The Art of College Startups

Annie Spratt via Unsplash

By Nathan Park

Embarking on the journey of entrepreneurship in college has become an increasingly popular pursuit for many students. With students fresh out of high school and ready to begin their new lives in a completely different environment, colleges serve as the dynamic hubs of creativity. Here, young students are given the chance to experiment with their lives and figure out who they are, what they like, and what they want to do through numerous amounts of trial and error, thus creating the perfect environment for entrepreneurial ventures. The intersection of education and innovation provides a unique ecosystem for aspiring entrepreneurs to test their ideas, learn valuable skills, and potentially launch successful businesses. In this article, we dive into the art of college startups, exploring the nature of college startups by looking at a few successful college startups: Insomnia Cookies, DropBox, and EZread, founded by our very own Vanderbilt senior, Rishi Saran.

Insomnia Cookies: Like Rand Cookies, But at Midnight

Insomnia Cookies was founded in 2003 by then-University of Pennsylvania student Seth Berkowitz. Conflicted between his desire for a late-night treat and not wanting to go out in the cold to buy cookies, Berkowitz began baking cookies in his dorm room and giving out samples to fellow students on campus. The cookies became a hit and everyone was asking for samples until soon people began telling him that they would be willing to pay for the cookies to be delivered straight to their dorms. The concept was simple yet ingenious–freshly baked cookies delivered warm, until the early hours of the morning when students had just finished studying and were looking for something to eat. Eventually, Berkowitz found himself baking large quantities of cookies in between classes and distributing them. By monetizing this venture at an early stage, Berkowitz was able to experiment and identify the most successful recipe. Within a few years, Berkowitz secured FDA approval, established his first retail outlet in New York, and attracted investments from angel investors (HuffPost). Insomnia Cookies went on to expand to over 200+ locations all over the US and was eventually sold to Krispy Kreme for a little less than $500 million (CNBC). 

Dropbox: Ditching the USB Drive

Although a little more complicated of a concept than Insomnia Cookies, Dropbox was founded by a recent graduate from MIT who wanted to find a solution to a personal problem he faced. In late 2006, shortly after graduating from MIT with a degree in computer science, Drew Houston found himself on a six-hour-long bus ride from Boston to New York. Excited to use that time to work on some business ideas, Houston sat down only to realize that he had left his USB drive behind. This inconvenience sparked a pivotal idea – a solution to the need for a seamless and accessible file-sharing solution to eliminate dependence on physical storage devices. That idea became Dropbox, a platform that would allow users to sync their files across multiple devices through the cloud. Houston began working on the idea and, within two weeks, had come up with a prototype; however, he needed funding in order to get his business running. Y Combinator, a prestigious startup accelerator founded by Paul Graham who was a prominent supporter of Silicon Valley startups, was willing to invest in Houston and Dropbox, but with a condition—he needed to find a business partner. The rationale behind this requirement was the belief that new ventures are more likely to succeed when they have multiple founders, providing a shared decision-making responsibility and a shared workload. With only two weeks to complete the task, Houston began searching and eventually met a 22-year-old MIT student, Arash Ferdowsi. The risk was that Ferdowsi was a friend of a friend and was someone he had never met before. After chatting in the student center for an hour or two, Houston was able to convince Ferdowsi to drop out of MIT and join him in his venture (BBC). Dropbox went on to receive seed funding, mentorship, and an opportunity to refine its product into a viable product through Y Combinator. In September 2008, the company went public, marking the beginning of a new era in file sharing as well as a long and unexpected journey for the two co-founders that led them to both have a net worth of more than a billion dollars (Forbes).

EZread: Rishi Saran’s “SparkNotes for textbooks”

Finally, for the last startup, I was able to get the chance to interview a college startup founder, Rishi Saran, who is currently a senior attending Vanderbilt and founded EZread. 

Conversation Between Nathan Park and Rishi Saran: 

Nathan: Okay, let’s do this. What’s your name, year, and major, what is your company and what do you guys do? 

Rishi: Yeah, so I’ll go a little bit out of order from what you asked, but my name is Rishi Saran. I’m a senior here studying computer science, but if there was an entrepreneurship major, I would’ve taken that any day over computer science because truly what I’m passionate about is startups. Right now, I am doing a startup called EZread that is very apt for a college student, which is essentially creating SparkNotes for textbooks. So if you’re a college student, you know that the vast majority of students don’t read textbooks, maybe don’t even buy their textbooks and if they do, they pirated them. Once they get it, maybe they’ll try to skim over it, barely retain any information, and then graduate from that course, not remembering anything. I think summarizing textbooks helps in a lot of ways. It helps students save money. It helps them better actually read their textbooks, and understand the material, but also doesn’t overload them with information and allows them to learn much more in the long term. So that’s kind of our business objective. We’re summarizing textbooks and we want people to genuinely learn so much better than they do in the status quo.

Nathan: Sure, sure. That’s awesome man, so what’s your background or experience in business, or is this your first time beginning a business?

Rishi: So, I remember actually where my startup journey began was in the bathroom of a public high school. At school, my friends would vape all the time and a lot of them expressed to me that they were becoming addicted. It was hard for them to control. So in high school, I went on to develop this device that would attach to these Juuls and vape pens and help people track the amount of nicotine they inhale. It was like WeightWatchers, which helps you track your calories, but instead, it tracked nicotine. With this, I’d let students track their nicotine intake because I don’t think you solve addiction by making people feel bad and shaming them, but I think you do it instead by making it transparent about how much they’re doing. We had the honor of winning an international entrepreneurship competition, which helped me get some funding and we had a couple prototypes. A lot of my high school friends enjoyed it and that was the first time I was introduced to business and was able to have an impact on people. 

