I will tell you how drop out and start a social network that grows into, ironically, the leader in the college admissions space. I will tell you how to start a social network for scientists whose lead investor is Peter Thiel (who also funded Facebook and started PayPal). Finally, I will tell you about how to help launch the hottest new rival to Facebook, also funded by Peter Thiel and SoftBank, the Google of Japan, and move on to work on Stickybits, to revolutionize how people interact with everyday consumer products.
Step 1: Read Paul Graham's essays.
The story starts my freshman year at Princeton. I had read all of Paul Graham's essays, which are not only thoughtful and information-rich, but also inspiring. Paul's essays described his own experience starting ViaWeb, which he eventually sold to Yahoo! for tens of millions. It is now called Yahoo! Store, one of the few examples of successful '90's bubble companies. He talks about every step of the process, a process which seems very unique and peculiar, and yet surprisingly all startups experience basically the same sets of problems, setbacks, successes, disagreements, and emotions.
In fact, in general, read good books. Blog posts are useful and timely, but books have much denser concentrations of information and they are more insightful. The best blog posts on the web are often just slivers of individual chapters of an existing good book. Blogs give you tiny tidbits of information, one interesting aspect of a complicated story, but a good book gives you that plus the other side and the whole picture, the future and the past, all at a deeper level. A well-written book will not waste words. Those hundreds of pages are worthwhile. Read Founders at Work, by Jessica Livingston, also at YCombinator and also a brilliant entrepreneur and interviewer. The book's stories are inspiring: James Hong's amazing viral growth of HotOrNot will make you want to do the same and become an overnight millionaire.
These writings are inspiring. They inspired me. I started to itch to start something, anything. I started to build things and talk to more people about these interests.
Step 2: Be friendly.
Through a friend and my work, I met Mick Hagen and Jeremy Johnson in the spring semester. If you are lucky enough to meet them, Jeremy and Mick are two of the nicest, most thoughtful, and most ambitious people you will be lucky to meet. We shared a common interest in technology startups. We started talking about what we could do together, drawing on all of our skills.
Some of the best friends you make will be in college: life-long friends. These tight bonds are forged from living very close to each other, possibly in the same room, every day for years. In the real world of apartments and houses, a friendly visit can easily take a half hour commute each way and is centered around a big event. In college, you walk down the hall and just hang out. Moreover, in your classes, you learn both the quality of your friend's effort and how well you work together. A mutual trust is formed over these months and years that are hard to form in the real world. In college, you will find your cofounder, whether they be friends or friends of friends.
Jeremy was interested, as he still is, in the college markets. What can we do to help improve college admissions, the student bodies at the colleges, and the college experience? His plan was more ambitious, but I proposed a simpler one: let students form a social network with ties to college admissions officers. Let students display their scores, interests, and activities online, and let admissions officers at Princeton and Harvard search for them. Charge per student found. Would this work? I reasoned that the College Board already does the same thing with PSAT scores, so I called them (abbreviated transcript):
Step 3: Test your assumptions.
Me: Hello, is this the PSAT office? My name is... um... Mark Westerner at the Marbur College. CB: Which college? Me: Um... (*will they look it up?*) Marbur College, a small liberal arts college in New Jersey. CB: Marbur, can I help you Mr. Westerner? Me: We are interested in purchasing some student PSAT scores and mailing address information. CB: Yes, we do that here. Me: How much would that cost? CB: Let me see, you can buy 1000 names and addresses for $280. Me: Thank you. Goodb—<I quickly hang up>
Gold mine. We would sell student information to colleges, completely willingly and enthusiastically on the student's part. Colleges already pay lots of money for very similar but incomplete, noisy data. We could sell the same information over and over again. Colleges get to target and recruit in a way that they have never been able to before. Everyone wins. This would be our primary business model, and in fact still is used today at Zinch.
Step 4: Use university resources to get feedback and advice.
