The founders of seven college startups share the challenges they faced launching a small business while in school and their hopes for expansion.
You might know the dorm room origins of some of the tech boom startups—Napster, Facebook, or even the more recent Handy.com and Insomnia Cookies. But have you heard about the college student who has a wait list for the “Sweet Nantucket Bay Scallops with Beet and Coriander” he serves in his dorm room restaurant? Or the one who went out and built his own mobile dorm room so he wouldn’t have to pay for housing? What about the two brothers who get paid for telling international companies what they don’t like about their services? Meet the founders of eight innovative college startups launched in the past several years.
With sticker prices at public universities averaging $9,410 a year (for in-state students), private colleges topping $32,400, and the average student’s debt at graduation now upwards of $35,000, the red-letter news of college acceptance can also mean being in the red for life.
These entrepreneurial students took the lemons of daunting college costs and turned them into lemonade via creative startups. Some are actually managing to cover their college costs with the hope of graduating debt-free, while others are just making extra spending money. They’re doing it out of dorm rooms, between classes, and while pulling all-nighters. But all are seizing the opportunity—while still in school—to make their dreams a reality and learn the challenges of launching and running a small business.
Gone are the days of Teddy Ruxpin, walkie-talkies, and even kissy-faced emojis. They have been replaced by an upgraded mashup—long distance hugging technology in the form of cuddly teddy bears. Parihug, founded by college student Xyla Foxlin and high schooler Harshita Gupta, pairs two bears via an electronic connection so that “when one is hugged, a suite of soft, fabric-based sensors detects the hug and transmits a message to the other bear. The receiving bear then hugs its owner with a gentle vibration.”
Parihug aims to allow people to feel a human connection even if they are at a physical distance from one another. So if you’re a college student hoping to send some love to mom, married to someone deployed in the military, in a long distance relationship, or want to give someone in the hospital some positive vibes, you could be a candidate for a pair of bears. Foxlin conceived of the idea after her boyfriend moved to Texas, and she wanted to find a way to keep up the connection.
The emotional strain caused by being separated from a loved one is also familiar to Gupta, a senior at Mission San Jose High School in Freemont, Calif., who moved from Mumbai, India, to the U.S. in ninth grade. Gupta says she “experienced firsthand how difficult distance can be” and hopes “to one day see Parihug connecting hundreds of families around the world.”
Though Gupta is still in high school, she “taught herself HTML in 8th grade, Java in 10th, and now spends her time on iOS development, FTC robotics programming, and hackathons,” her bio notes.
Foxlin is a mechanical and aerospace engineering double major with a minor in studio art at Case Western Reserve University, president of the school’s undergraduate competitive robotics team, and a mechanical and manufacturing engineer for the NASA Robotic Mining Competition. She says she prides herself “in being the one in a dress at robotic design reviews, and the one blur of pink in the machine shop.” Xyla and Harshita also want to promote women in STEM—fields historically known for having far fewer women graduates (just shy of 20% in 2014, according to the American Society of Engineering Education).
Keep an eye out for the pair of them. Toward the end of 2016, Parihug will be crowdfunding, but prototypes have already appeared at the Consumer Electronics Showcase in Las Vegas and will be at SxSW in Austin, Texas, March 11-20.
Joshua Javaheri loved arcade games as a kid. (Who doesn’t?) But, as everyone knows, arcade and gambling games can mean lots of money going out with little reward coming back. As a freshman at Boston University in 2014, Javaheri set out to change that.
He says, “I loved the thrill and excitement of playing games and being able to win a reward of cash value. I wanted to bring that excitement to people all over the world without any of the risk, but the opportunity for all the rewards. I created Lucky Day, a free mobile app where users can play casino style games and have the chance to win real money, which is funded by advertisers.”
Lucky Day, available in the App store and on Google Play (again, for free), currently offers players the option of four simple games (scratcher, slots, lotto, and blackjack). Users receive three free play credits daily, and if they don’t want to wait 24 hours for a new supply, they can watch “rewarded video advertisements” in return for additional credits.
Who are the advertisers funding this endeavor? In this writer’s experience, I watched videos promoting other, similar mobile games I (as a slots player) might enjoy (Spin to Win Slots, Double Down Casino, Monopoly Bingo, Mobile Strike, and Virgin Casino). Javaheri says Lucky Day will soon be bringing in partners (national and global companies including airlines, hotels, fast food chains, and other brick and mortars) who will reward players with “gift cards, promotions, discounts, and special offers.”
