Founder of Mark Zuckerberg, right, and Dustin Moscovitz, co-founder, left; have their photo taken at Harvard Yard, Cambridge, September 12, 2004.
Founder of Mark Zuckerberg, right, and Dustin Moscovitz, co-founder, left; at Harvard in 2004. Justine Hunt—The Boston Globe/Getty Images

8 Super Successful Businesses That Were Created by College Students

Mar 17, 2016
Facebook co-founders Mark Zuckerberg, right, and Dustin Moscovitz, left; at Harvard University in 2004, when they were roommates who'd just launched [object Object]  Justine Hunt—The Boston Globe/Getty Images  

Quick: Name a company founded by a college student.

You said Facebook, didn't you?

The social media giant's dorm room origins may be the most familiar of college startup stories, but it's hardly the only one. In fact, entrepreneurship on college campuses is booming, thanks to confluence of factors, including the economy, technological advances, and even the popularity of Shark Tank.

While achieving long-term business success at a young age, especially while juggling a full course load, isn't easy, college campuses do offer some unique advantages for launching a new venture.

For one thing, you have a network of resources at the ready, from actual networking opportunities with alumni, to professors’ industry expertise, to specialized classes in technology or finance. About a third of business incubators are based at universities, according to the Kauffman Foundation.

There’s a freedom in youth, too. As a college student, you have time to play around and figure out what your startup looks like, says Ryan Gourley, director of TechArb, the student business incubator at the University of Michigan.

And “If you think you won’t have time in college, wait until you have three kids and a mortgage,” says Scott Gerber, co-founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council.

Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

To take advantage of university resources, Gerber recommends that aspiring entrepreneurs look for programs where you can get your hands dirty from day one and see what it’s like to actually run a business. Talk to students on campus to learn what consumers like or dislike about your product. Take computer classes to make sure you’re at least technologically proficient, even if you plan on hiring a chief technology officer.

Find mentors and don’t make decisions in a vacuum, Gourley suggests. Confident, quick decision-making is a skill that’s developed over time.

“There’s this myth of the entrepreneur who does it on their own, but really to start a successful startup, I think it takes a village,” he says.

And familiarize yourself with funding opportunities on campus early on. Wharton Entrepreneurship at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, offers a variety of funding opportunities, including an award for seed funding and an intern fellowship. But don't move too fast when applying for funding, Clare Leinweber, managing director of Wharton Entrepreneurship says. Make sure you have a firm concept of the problem you're solving or product you're offering, how that can make money, and solid team members in place.

Role Models

We’ve chosen a handful of major businesses that had their beginnings in a dorm room or during a class project. Some you likely knew about; others may be news.

The majority of student-founded businesses will never reach the fame and, in some cases, considerable fortune of those in this group. But, Gerber and Gourley stress, you don’t have to be the next Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Evan Spiegel to be a success. Too many college-aged students get stuck in what Gerber calls the "Uber ideation"—thinking that every idea has to be a unicorn that’s going to be wildly successful.

Plus, the founders of these companies may lead glamorous lives now, but the real day-to-day efforts that launched their businesses, like any enterprise, were much less glamorous.

“You may be working night and day on this for three years before anyone takes a notice or cares about it," Gourley says.

There will be a lot of long nights fueled by much caffeine. Constant lunch and coffee meetings to network. Hustling. Failures. Disappointments. Continuous testing and tweaking.

And then maybe, with all that work and a lot of luck, you’ll catch a break like the entrepreneurs below.

Insomnia Cookies
Insomnia Cookiescourtesy Insomnia Cookies

Insomnia Cookies

Founder: Seth Berkowitz
College: University of Pennsylvania

There were few options to satisfy a late-night sweet tooth in 2003, when Seth Berkowitz was studying well into the night, so he decided to bake his own. Then a junior at UPenn, Berkowitz started selling cookies on campus in small batches, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian, his alma mater’s paper.

As more students tried the cookies, he tested new recipes and started delivering out of an off-campus apartment with the help of friends. Today, the warm, gooey cookies are delivered into the wee hours of the morning from more 65 locations around the U.S.

If Insomnia cookies aren't your flavor, maybe the treats produced by another startup out of Penn will be. Nomsense Bakery, founded in 2014, has started selling its signature cookie sandwich at coffee shops around the Philadelphia campus, and the founders plan to continue expanding the business after they graduate this spring, the Daily Pennsylvanian reports.

ModCloth employees model swimwear range to promote body positivity. Company co-founder Susan Gregg Koger in middle, ModCloth employees model swimwear range to promote body positivity, Pittsburgh, February 24, 2015.
ModCloth co-founder Susan Gregg Koger, center, models swimwear at a 2015 event to promote body positivity.ModCloth/REX—AP


Founders: Susan Gregg Koger and Eric Koger
College: Carnegie Mellon

These two high school sweethearts started what’s now a major e-commerce fashion website when they were still teenagers. Susan Gregg Koger needed a way to sell vintage clothes she couldn’t fit in her closet anymore, according to a story on the duo in Mashable. Eventually, the two took a week off from school to go to trade shows to build out an inventory in sizes and styles beyond what Susan could find in her closet or stumble upon in local vintage shops.