With a business model in place, we went to all of the professors we knew who might be able to help. We talked to Ed Zschau who helped us write a business plan. We talked to the dean of admissions. She said she would love something like this. She told us a story where the school musical director told her that we needed an oboe player, since all of the oboe players were graduating seniors. This endangered the diversity of the school, and the annual Mozart concert. She looked and recruited and found nobody. On the last day, Princeton happened to receive 3 applications from oboe players with excellent academic records, and they all got in. She got lucky, but she would have much preferred an electronic way to target individual students to recruit and encourage to apply.
Armed with a business model, a plan, and this story, we entered an undergraduate business plan competition. We won 2nd place, and, more importantly, we received valuable feedback from the experienced venture capitalist judges. We tweaked the presentation, and then entered the Princeton alumni business plan competition. You have to understand that the alumni business plan competition is open to all Princeton alumni. This includes seasoned financial professionals and Harvard MBAs. We won first place to a raucous applause.
Step 5: Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
Now, we needed to reach out to more admissions officers to learn more about what, exactly, they wanted, and how to sell it to them. How could we do this? There just happened to be a conference on college admissions in June at Harvard with all of the top admissions officers at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Duke, and others attending. This would be a perfect place to make connections.
Jeremy: Hello, we are students interested in learning more about college admissions. Harvard: Hello. Jeremy: Is it possible for us to attend this conference with a free or reduced price? Harvard: No. Jeremy: We want to make a product to make admissions better. We won't take up anybody's time. Harvard: No. Jeremy: But, really, please we have no intention of... Harvard: No. Jeremy: (to us) Let's go anyway and crash it.
So we drove up together to the conference. We figured that we would probably not be allowed in, but we might get a little information and trade business cards. When we got there, we saw that the conference was just in a hotel lobby. We walked up, put on name tags, and started mingling. Note that most of us were freshmen, so we barely looked post-pubescent much less like admissions officers.
Step 6: Do your research.
We sat at the back of a panel discussion with the admissions officers at Harvard and UPenn. They would literally say to everyone, to us, "It is just really hard to find good students which are the right fit for our colleges. We would love to able to find a student with these exact interests and academic record, pick them out of this area of the country, and just recruit her." Everyone we talked to loved us. Mind you, if asked, we would always tell them the truth that we are Princeton students passionate about and interested in learning more about college admissions. We never ate any of their food or interrupted any classes. We merely observed and met our exact target clients who basically begged us to make Zinch for them.
One piece of research we did not do was where to stay that night. We figured we would be kicked out, so we hadn't planned on anything. We tried calling people who we knew in the area, but nobody answered their phones. We asked friends, friends of friends, people our friends met on the Subway. We were a poor startup with barely the money for the gas. We sat in Qdoba waiting for a call. Looking out the window, we saw a Sports Authority. "That's it! We'll buy a tent, set up camp at some park somewhere overnight, and then return it tomorrow." We were desperate. So we went in, started figuring out the measurements. We went over to the register, credit card in hand. Then, an aunt's friend called us back: we could stay at her house. Too bad, would have made for a good story.
The next day at the conference, we met even more people, and they loved us. Suddenly, this woman walked up to me with a very stern face. She organized the conference, and had told us not to come in the first place. She kicked us out, but not before we already had the contacts and market research we needed. We drove home happy. There are a lot more unbelievable stories from the formation of this company, but they will have to wait for the memoirs.
Step 6: Don't drop out of school.
For most students, this advice is correct: you should not drop out. It only makes sense to give you this advice, all responsible adults will. There are a special few students, though, who, at exactly the right point in their lives, will understand that this advice does not apply to them. There will be no shadow of a doubt that school would just be too boring and unmotivating. When the time comes, those students know who they are.
I had shadows of doubts. Jeremy, Mick, and I disagreed a bit about direction. I decided to stay in school and stop working on the company, which was the right decision for me at the time. Mick and Jeremy continued on a different path from me. As an epilogue, Mick is now in California with a terrifically growing company, Zinch, which is so big that it is now expanding to students in China. Jeremy co-founded and now runs 2tor, which is leading the online college education space. Many people come to me with ideas for allowing students to take classes online. They ignore what has come before, and they do not aim high enough. Jeremy and John Katzman (founder of Princeton Review) put real, leading universities online, like USC, so that top students around the world can take classes entirely online and receive a full diploma equivalent to someone who spent time on campus. You will be lucky to get to know these guys.