Before founding Lucky Day, Joshua was just your ordinary high schooler who dabbled in day trading on the stock market. After transferring from Boston Universty, he’s now at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California and says he enjoys applying his classroom experience directly in the business. He aims to grow the audience base for the app to 100 million people, and he’s off to a running start with over $500,000 given out in winnings thus far and appearances on NBC News and Fox Business News. That publicity, he says, “has given Lucky Day as well as myself real credibility. It has shown that even though I am pretty crazy, my craziness may be on to something.”
In the spirit of Grammy and Oscars season, what do college students and celebrities now have in common? On-demand barbers, thanks to Simon Orlovsky, a junior computer science major at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and founder of Dormcuts.
Orlovsky explains, “[In] my sophomore year of high school, I was really influenced by hip hop and sports culture, so I wanted to have a clean haircut at all times. The problem was that I didn’t want to pay $20 every other week, so I started cutting my own hair. When I came to college, a lot of my classmates started asking me for haircuts and I began marketing my services. I was overwhelmed by the demand.”
Pairing his computer hacking skills with his talent for hacking hair into a fauxhawk, a regular men’s haircut, or any number of styles in between, Orlovsky’s Dormcuts website offers college students the ability to book appointments with licensed barbers. Charging between $15 and $25 for a haircut in the comfort of their own dorm rooms, students don’t even have to drop their books to get a professional buzz cut.
“We ran our beta in the fall/winter 2015 semester at San Francisco State University to show our proof of concept,” Orlovsky says. “We brought a licensed barber to SFSU’s campus during the weekends and had him give haircuts from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.” Thanks to an article in USA Today, the beta launch sold out, and the Dormcuts team is now recruiting barbers for public launches at SFSU and UC Berkeley. Its goal is to expand to schools throughout California and New York and eventually college campuses across the nation.
The culinary repertoire of most college students includes a not-so-healthy balance of pizza, varying flavors of ramen, fast food, and chicken tenders at the campus cafeteria. Not so for Columbia University senior Jonah Reider. Uninspired by available dining options, Reider conceived of Pith, “an intimate and inventive shared cost meal, a supper club amongst friends.”
He hosts the gatherings out of his own dorm room—just four guests are taken from the wait list each week. As Reider describes an evening at Pith, “we kill a bottle of wine and have some tasty breads (Pain Poilane is my favorite), and cheeses (del ice d’argental, bucherion de soignon, moliterno al tartufo), homemade fermented vegetables, etc.” Then he brings out a progression of five to eight courses he’s prepared for that week’s menu.
Reider isn’t formally trained as a chef (moreso as a jazz pianist), but he’s been cooking for most of his life. He improvs each week, learning via trial and error, from reading menus as he walks around New York City, and through interactions with professional cooks. (Go ahead and drool over past dishes and menus at your own risk by visiting his mouthwatering Instagram account, @pithnyc.)
The cost of the meal is everyone’s share of the ingredients, which is almost always $15. He does not directly profit from Pith (aside from a sated belly each week), but the press he’s received (MTV, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, to name a few) has inspired new ideas and projects.
Reider says, “I have no interest in starting a restaurant—they represent a lot of what Pith is not: expensive, formal, transactional. The appeal of Pith is in its intimacy, quirkiness, affordability. I want to bring the creation and consumption of food into different spaces: public commons, schools, art galleries, homes, music venues, fashion, etc.” Though he will graduate out of his dorm digs soon, he hopes to continue with similar experiential dining projects. “I’m planning a web series, some pop-ups, collaborations with artists and musicians, a line of cannabis-infused cooking products, and of course many more supper clubs,” he says.
As freshmen at the University of Southern California Gabriel Quintela and Anthony Zhang recognized an untapped market in their own late-night food cravings. Wanting more than their dorm’s candy machine had to offer, they found themselves frustrated when they tried to get food delivered to campus. The security gates at USC closed at 9 p.m., and there were rules against off-campus delivery services bringing food to any on-campus building.
“We also found it absurd that there wasn’t a single company focusing on delivering food to one of the largest demographics for food delivery,” says Quintela, now a junior majoring in public relations. College students make up a $21 billion market for food delivery and takeout, he notes.
After partnering with a third co-founder, Parker Seagren, a master’s in computer science candidate also at USC, they created EnvoyNow, a “student-to-student marketplace for on-demand food delivery” ordered via mobile app (EnvoyNow in the app store, Android version coming in two weeks) with a “.edu” email required to register.
In order to ensure speedy and convenient service, EnvoyNow exclusively hires students to deliver food and limits restaurant options to a geographical radius extending to 1.5 miles from campus. For its student customers, this means they never have to leave the comfort of their dorm room, since “envoys” are students themselves and can deliver to any room or building on campus. Envoys make 80% of the $2.99 delivery fee and 100% of the tip on every order.