Nathan: That’s really cool, bro. So, when it comes to EZread, how did you validate that startup idea? Did you conduct research? Did you talk to people? What were some of the best ways that you were like, “Okay, this is going to work, this is gonna do well?”

Rishi: Yeah. Great, great question by the way, because a lot of people don’t know to ask this question. Yeah, so I went to real college students. I asked them questions. Would they use my product? How much would they spend? Do they have problems with their textbooks? These are things that you kind of know are true, but you still need to ask people to find the concrete numbers and it’s actually crazy what we were able to find. For example, 65% of college students right now don’t buy their textbooks, and the 35% that do, don’t even read them entirely. They buy it and barely skim it. So the market really shows itself and I definitely encourage doing heavy market research, both online and also on the grounds too. 

Nathan: I see. Wow, that’s crazy. You were talking about your co-founder a little bit, and I wanted to ask how you met these people that you’re working with right now in your company. How did you know they were going to be your co-founders, and do you have any advice when it comes to finding the right people in order to work with you on your company?

Rishi: Right. Actually, this is going to tie back a little bit back into the last question, but it connects with it. So, you’ll find this statistic really interesting. The average student who is given 30 hours of syllabus reading, on average, spends 13 hours for a 30-hour syllabus. That is a study from Yale University. You could search it up. It’s actually insane because teachers are expecting us to learn way more than we actually are. And it’s funneled through so badly, so in finding my co-founders, which was me, one of my friends Alvin from Vanderbilt, and a guy from Virginia Tech named Aidan Sims, and we were all feeling that funnel man — where I would have syllabi, readings that wanted me to read 30 hours a week. So we’ve felt that pressure ourselves. So part of the co-founder thing was 1) finding someone who felt the problem like we did, 2) someone passionate about it, 3) people with a diverse skill set, and then 4) someone who has the discipline to build a startup, especially as a college student because it’s something you need to invest in every day, and if you don’t, it’s going pass you by. It’s just like another class, you know? You have your homework you need to get done every week and we were like, yes, this is a class I want to enroll in. This is a mission I care about. Yeah, and that helped me find my co-founders. 

Nathan: I see. And I guess this is kind of a basic question, but what’s just the biggest challenge that you would say in this whole journey that you’ve had? 

Rishi: I would say the biggest one that comes up for every startup founder is if you think about how much time you’ve spent on homework over your whole life, anyone could start a business with that time. We’ve normalized doing homework, but we haven’t normalized taking our own initiatives in our lives. So, the biggest problem for me was realizing that I’ve been taught that homework is what I need to do and, don’t get me wrong, you guys should do homework if you’re reading this article, but if you find something passionate in your own life outside of school, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be on the same level of priority as homework. If you’re spending a hundred hours on homework every school year, a hundred hours on your business would do so much too. So yeah that shift in my priorities and beginning to use my skills for my own career was definitely the biggest challenge for me. 

Nathan: What was the biggest thing that you had that you were proud of? Like, oh dang, this is cool. 

Rishi: So I remember one time I was actually at a frat party and this guy came up to me and he was like, like, no way, bro, you’re the guy that founded EZread. He was talking about how he was in the Intro to Neuro class and EZread had the textbook for the Intro to Neuroscience class and he said that was the only reason he got an A on his last test. And I was like wow that’s crazy, like that’s a real person who just said that to me, like on his own. And it just really warmed my heart. In addition to that, there are a few technical impressive things like when we got our first investment offer or when we moved far in the Thiel fellowship. Those are all nice things, but really seeing someone who genuinely learned better hit differently for me. 

Nathan: Okay. And last question, what’s your advice to entrepreneurs, man? What’s your advice to college kids, especially college kids? 

Rishi: I’d say there are really two things. One is to think about how much time we put into our homework and really like, just genuinely take a second to reflect on your whole life. If you could take all those hours and just use it to find a business — because we’ve done homework that quite frankly is just sitting now in Google Drives and it’s just there. You have so much capital in your life and we’ve already become really good at getting tasks, so just begin building out a plan and focus on the small things first.

For example, you have a big semester project due, so you know, every couple weeks you have to make presentations every month or so, and you have to get something tangibly done. We’ve already had that. Now, just make those business things. Focus on the small things at first. Make sure you can validate people to use your product. Build a minimum viable product and start getting the first investors interested through some pitch decks, whatever these small things may be. It’s these small wins and small assignments that mean so much in the long term and they add up a lot. Keep building week by week, month by month and it really isn’t that hard to grasp as it might come out to be. 

The second big thing I would say is don’t underestimate the power of having like founders that you actually feel connected to. If you don’t feel connected with your co-founder, it’s gonna suck and I can tell you that from my high school startup, it sucked so bad. You want to find the right group that you can legitimately work hard, and play hard with. Someone you can celebrate your successes, but also can get down and grind with them. They’re gonna be passionate just like you and I got a bit lucky. I think being in communities like VINES and these entrepreneurship communities helps put you in a headspace where you’re more likely to find someone. You can’t just go to classes every day and kind of expect lightning to strike and find the perfect co-founder. Although I would love for that to happen, you gotta put yourself out your way, you know? Find friends who are entrepreneurs because again, you are the average of your friend group and if you’re the average of your friend group, and you’re gonna be the average of people. So fix the friends you have. Focus on the small wins and realize that you gotta give yourself assignments. And I think those are the things that you can tangibly do as a start, as you know, as a college student to actually begin to get things going.

By Nathan Park

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