When McCormick first-year Gavin Wang first stepped on campus this fall, he was in search of two items: a bike and a fridge. Rather than ordering new items, he wanted to opt for cheaper alternatives. Wang turned to Northwestern’s Facebook Marketplace group, but the purchase was not as simple as Wang had hoped.
“It’s really difficult to find any stuff,” Wang said. “It’s intermingled with people from 20 miles away [with] occasionally some items sold by students.”
Wang struggled to find options nearby. He would have to trek miles away to meet up with a seller he did not know or necessarily trust.
Reflecting on his experience, Wang saw a need for a Facebook Marketplace substitute built for Northwestern students. With support from a new friend, he created Renu Marketplace. Launched on Feb. 7, 2024, Renu is an app that Wang hopes will encourage NU students to “renew” their old items via buying and selling.
Before school started, Wang found himself using a student-made website, paper.nu, to plan out his future schedule. Wang had a natural interest in problem-solving and felt inspired by paper.nu’s role in making course selection easier, so he reached out to the website's creator, McCormick fourth-year Dilan Nair. From Nair, Wang learned about the process of coding a platform for the student body.
“[He] inspired me to look out for some problems during the school year which I could potentially solve with some coding,” Wang said.
When the marketplace dilemma fell into his lap, Wang went to his entrepreneurial partner Weinberg first-year Ian Song to brainstorm.
Wang and Song had talked about working on an initiative together before they even got to Northwestern. They were introduced online by another newly accepted student who knew they were both interested in product development. Both Wang and Song had worked on entrepreneurial projects before, but neither had attempted something of Renu’s magnitude.
The process of building a university-directed marketplace app from scratch began in the fall of 2023. Wang completed the bulk of the programming while Song focused on design and consumer engagement. Song researched several marketplace platforms to make the interface more accessible and convenient for Northwestern students.
After months of trial and error, Renu was born, which made the process of listing an item for sale simple.
“When a student lists the item, they can simply click the button and take a picture of the item. After that they will see a button that says ‘autofill with AI.’ The magic with that button is after you click it, you just wait three to four seconds and then you will see an AI using that image to populate the title of the description and a suggested price category of the item," Wang said. "You can instantly list the item in 10 seconds or less."
When beginning their initiative, the Renu team needed to find a way to distinguish their app from pre-existing buy-and-sell platforms such as Northwestern’s official website where students can buy items, iBuyNU, and the Facebook Marketplace group dedicated to the Northwestern area.
The two tailored Renu to the Northwestern community with three principles: convenience, accessibility and safety.
“One of the main points I want to emphasize is that this whole initiative, it really is for the Northwestern community,” Song said.
Song said that iBuyNU is only a desktop application, making it inconvenient for students to list an item if they want to include a photo. Renu solves this issue by being available as an app for students.
On accessibility, Song pointed out that Northwestern's Facebook Marketplace group can be difficult to navigate. Renu addresses this problem with a search feature on its homepage that makes it easy for buyers to find the right product.
Furthermore, students are generally unaware of these platforms, according to Song. Renu aims to target this gap in awareness and make buying and selling more accessible to the greater student body.
Perhaps the most important element of Renu is safety, Song said. While users do not need to use their Northwestern email to sign up for Renu, they receive a verified checkmark on their account if they sign in with their school email. On the other hand, anyone online can sign up for the Facebook Marketplace and pose as an NU student.
Weinberg first-year Alan Kanne felt unsafe when he purchased an electric scooter on Facebook Marketplace.
“It was actually a little stressful because it was about five miles off-campus,” Kanne said.
He had to pay to take an Uber to meet up with the seller. Kanne’s journey back was treacherous – he hitched a ride in the seller’s car.
“The guy was nice enough to offer me a ride on the way back,” Kanne said. “But even that was a little strange, hopping in his car and trusting he would get me back.”
Kanne even made sure a few of his friends on campus had his location in case the exchange and drive back went wrong. He said he would prefer an on-campus option, even if the items were more expensive, especially when accounting for the transportation costs of most alternatives.
As the app creation process came to its conclusion, Wang and Song prepared to finally launch their hard work on the App Store. However, without guidance from a club, professor, or class, they had to climb a steep learning curve dealing with issues that first-time app creators may not have anticipated. They thought uploading the app to the App Store would be simple; once submitted, apps are typically approved in around 24-48 hours. However, the App Store objected to Renu’s use of personal information, which would ideally make the platform dedicated solely to Northwestern-affiliated individuals.
“They’re requiring a feature where people are able to browse the listed items on the platform without logging in,” Song said.
The App Store also required that Renu include a mechanism to block objectionable content or abusive users — a feature they did not anticipate needing in the initial version of the app.
After amending the app for two weeks, Renu was released in early February. The founders are already thinking ahead toward future enhancements.
“I currently don’t have a personalized algorithm,” Wang said. “I am not sure if I want to implement that, but maybe in the future.” A personalized algorithm would fill a user’s feed with recommended items based on their past searches and engagements.
Despite what changes may come to the application, Song underlined the platform’s core value the duo hopes to maintain as they continue to develop its technology.
“We just want to mainly keep it free and accessible to students and improve the experience.”