EnvoyNow launched at USC two years ago and continues to grow. After being included in Inc. Magazine‘s “The Coolest College Startups of 2015” the founders were invited to pitch in front of Shark Tank‘s Mark Cuban and Mark Burnett, the latter of whom offered them $100,000 in funding on stage at USC to get the ball rolling. Today EnvoyNow is active on 24 campuses nationwide.
When asked how it has been juggling EnvoyNow and school, Quintela admits, “It is extremely difficult to manage the two. The business has to come first. The secret is that there is no time to sleep.” Ah, such is the life of your typical college student-entrepreneur at one of 2015’s 500 Startups.
When most high school sophomores were hanging out at the movies or the local mall, Makayla Knight was perusing local makers’ markets in the Nashville area, doing research. Today, three years later, she is the founder of Hippington, a brick and mortar women’s boutique that sells clothing, jewelry, shoes, and bags handmade by local vendors.
“I’ve always been drawn to fashion and supporting local small businesses within my state and when I travel,” Knight says. “I realized there was a need [for Nashville] to have a more permanent place where local artists, crafters, and designers could showcase their work.”
With a small business loan of $4,000 through Kabbage, she started Hippington the summer before her junior year of high school. She used the money to purchase inventory, and that summer appeared as a vendor at local festivals and events. She did the same the following summer, and during one of those festivals found her current brick and mortar location in nearby Springfield, Tenn., which opened last September.
Knight, is now 20 and a freshman entrepreneurship major at Belmont University. “The most challenging part has been juggling my class load and homework while also running a business that is 30 minutes away from me,” she says. “Thankfully, I have my mom as my business partner and she helps run the business during the week until I’m back on the weekends. We talk to each other daily about the business, whether it’s about new inventory, carrying new designers, upcoming events, or social media marketing.”
So far, Hippington has sold close to 700 items in the store and more than 100 online—bringing in almost $17,000 in sales and generating a small profit. She is also working with the local Chamber of Commerce and other small businesses to sponsor local community events.
“We had a very successful Shop Small Saturday campaign and were part of a fashion show that highlighted the downtown merchants in our area,” Knight says. The press she has received from papers like The Tennessean has continued to bring more customers and she continues to add new crafters. Someday she’d like to offer an accessories and clothing line for men and maybe open another location—of course, that’s after graduating from college three years from now.
Everywhere you look online, it’s “millennial this” and “millennial that.” That’s because brands have recognized that as their core customer base grows older, they need to find a way to remain relevant to the new up-and-coming generation.
Stephen Soward and Riley Soward, brothers who grew up in the Silicon Valley and went off to the University of Michigan and Boston College respectively, recognized that as part of the coveted target demographic, they were in a unique position to provide insight into the minds of millennial college students.
In October 2014, the two started Campus Insights, a team of college students on campuses across the U.S. who “help companies understand how college students perceive their products—shining light on questions like: What do college students like and dislike about our product? How is our product perceived compared to competitors? How should we be branding our product?”
Growing up, the two brothers loved critiquing websites and apps, and they would write the creators of the products they used with feedback on likes, dislikes, and possible improvements. During his senior year of high school, Riley interned with a company that was doing market research with high school students. “I quickly saw the value of having feedback be unveiled through the target demographic talking to someone else in the target demographic,” he recalls. “I was able to have honest, candid conversations with other high school students that resulted in valuable insights for the company.”
That experience prompted him and his brother to start Campus Insights when they started college. With cheap video equipment purchased off Craiglist and eBay, they started interviewing fellow students about their experiences using apps or websites and then sent the recordings to the companies that had created them.
It wasn’t long before companies were paying the pair to deliver “actionable recommendations from college students using their product and talking about it in their own words.” The press they have received via Huffington Post and other outlets has led to projects with both startups and large international tech companies—including Venmo, a mobile payment app, Intrepid Pursuits, a mobile app development company, Paktor, a dating app in South East Asia.Riley, 20, is now a sophomore, while Stephen, 21, graduated in December (a semester early). Their team of two has now grown to include three others: Ameet Kallarackal, a sophomore at Boston College, Irene Kim, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, and Kelsey Bishop, a sophomore at Boston College. They hope to expand to 10 students by the end of the year and also to broaden their age range to include grad students.Stephen says it’s been challenging to juggle Campus Insights and school, but it’s exciting as well, “College is a really great time to start a company, because you’re in a position where you have a massive safety net if things don’t go as planned,” he says. “Also, we’ve been able to build our company around the fact that we’re college students.”