Despite running on six hours of sleep every night, Huntsman senior Edward Lando is finding himself more energized than ever. “I love the game,” he announces, and from the grin on his face for the entirety of our hour–long conversation, it’s clear that he really does. Edward’s currently working on his fourth startup venture, a fashion/e–commerce project named Fleur that will bring him to New York post–graduation.
“The game” appears to be everyone’s favorite part of being a startup founder. It starts with the idea—an easy task for this breed—and is followed by selecting a team, building the product, seeking funding and legally incorporating. Then a lengthy process begins: it consists of iterating model after model until something, hopefully, works. At a bigger firm, these tasks would be diffused across tens or hundreds of Edwards; at his startup, there’s only one.
In many ways, startups are about control—of the process, the people, the product—but in many others, they’re about freedom.
For Pulak Mittal, a senior M&T student with a summer at Facebook under his belt, building one feature of one component of one app was “unfulfilling”—even if that feature would be used by millions of people. Now that he is working on a company of his own, Pulak is excited to have a deeper impact. “I’m solving a problem that I really see and feel and care about. And I’m the one calling the shots.” He and his co–founder Alex Rattray are stationed out of Pulak’s basement where they arranged a “rag–tag” assortment of desks and office chairs obtained from a summer of dumpster diving. Not exactly Palo Alto.
However, staying on campus does have its perks. Not only is there quick and easy access to talent, but Penn also offers a number of funding opportunities for budding entrepreneurs. Competing in the PennApps hackathon can score you a finished product and a top prize of $10,000 in 48 hours. The Weiss Tech House Innovation Fund doles out approximately 20 grants annually of up to $5,000 each, without taking any equity from funded projects.
Isaac Sukin, a Wharton senior, is the earliest member of the entirely student–run Dorm Room Fund investment team, which arrived at 41st and Locust Streets along with First Round Capital’s new headquarters a little over a year ago. Through the Fund, student startups can apply for a venture capital investment of up to $20,000. Isaac likes to ask founders a simple question when they apply for the fund: what does success look like to you? He says you’d be surprised to know how many people haven’t thought about it.
But founders aren’t lazy or forgetful. They’re quite the opposite—many are pursuing dual–degrees in business and engineering, others are learning how to code on the side and all are juggling an Ivy League education while they get their companies off the ground.
Towards the end of our conversation, Pulak, who will be graduating a semester early in December, admits “I’m so pumped to not have school to worry about and to just work on my company and nothing else. We’re going to be able to go totally heads down and focus on building, and that’s the fun of it.” Founders aren’t daydreaming about the picture of success; they’re too busy enjoying the game.
************Dan Shipper, a College senior, is a co–founder of Firefly, a cobrowsing platform for businesses (kind of like screensharing on the web). He talks fast and moves faster; in about a year, he grew his company to over six figures in revenue and 5,000 customers. Dan acknowledges that, in terms of extracurriculars, “Firefly is really the only thing I do.” Pausing for a moment, he then adds, chuckling, “except for flag football, which is my other serious commitment.” Meanwhile, at 7 p.m. on a Monday, he’s on his way to New York, presumably for business.
Dan has been building software products and selling them since he was in fifth grade. Now in the process of hiring full–time employees, Firefly can pay for a staff without raising any capital outside of an initial investment from the Dorm Room Fund. It was Dan’s goal to build a company that would make money from day one. “I can rationalize to you why I’m doing it, but at its most basic level it’s because I can’t help myself.”
************For most of these founders, they see a problem and can’t help but think of a way to fix it. Many are motivated by the idea of changing the world.
“Ultimately this is how I look at my life: I want to improve things. I want to make things better,” Pulak declares. The company he is currently working on, called Emerald, seeks to replace blue books with paperless exams taken through their secure online system. “Nowadays, the environment is set up in such a way that a startup really is your best bet for making a change. The resources out there for working on startups are abundant.”
Dan Getelman, co–founder of Lore, a social education tool, is back at Penn to finish his M&T dual–degree after selling the company in March. Why did he leave in the first place? Not for money, he says. Rather, it was “a mix of solving a problem that had bothered me for years and being able to do something I really believed would have a positive impact.”
Project Applecart is an “unconventional startup,” its co–founder Matthew Kalmans, a College junior, explains. It attempts to help more moderate candidates gain traction in elections despite the historical disadvantages against them—a problem its founders discovered from years working on political campaigns. Co–founder Sacha Samotin, also a College junior, explains, “the people that we look to for inspiration are the ones who put the problem first and recognize that if their solution was as effective as they thought it would be, they would do just fine financially.” Sacha looks to Matt, sitting next to him. “For us, really, the only way to do well is by doing good first.”
************Over fall break, 20 students went on a “Tech Trek” to Silicon Valley, the trip was marketed as both a networking opportunity and, less professionally, “a fun chance to get to know California just a little bit better.” The seventeen men and three women selected to participate—a telling statistic that is a story in itself—met with some of the founders and CEOs they hope to one day become. Aaron Levie of Box was on the docket, as was Sal Khan of Khan Academy, but no event seemed to compare to the experience of meeting Jack Dorsey.
Jack created both Twitter and Square; he is one of the few startup founders to successfully “change the world.”
On his blog, Edward Lando describes the experience: “We walk past the Square logo that glows on the white wall to the reception where the pretty receptionist is waiting for us and the good music plays.” After a tour, the group has 15 minutes with Jack. They search for clues; they want to learn how to have their own pretty receptionist and play their own good music.
These entrepreneurs, founders, coders and students want to know Jack. However, as Edward puts it, “To know him better is to learn that he’s a person. And even though Jack told us himself that he doesn’t approve of putting public figures on a pedestal, it’s hard to avoid doing that with him.”
Edward doesn’t show any naivete when it comes to success. “You have to have a big ego if you want to build something that will be successful because you have to believe that you can build something that’s tremendously successful.” That said, delusions of grandeur never hurt. “I like people who match their big ideas with a crazy attitude. This project right now is just as much about working on ourselves as it is about working on the company.”
When asked what success looks like for him, Dan Shipper doesn’t have time to “get into it.” Instead, he would rather talk about the goals he set for his company and the ways in which he has already achieved them. He’s not going to waste time imagining the future; he’s too busy owning the moment.
Chloe Bower is a junior from Long Island, NY, studying communications. She is the Design Editor for 34th Street Magazine.