Every college student is familiar with the struggles of having to set up a new home base every year. Most of us find ourselves at Target, on Amazon, or on Facebook Marketplace, scouring the shops every time we switch dorms for a suitable mini-fridge and decorative lamp to make our room comfortable and livable. But at some point, thanks to ridiculous storage prices and limited suitcase space, we find ourselves having to prematurely part ways with items that work just fine. This problem of temporary ownership is one that plagues all college campuses; on Columbia’s campus alone, more than 80,000 pounds of reusable items are abandoned every year. Across the country, over 200 million tons of these items fill landfills annually.
Adekunle Balogun, SEAS ’20, Carolina Perez, SEAS ’22, and Patrick Varuzza, SEAS ’20, set out to tackle the inefficiency of temporary ownership and consumerism in early 2020. They saw that students were comfortable with buying secondhand items through Columbia EcoReps’ annual Green Sale and on online platforms like Rent the Runway and Feather, but noticed that these services could not accommodate the unique problem that college students face.
“We saw people were interested in that model. We just didn’t see it applied to our needs. It didn’t really solve the problem of a student being stuck with items at the end of … periods of time when they didn’t need the items anymore,” said Varuzza. “It didn’t seem to be efficient … When students would face the high costs of moving and storing, more often than not we saw that it just resulted in huge amounts of items being thrown out.”
The moment Varuzza realized that his idea of a service that would solve the issue of having to throw out and then re-purchasing barely used items each semester had legs was when he stumbled upon an abandoned fridge on the stoops of Ruggles Hall. After hearing that his friend was looking for a mini-fridge for the semester, he took the initiative to ask if they were interested in renting one instead. He cleaned it up and brought it over to his friend, and within 20 minutes he coordinated his first rental.
Varuzza looped in Balogun and Perez through mutual friends, and their meetings in Ferris Booth Commons and in the Ruggles basement gave birth to Hubbub: an online rental marketplace and item-sharing service that allows Columbia students to rent college-caliber items for as long as needed—from a college cap and gown and 40-inch smart TV to oil diffusers and a mini projector.
Revolutionizing what Varuzza calls “a cycle of pain and inconvenience” is at the center of Hubbub’s mission. On Hubbub, students can list or rent items with a starting quote, which increases depending on the length of rental.
“There is always a really big dichotomy between items with zero value when people don’t need them, and other times they are super valuable to people who do. So we just connect them,” Varuzza said.
As of now, Balogun is responsible for maintaining the technology, Perez for operations, and Varuzza for business development. They pick up items from listers and store them temporarily before matching them with renters. While their work is labor-intensive, their centralized operation within a 10-block radius of campus keeps costs low.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in “the biggest, most disgusting display of this problem [when] students had two days to move out,” said Varuzza, which also underscored the need for Hubbub. “The scramble of trying to figure out how to move and store [items] ... resulted in massive, disgusting amounts of stuff being left behind and all the storage companies ripping off students and charging them crazy rates.”
Hubbub received 120 preorders in August 2020, an affirming sign of the demand for short-term rentals in the Columbia community. Since then, it has served around one hundred additional users, and is actively building up its capacity to accommodate more orders. The founders are hopeful that this community-based service can grow beyond the scope of Morningside Heights.
“Ideally one day we’d be able to have that kind of model replicated at [other] university centers, " Varuzza said. “The sky’s the limit,” he adds, “because those needs kind of go beyond that, we want to keep scaling beyond the college population. We want to … popularize the idea of a sharing economy and to take all the points of friction out of the sharing economy, out of the re-commerce world to make living sustainably and consuming sustainably as easy as possible.”
Hubbub’s team also aims to break down the negative stigma around rentals by providing a pleasant shopping experience. Perez noted that Hubbub’s long-term goals include “keeping things local so that transatlantic shipping and the environmental impact that it has [are] reduced” and to “influence manufacturing to be more sustainable and to build quality items that can be rented over and over again.” A future version of Hubbub might also create communities that allow for a rented item to eventually return to its original owner.
Balogun, a past Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program leader, illustrated his favorite part of Hubbub’s mission with an anecdote: “Let’s say I’m in the middle of nowhere, and I want to go hiking. I don’t bring any hiking gear, [but] I want some—I can source some from the community around me. That’s the really cool thing about Hubbub. You can rent it from somebody that lives down the block or in the town you’re in.”
The team’s interview with Y Combinator, a startup accelerator, encouraged them to double down on their efforts to transform Hubbub from a club to a company that tackles the larger, more general issue of consumerism. “When we talk to people who are a little bit farther removed from the college world, they kind of dismiss the idea … they don’t really see how painful it is to students who’ve struggled,” Varuzza said. “We’re trying to prove that sustainability can be scalable without introducing additional costs.” The Hubbub team has also found support in Columbia EcoReps and mentorship in Barnard professor Sandra Goldmark.
When asked how members of the Columbia community can become responsible and sustainable consumers, Varuzza encourages “mindfulness in ownership.” He explained, “When you need something and your first reaction [is to] go to Amazon, how can we introduce the idea that maybe that isn’t necessarily the only solution out there? How can we kind of break that habit cycle?”
To join Hubbub in dismantling wasteful consumer habits, visit its website www.hubbub.shop to rent an item that you’ve been needing. If you can’t find it there, you can fill in a request form here. You can also find Hubbub on Facebook and Instagram.
Hubbub is currently looking for students to join the team and its mission of expanding the sharing economy through delivery, software, and user growth roles. Click here for the application form.
Deputy Editor Jane Mok is about to rent a set of coat hangers, a door mirror, a lamp, and possibly a microwave from Hubbub. She can be contacted at her redecorated dorm room (thanks to Hubbub!) at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Spectrum on Twitter @CUSpectrum.