Step 7: Integrate into your local community of entrepreneurs, or, lacking that, build it.
Back from my startup adventure, I wanted to evangelize the gospel of Paul Graham. Unfortunately, the Entrepreneurship Club was defunct. Instead, financial firms were hiring in full force, and almost no students knew anything about starting a business. I decided to resurrect it, and start it anew. I grew it from 0 members to hundreds, and made sure that the new leaders in every year learned how to run the club and teach the following year's posterity. It continues itself now in a virtuous cycle. It has grown every year, and in fact, now, the Entrepreneurship Club transfers more tens of thousands of dollars through its account than any other organization on campus. The first year that we bought back the TigerLaunch business plan competition, we ignited the career of another successful drop-out Princeton entrepreneur: Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR. The network of people at Princeton now involved in startups is growing, and we have helped each other succeed in innumerable ways.
Step 8: Talk to other students from your school who have taken time off.
The club, one day, invited someone to give a talk, James Currier, who started Tickle.com which sold to Monster.com for an incredible amount of money. James stood before me. His eyes were shot open. They had a purple glaze that lit them afire, still bleeding from the red-eye flight he took from California. James had taken time off of Princeton to start his first company, which failed, but he doesn't regret it at all and learned so much. His hair burst out atop his skinny head. Gaunt and fearless, he embraced the air as he swung his arms widely to make his point: "Silicon Valley is absolutely the place to start a company", he said. "That is where all technology happens. That's where Google started, that's where Yahoo, Intel, Oracle, and so many other technology companies started. Some of the smartest people in the world lived there at Stanford, Berkeley, and PARC. It is a magical forever-sunny wonderland where dreams come true and it rains investments and acquisitions." (not exactly what he said...)
He was inspiring. He didn't have a smarmy kind of charm so much as sheer hurricane-force energy. He was insightful and learned. He talked about his great times. He talked about his toughest times. And so he inspired me to do it. I had to see it. What is so special about the Bay Area? How can it actually be that great? What exactly gives the air such power to breath life into world-changing tech empires?
Step 9: Pick a startup hub like Silicon Valley.
It was a school break the following week, so I bought a ticket for that weekend. I bought an incredibly cheap ticket on Hotwire and asked my high school friends in California schools if I could crash on their couches. I also emailed every single company on TechCrunch which stated that its company is in any city in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, or Berkeley to ask for an interview. It was tight scheduling.
If you haven't been to the Bay Area, then you don't understand how it is possible that literally almost everyone is involved in startups. I go to the basketball courts to play some pickup. After a sweaty game, each one in turn introduces their crazy new web2, hardware, or biotech startup to you, each one the founder or CEO. Multiple lunches and talks happen every day, with free food and drinks, you cannot possibly go to all of them or even meet everyone. And everyone wants to help you. I walked down University Ave and saw Facebook, I talked with the CEO of Azureus for 2 hours one-on-one, to the CEO of StyleHive and so many others.
The fact is, these hubs do not crowd you out. They have an overwhelming amount of resources to help you both in early stages and in later stages. Be friendly, learn what you need to know, and everyone there will do everything they can to help you be successful. If you stay in your hometown, as Jeremy, Mick and I almost did in New Jersey, we would have certainly failed. Now, Mick is in San Fransicso, and Jeremy is in New York, enmeshing themselves in the startup scenes and reaping the benefits. If you stay in your home town, understand that you do so not to maximize the success of your startup, but for some other reason, like comfort. Startups are risky, not comfortable. Get a job at Microsoft for comfort. I was done with comfort, I wanted to start a startup.
Step 10: Ask a dean about how to take a leave of absence, and how long you can take one.
