May 25, 2012 at 8:35 AM ET
For two months late last year, entrepreneur Eric Simons toiled -- and squatted -- at the Palo Alto campus of America Online: eating, exercising, showering, laundering his clothes, and sleeping in dark nooks, all while trying to keep his life habits a secret.
Now, Simons, 20, is openly sharing the gritty details and offering an explanation that’s partly an apology, partly a tale of how an extreme innovator can blend in so easily with other Silicon Valley workaholics.
“I had no money, no place to go. My closest family was in Chicago. The only reason I stayed there was none of my friends had available couches,” Simons told msnbc.com Thursday.
He initially had full permission to be on the AOL property -- and even wore an access badge -- via his acceptance into Imagine K12, a for-profit incubator based at AOL’s campus. The outfit mentors and funds entrepreneurs with a passion for education. Simons and his business partners were given $20,000 by Imagine K12 to develop a startup company to help teachers. But when the incubation money ran dry, Simons decided to stay, move in, and complete his mission.
“I could have packed up and gone home but then I wouldn’t have been able to build a project, launch it and meet with investors,” he said. “It was always going to be a short-time thing.”
While working each day on the idea that later became classconnect.com, Simons poached the snacks that AOL offers its employees -- mainly Ramen Noodles and Trail Mix. After leaving his desk, he would shower at an AOL gym (which offers shampoo and soap) and sometimes wash his clothes at a campus laundromat. Long after dark, he would curl up on one of several couches tucked into remote hallways.
“The security guys would walk by and just assume I was working late -- which, technically, I was,” Simons said. “They thought he's just working really hard (like a lot of people at AOL) and taking a nap before he goes back to work again.”
Because security guards changed shifts at midnight, he said, his 24/7 presence wasn’t seen as strange. Simons still isn’t sure why -- as he slept at 6 a.m.on Monday, Dec. 19 -- an AOL security guard screamed, “This isn’t a dorm!” and ordered him to leave the premises. He did. Immediately. He also was stripped of his access badge.
But Simons was allowed later to return to his desk. From that point on, he said, he only was denied access to the building’s third floor where the couches and snacks are kept. These days, he still goes to the Imagine K12 office for meetings.
A call to AOL’s corporate communications office seeking comment on Simons' secret stay was not returned before this article was posted.
But Simons' squatting paid off.
Eventually, he convinced a Silicon Valley venture capitalist to invest $50,000 in ClassConnect. The website serves as an online hub where teachers can share and find lesson-planning ideas.
“The reason I stayed there was entirely not by choice -- if I wanted to make this startup succeed,” Simons said.
The VC funding had one more benefit. Simons now rents a house in Palo Alto.
A tip of the hat to CNET.com, which first reported on Simons' squatting stretch.