Think of a Problem
August 3, 2022
“Think of a problem.” Those were the first four words I remember our professor asking us at the beginning of class one day. Now, this particular class was an entrepreneurship engineering course that was offered at the University of California, Davis. In fact, it was the first course geared towards undergraduate entrepreneurs.
Now, a little context about me, I am a first-generation college student who put myself through school with help from my family. I grew up in Southern California and I transferred to UC Davis from a Community College, Chaffey College. I ventured to Northern California to study computer science and eventually go work for Google or Facebook.
This was typical for a CS student near the Bay Area, though: Get a Computer Science degree and work in Silicon Valley. Little did I know, those four words my professor asked us in the beginning of class were going to change my life. They were going to lead me and a friend of mine to build a Smart Parking Company called “Just A Parking App.”
I met my cofounder, Charles Chen, in that engineering/entrepreneurship course at UC Davis five years ago. We were both studying Computer Science and Engineering, but never knew of each other. We met randomly in class, had completely different personalities, and grew up in completely different cultures. But one thing we had in common was that we had the same drive and entrepreneurial spirit.
We teamed up, and one of our first assignments was: “Think of a problem that needs solving.” While many other student groups focused on the problems of food waste and pollution, Charles and I took a different approach. We immediately considered solving the problems involved in parking cars.
We attended a university and would often have to spend 20-30 minutes in search of a parking spot on campus. A lot of the time we would be late for class or not even have enough time to get there before it ended.
In class, we learned that there are many different sized problems out there, small ones like stubbing your toe or misplacing your keys, and big ones like homelessness and world hunger.
We saw parking as a problem that is big enough that it affects the whole world, yet there still is not a great solution to address it. So, we set out to do just that.
What started as a classroom activity quickly became a viable business idea. We understood, as students, that we have very little risks when it comes to building a company. No family to feed, no kids to take care of, just homework and tests. So, we decided to put 110 percent effort into building our company. We immediately started to research the industry, reached out to parking directors and tried to learn as much as we could from them.
We must have called over 300 parking professionals in a span of one year. Even as students, we would skip classes to fly out to parking conferences like The Parking Industry Expo (PIE) in Chicago or the International Parking and Mobility Institute (IPMI) in Florida.
We were broke college students who did not know anyone in the industry and had very little knowledge of the industry. We just had an idea, perseverance, and a dream.
Now, PIE in Chicago was our first conference. I remember it was a casino themed event and the lobby was packed with people from all over the industry. Excited to be there, but still not knowing anyone, we stood there awkwardly wondering what we were even doing there.
Luckily, we were approached by a random person, but now a good friend, Dennis Cunnings.
He thought we were interesting and introduced us to people like Clyde Wilson, Ted Burton and his crew from SECOM. They all thought we were interesting so they took us under their wing and ultimately introduced us to the Parking Industry.
As young students, it was really important that we learn from these older generations of parking professionals. I didn’t want to come in with our technology saying that we solve all parking problems and we know better than everyone else! Hanging out with Dennis, Clyde and Ted taught me a lot about the industry and led me to a realization: Combining the ideas of the newer generation of parking along with the knowledge and insights of the older generations would help me make a parking company with solutions that will solve real problems.
After absorbing as much knowledge of parking as we could, we got straight to work. During the day, we would focus on school, homework and tests, and at night we would focus on building the company.
Aggregating everything that we knew, we ended up creating a mobile application for commuters and a software system for management aimed at providing real-time parking availability in garages and lots. We enlisted a company, Nwave, to develop sensors for every parking space that communicate whether the spot is taken.
While still students, we landed a strategic partnership with Siemens to push smart city initiatives.
College was soon ending for us, so we decided to rent a small house to keep building the company. It was a typical startup house that was filled with energy drinks, computers, monitors, and parking sensors. We worked on the company even more and started to enter business competitions to help validate our company.
What once started as a classroom project, quickly became a dream that is coming into fruition.
After winning first place in many competitions like the UC Davis Big Bang Business Competition and the Sacramento King’s Capitalize Competition, we had enough confidence to define when we could launch.
We called multiple universities and were asking if they would test out our system. We received a lot of people saying, “no” or “you are too early to test out.” That did not stop us. After many many outreaches, we were fortunate to land a pilot with UC Berkeley and soon after they became our first customer! We were officially launched in February of 2019.
Today, “Just A Parking App,” or better known as “JAPA,” has installments throughout the United States, and we help universities, hospitals, corporate campuses, stadiums and airports solve their parking problems in a smart way. What once started as a classroom project, quickly became a dream that is coming into fruition.
We are part of an entrepreneurial movement that is changing industries with new technologies and new ideas. It is still important to learn from our predecessors and utilize their knowledge to make the future more efficient and solve real problems.
Japa, Inc. is still growing and we still have a lot to learn about parking, but problems are starting to be solved. We are fortunate to have such amazing partners and people in this industry who gave us a warm welcome along with the knowledge to keep pushing forward with innovations.
Even until this day, I took those four words my professor said 5 years ago and I translate that back to our customers. I ask them to think of a problem they want to solve (in parking), because we are here to solve them.
Mathew Magno is CEO of JAPA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org