Just grab or email your nearest dean, who will point you in the right direction. Princeton has a very lenient leave policy. You can take 3 years off without a problem. You do so by filling out a 1-page form, and you can do this all in a day. You can leave as late as the day before classes, or even after classes start (although you have to pay some tuition). To get back in a year or 3 later, you send an email. Financial aid is unaffected. Every dean you talk to will be very supportive of your decision; they will not question you. This is an excellent policy that encourages students to figure out what they want to do without pressure. Certainly, they would prefer a student to learn in a different way for a year rather than drown in school or do something worse.
Other schools have less lenient policies. Yale only allows a 1-semester leave, which limits the potential for student startups at that school. Their entrepreneurship club would do well to lobby the administration to relax the policy.
Step 11: Reach out to your friends and brainstorm.
I contacted some friends I had met on my trip to California, asking them if they knew of any other people interested in a new startup. I talked to Mark Kaganovich and Jeremy England, and we talked about making a social network and practical tools for managing research for scientists. Mark and Jeremy went to Harvard and are hard-core scientists. Mark is friends with Mark Zuckerberg, and was the 6th person on Facebook. If you get a chance to meet them, you will be blown away by their brilliance. They think analytically and carefully. I only met them from a friend of a friend, but we quickly got along well and we are very good friends and trust each other about everything.
So we started Labmeeting, led by an investment from Peter Thiel, who met the Labmeeting team randomly at one of the many events at Stanford. He saw the quality and depth of thinking of the team, and made his trademark quick decision. These kinds of lucky coincidences happen all of the time in the Bay Area. Now, thousands of scientists love and use Labmeeting to manage their labs and do research. We were the first, and we have the largest number of users from Stanford and Harvard than any other imitation network.
Step 12: Help other entrepreneurs.
In the mean time with Labmeeting, I was helping another young entrepreneur start up his own company, Josh Weinstein. He refused to drop out, but I did help him get GoodCrush off the ground and launched. Since that launch, GoodCrush has renamed and has now been funded by several notable people and venture firms (including Thiel of Facebook). It will rival Facebook at its own game: the college market with CollegeOnly.
One key to Josh's success is public relations. When launching GoodCrush, we were given the contact information of someone at the Huffington Post who could write about GoodCrush. We called them the day before Valentine's day, the big launch, but we mis-dialed:
Josh : Hello, is this the Huffington Post? Chris: No, you must have the wrong number. Josh : Oh, I apologize... <almost hangs up> By the way, who is this? Chris: Chris, I write at MediaBistro. Josh : <excited> I'm Josh, we are launching GoodCrush. It's a new dating wesite for college students Chris: Is this a new startup? Tell me more...
An hour later, Chris Ariens posted a story on MediaBistro, all from mis-dialing and taking advantage of opportunity. Serendipity is the essence of startup success.
Through the Entrepreneurship Club, I've advised and helped set up half a dozen different companies. They may or may not do well, but the students will certainly learn a huge amount of work. In just a few years, we have seen a tremendous amount of new interesting startups coming out of Princeton, far more than I thought could happen in such a short time. For example, art.sy will transform the way that high-end art is sold. I encourage you to research more and help them out if you can.
Step 13: Let others help you.
Josh introduced me to Billy Chasen at Stickybits. Stickybits is an iPhone app that lets you scan barcodes, and then attach images, video, or text to the barcodes. It's like a virtual bulletin board, so that people can have conversations around products. We have exciting new ideas for how to transform the way you interact with consumer brands, but I can't talk about those yet. We are funded by none other than Mitch Kapor, Chris Sacca, First Round, and Polaris Ventures. My limited experience and skills and the people along the way have helped me do well here. The amount I'm learning from other team members is tremendous. We are the leaders in the social barcode scanning space.
Peter Thiel just launched a new program that will give you money to drop out and start a startup. Startup business is on the rise, the economy is improving. Facebook and other companies are enabling newer business models. More people are on the Internet than ever. This is really the perfect time to start a company, consider doing it now, but don't drop out of school. Meet people, make friends, brainstorm, build a community, help others. You will know when to leave and do startups.