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24 November 2014
At first blush

At first blush

Sebastian Maraloiu was back in his native Romania last week, pitching to judges of the Startup Spotlight competition at the How To Web Conference in Bucharest. This week, he is heading to Seoul, in South Korea, for the Startup Nations Summit, representing his country against more than 40 start-ups from around the world.

“Fingers crossed,” said 26-year-old Maraloiu.

But he’ll be back in Glasgow at the end of the month, working with the team behind Blushr, an app that anticipates the increasing number of relationships and friendships that begin online. “We want to become one of the most important start-ups contributing to this change,” he said.

“That is why we created an app that helps teens find out if their high-school crush has a crush on them.” Blushr works in a very simple way, said Maraloiu; you connect with Facebook and when your friends appear, you select your crush. “Nobody will know who you selected. Only when your crush selects you as his/her crush you both get a message that you like each other. You can then chat and the rest is up to you.”

Maraloiu is one of Entrepreneurial Spark’s ‘20 under 30’, among the next generation of young entrepreneurs in Scotland. Entrepreneurial Spark is a business accelerator for early stage and growing ventures from all sectors that is free for the entrepreneur and takes no equity in supported businesses. Located across three spaces in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Ayrshire, with eight further UK locations launching over the next 18 months, its vision is to develop an entrepreneurial revival across the UK.

For Maraloiu, the journey to Glasgow and entrepreneurship was roundabout. He grew up in the city of Brasov, located in the mountainous centre of Romania, about 30 miles away from Dracula’s Castle. He studied marketing: “I always wanted to use my creativity to create something big, something that helps people, something that gets noticed, something that gets remembered.”

He worked for L’Oreal, the cosmetics company, and BBDO, the advertising agency. He enjoyed both and learned a great deal, but: “I was ready to take on another challenge, a harder one, starting on my own. That’s when I realised that entrepreneurship is the path I needed to take in order to live a more fulfilling life, in order to actually make a difference in the world.”

The idea for Blushr came to him on a train about a year ago, inspired by a website that matched people with mutual interests. “I thought the idea was smart, but the market and the way they were advertising the product was wrong.

“So, on that train ride I had a revelation; that the idea of only matching people when they like each other would be perfect for teenagers, for high school crushes. Why? Because all my schoolmates and I personally had the problem Blushr is solving – lack of confidence to tell our crushes what we felt.

“In high school, I had a huge crush, but I did not have the courage to say a thing. High school finished and two years after I met her again to find out she had a crush on me too, but she was shy as well. And, unfortunately, that’s the end of that story because we were both in relationships and now she’s married!

“But I believe this [shyness] is extremely common nowadays as well because teenagers have big egos that get hurt easily and judgemental peer groups; not actually a great mix when it comes to confidence. So, I talked to my co-founder [Manuel Boca], he loved the idea as well and we started researching to see if teens actually have the problem and if they liked the idea. The results were extremely positive so we started building Blushr.”

They built a prototype which garnered local and international recognition at start-up competitions and they were accepted into the Sirius Programme, run by UK Trade & Investment, which meant a grant of £40,000 and a place in the Entrepreneurial Spark accelerator in Glasgow. “This was a crucial moment in our progress as we were looking for an accelerator and the UK was one of the best places to be for a start-up.

“Then, it was down to us to make Blushr a product that truly solves a problem for teenagers. We iterated many times in order to get to a version of the product that our users liked and we are still changing things along the way. I believe that the ability to iterate fast is crucial to any start-up and we hope to keep doing it better and better.”

The app is available on Android and is still in beta, but since August it has gone from 1,000 downloads to more than 23,000 with a weekly growth rate of more than 21 per cent.

“Our vision is to create a safe and fun place where teens can connect with other teens, but only if they like each other. In this way, we believe teenagers can gain confidence in the way they look as they will see that there are teens out there that like them for who they are.

“We know that having an app targeted at teenagers comes with great responsibility. That is why we are prepared to add as many protective layers as possible in order to keep teenagers safe and away from any harm.

“We are also aware of the negative impact that certain social networks can have on teenagers. That is why our goal is to create a network where teens are safe, but at the same time can have fun and enjoy social networking. We believe that by only connecting teens that like each other we will create that safe, fun and confidence-boosting network teenagers worldwide will love.”

What has he learned in the process? “First, how hard and how exciting and fulfilling it is to build and lead a team. We started as a team of two and we are now a team of four people eager to grow Blushr. I also learned that you cannot make it on your own. Great start-ups emerge because of awesome teams. You cannot make it without one.

“Being part of Entrepreneurial Spark is a great experience and an absolute pleasure. Here we are part of a community of great entrepreneurs from all over the world and [it] pushes us to raise our game.

“ESpark is also a great place for collaboration. Here we found other tech businesses that face the same challenges we face and we can learn from each other’s ups and downs.”

Aside from Blushr, do they have plans for other digital products and what’s the ultimate ambition? “I have a long list of ideas I believe would become the next big thing. However, I am wise enough to know that I have to focus and grow Blushr. My professional ambition is to create products or services that make at least 100 million people smile every single day. Only then will I know I have created something that makes a difference in the world.” 

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