

In 2015, well into his entrepreneurship studies, Daniel and Dulguun attended a Future Founders’ U.Pitch competition, a shark-tank style showcase that included Daymond John as a panel judge. At U.Pitch, Daniel connected with Katie Sowa, the Senior Director at Future Founders, who pushed him to stay involved as Urban Delivery grew. “My business was too new for me to get into Future Founders’ 2016 fellowship program,” says Daniel, “but Katie kept linking me to pitch competitions, including the Entrepreneurs’ Organization’s Global Student Entrepreneur Awards. Urban Delivery actually won the regional award in Chicago, and went to Miami to compete nationally.” Meanwhile, Urban Delivery steadily grew into Deliveree. When it came time to apply for the Future Founders’ next fellowship year, Daniel and Dulguun were better prepared, and made the cut.

Having won an EntrepreneurshipU Award from Future Founders, Daniel and Dulguun want to take Deliveree to the next level. “The business has come a long way,” Daniel says. “When it started, we were working off of a dispatch model–restaurants would actually call us with deliveries, and we’d dispatch drivers; a system that feels so antiquated now, and one that had serious limitations.”

To manage a higher volume of business, Daniel and Dulguun invested in an app. They had to search hard for someone who would do the work within their budget. “Eight Bit Studios put us in touch with some young developers,” Daniel says, “and eventually we found Dan Rudolf.”

Rudolf got them started with a basic form app; restaurants could submit a quick delivery request, and Deliveree would route the request to a waiting driver. The transition went smoothly, eventually doubling Deliveree’s client base. But the more business Deliveree got, the more criticism they heard from restaurants and drivers. “We eventually had enough feedback that we thought, ‘okay–if we want this to keep growing, we need to further develop the app’,” says Daniel.

They went back to Rudolf to propose more work. This time, instead of negotiating a price, Rudolf proposed he build the app in exchange for a stake in the business. “It was a great vote of confidence in what we were doing,” says Daniel.  

Things are running smoothly now with a team of three, and after an economics course this summer, Daniel will be done with his UIC Business degree and ready to devote his undivided time and attention to Deliveree. He’s glad that he’s stayed the course, he says, and grateful for the support that got him through the toughest stretches.

“There were times when everything felt too overwhelming, when the business felt out of control and I was seriously considering moving on,” Daniel says. “I’d call Katie and Ethan at Future Founders, and they’d talk me through all of my reasons for launching the business in the first place. By the time I got off the phone, I’d feel ready to recommit, to stick with the business no matter what it takes–that’s what’s required if you want to grow. That’s why I’m still here.”