After the couple graduated from Carnegie Mellon, the business grew dramatically, surpassing $100 million in sales, and in May 2010, Modcloth opened offices in California. It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing since then, though, with two bouts of layoffs in recent years, but the business is still considered one of the top e-commerce fashion sites.

A Reddit mascot is shown at the company's headquarters in San Francisco, California April 15, 2014. Reddit, a website with a retro-'90s look and space-alien mascot that tracks everything from online news to celebrity Q&As, is going after more eyeballs, and advertising, by allowing members of its passionate community to post their own news more quickly and easily.
A Reddit mascot at the company's headquarters in San FranciscoRobert Galbraith—Reuters


Founders: Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian
College: University of Virginia

Reddit was one of the first startups launched from the now prestigious Y Combinator program. But like true startup founders, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian got a taste of rejection before their big break. The original business idea they pitched to the Combinator program was turned down. Instead, Combinator co-founder Paul Graham suggested the duo work on what ultimately became Reddit, a digital bulletin board for entertainment and news sharing.

Ohanian told Inc. that he and Huffman built Reddit in three weeks and after a year and a half of work. The website was bought in 2006 by Condé Nast for about $20 million.

Pedestrians pass by a Kinko's store December 30, 2003 in New York City.
A Kinko's store in New York CityStephen Chernin—Getty Images


Founder: Paul Orfalea
College: University of Southern California

Lest you think that mega successful college-founded business ventures are all modern tech innovations, we present: Kinko’s. With a $5,000 loan, Paul Orfalea opened his first copy machine business in 1970 in a small store on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. The idea for his business came when he saw a huge line of people waiting to use the university’s copy center while working on a group report.

By the time Orfalea sold a majority stake in his business in 1997, the chain of copy centers had annual revenues of more than $1.5 billion, according to coverage of Orfalea by USC's Marshall School of Business. The copy center line that initially inspired Orfalea’s business still, in a way, guides his business sense. As he told Forbes in 2012, “Anywhere there’s a long line, there’s opportunity.”

Pedestrians walk by an Onion news rack May 5, 2009 in San Francisco, California.
An Onion news rack in 2009Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The Onion

Founders: Chris Johnson and Tim Keck
College: University of Wisconsin at Madison

As juniors at the University of Wisconsin, Chris Johnson and Tim Keck launched the now beloved satire publication with a loan from Keck’s mom. Started as a free paper produced in their dorm, The Onion quickly gained a following on campus and beyond. According to CNN, Johnson and Keck sold The Onion to colleagues after just one year for $19,000. Within a few years, the paper was wildly popular in the Midwest, bringing in a $1 million a year in ad sales.

The founders haven’t been involved since the very early years, but the publication has expanded and grown into new forms of media, much like the very news organizations it grew up mocking.

LL Cool J and Rick Rubin during MTV Life Beat in Los Angeles, September 7, 1997.
Rick Rubin, right, with LL Cool J in 1997Jeff Kravitz—FilmMagic/Getty Images

Def Jam Records

Founder: Rick Rubin
College: New York University

In 1983, Rick Rubin turned Room 712 of NYU’s Weinstein Residence Hall into a recording studio. With a $5,000 loan from his parents, he made a single, "It's Yours," that turned into a popular radio and dance hit. Within a year, he'd started working with manager Russell Simmons and artists such as L.L. Cool J. and the Beastie Boys, and Def Jam was on the way to becoming one of hip hop’s most influential record companies.

Rubin told Rolling Stone that he moved his dorm bed out of the way to push together two desks and large speakers for a DJ area. (And yes, he had a roommate who not only put up with the noise but helped out.) Rubin ran the business out of the dorm—throwing wild record parties and all—until he graduated.

This October 24, 2013 file photo shows Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel in Los Angeles.
Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel in Los Angeles in 2013Jae C. Hong—AP


Founders: Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy
College: Stanford University

It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that an app created specifically to share embarrassing or questionable photos with little fear they’ll come back to haunt you was dreamt up by college students in the midst of parties, alcohol, and often, immaturity. (In fact, as LA Weekly tells it, the idea for an app to share disappearing photos with friends was conceived while fraternity brothers at Stanford were discussing sexting.) But Snapchat has long since outgrown its youthful conception. In 2015, co-founder Evan Speigel said the app had 100 million daily users, and it’s valued at $16 billion.

The app also has much in common with Facebook, perhaps the best-known of insanely successful dorm room companies. Spiegel is a billionaire who dropped out of one of the country’s most elite colleges to run what’s become a massive social media outlet, and both companies have had court feuds over ownership rights.

Nat Turner
Nat TurnerWalter Smith—Forbes Collection/Corbis Outline


Founder: Nat Turner
College: University of Pennsylvania

Never heard of InviteMedia? That doesn’t matter, because Google did—and the media giant liked what it heard.

InviteMedia, an ad tech company that designed a platform for buying digital banner ads, sold for $81 million to Google in 2010. Nat Turner had started the business while an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, after an internship and with some seed funding through Wharton entrepreneurship programs. In 2012, he founded a new venture in medical software. We should note, though, that Turner didn't catch a major break on his first venture. As he writes on his website, he founded a web development company, a website for swapping giftcards, and a reptile breeding company—all before enrolling in college.

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