Startup ‘DezComp’ will connect design students with real-world projects

When it comes to improving the job prospects for university design students, Penn State alumnus and entrepreneur Shawn Thompson and his team have a simple solution: offer more real-world experiences.

As a web designer himself, Thompson realized his portfolio — largely based on hypothetical classwork — wasn’t sufficient as he started applying to jobs. He needed a way to show that his skillset could successfully translate into meaningful work for actual clients.

“I think a lot of students lack confidence going into interviews right out of school, as often their portfolios don’t match up to those who have already spent time in industry,” Thompson said.

With that, Thompson and his co-founders Jake Dotts and Adam Bondi directed their efforts to DezComp – a startup that specializes in the niche market of the graphic design and user experience industry.

“We’re trying to create an environment for students to really build and showcase their skills with potential employers,” Thompson said.

Come spring semester, DezComp will have organized an online showcase to exclusively pair Penn State students with nonprofits and small businesses.

Undergraduates with relevant skills on their resumes, be it proficiency in Photoshop or wireframing, will be matched with companies needing these skills on projects, allowing students to gain solid design experience in a real-world setting, Thompson said. 

The client, on the other hand, will benefit from a low-risk business proposition that’s free of charge.

“We’re getting benefit and value from the company by them just giving us their name to work with,” Thompson said.

In assessing DezComp’s online platform and associated software costs, Thompson turned to Lion LaunchPad — a business accelerator program at Penn State — at the recommendation of co-director Peter Whalen.

Anne Hoag, the co-director of Lion LaunchPad and director of the intercollege minor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, or ENTI, said the initiative is the “one place that undergraduates can go for very specific mentoring and microgrants.”

Lion LaunchPad is Undergraduate Education’s featured unit for #GivingTuesday, the global day of giving celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving. Please support  Penn State’s entrepreneurial students by giving to Lion LaunchPad on Nov. 28 and 29 here.

“Often, students just need small amounts of money to make a really big difference,” Hoag said. “We’ve paid for students to finance their prototyping. We’ve financed students to file their incorporation papers. We’ve financed students who are doing customer research.”

Hoag and Whalen, who’s also a clinical associate professor of entrepreneurship, help students craft their presentations before they’re ready for an official pitching session. The program, Hoag said, is a “critical piece of the Penn State entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

“We meet with students when they need to,” Hoag said. “We mentor them, give them advice and help shape their business concepts.”

Lion LaunchPad, Thompson said, has been helpful in shaping the focus of his business in moving forward.

“I think the biggest value we’ve taken from Lion LaunchPad is the networking perspective,” he said. “Anne and Peter have been great in getting us in touch with the right people and making the right connections.”

DezComp, which has been operating for under a year, still has its challenges. Thompson is based in Chicago, but his two co-founders, Dotts, a Penn State senior majoring in Information Sciences and Technology, and Adam Bondi, a recent Penn State graduate, live in State College and Erie.

“I think the hardest part is not being in a physical environment with people you’re working with,” Thompson said. “Remotely, you lose a lot of chemistry, and the brainstorming just isn’t the same when you’re not in the same room.”

Yet, at the end of the day, Thompson said they find a way to make it work because they believe in the mission of DezComp — especially for design students looking to be hired for the first time.

For Thompson, the best aspect of this journey has been the freedom of doing something he loves. He said this is important for all aspiring entrepreneurs, but perhaps more so is the act of believing in oneself.

“Believe that what you’re doing is going to be valuable,” Thompson said. “Persevere from people telling you that it’s not.”

Giving Tuesday

This story is part of a four-part series highlighting successful student startups that benefited from Penn State’s Lion LaunchPad, Undergraduate Education’s featured unit for #GivingTuesday. #GivingTuesday is a global day of giving celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Nov. 29.

Please consider supporting Penn State’s entrepreneurial students by giving to Lion LaunchPad on Nov. 28 and 29 here. If you are unable to make a gift on those days, but would still like to support Penn State students, visit the Lion LaunchPad giving page

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Last Updated November 22, 2016