The Dobie Center, a dorm complex at the University of Texas at Austin, is 27 stories tall and boasts a cafeteria, a basketball court, a movie theater, and a pool.
But for students interested in business (at UT, 150 belong to the school’s entrepreneurship club), the Dobie Center is more than a place to live. That’s because 25 years ago, a young resident of the tower decided to make and sell low-cost PCs from stock components. Michael Dell scrounged up $1,000 and turned his room into a mini assembly line, and the rest is history.
In the years since Dell launched the world’s best-known college start-up, more students have followed his lead—spurred on by the rise of the Web, the vastly reduced cost of starting a business, the veneration of the Google guys, and the explosion of entrepreneurship curricula on campuses everywhere.
Now, there's an added reason for students to start companies while still in school. Faced with the bleakest job outlook in 20 years, they may find it easier to create a job for themselves than to go out into the work world with a resume and the conviction that an employer should hire them.
The good news is that it is, in some ways, a great time to start a company. Costs are coming down and established businesses face pressures that a nimble, low-cost upstart need not worry about.
There are also many resources available to undergraduate entrepreneurs. At Yale, for example, a group of students working with a pair of campus organizations founded GXStudios in 2007. The company has created a series of massive multiplayer online games, including its flagship, GoCrossCampus. More than 60,000 people have competed in these games. The business makes money by selling sponsorships to advertisers such as Coca-Cola and Princeton Review. Though the students won't disclose what their revenue was last year, they say GXStudios is profitable. It has raised more than $1 million in venture capital, employs 12 people, and has opened an office in Manhattan.
"It's one of those things I never would've predicted when I came to Yale," says co-founder Matthew Brimer. "If someone would've told me that, when I graduate, I'd go to work for the start-up company I founded and am working for already part time, I'm not sure I would've believed it."
Similarly, after completing his freshman year at Indiana University, Zac Workman threw himself into researching energy drinks. He identified what he saw as an unfilled gap in the market — an energy drink that was made from natural ingredients and did not produce the crash effect common with sugary or highly caffeinated beverages. Working with a fruit-punch recipe that has been in his family for years, he came up with a drink that tasted good and satisfied the necessary dietary requirements. He began to pitch it to potential manufacturing partners. After a slew of dead ends, Workman found Power Brands, a Los Angeles–based beverage development firm whose clients have included Gatorade, Pepsi, and Sierra Mist. Executives there agreed to meet with the student — if he flew to L.A. "I wasn't sure it was something my parents would support," Workman says, "but they said yes and decided to make it a family trip."
Power Brands CEO Darin Ezra says his team was impressed by the professionalism of Workman's research and presentation. Then there was Grandma's recipe. "The taste of Punch was definitely a major component in why we decided to work with Zac," Ezra says. "One of our project managers rated Punch as her favorite product of 2008, which is great, considering we developed over 250 products last year."
Within days of signing a contract with Power Brands, Workman began collaborating with chemists to develop a drink that could be mass-produced but that did not contain high fructose corn syrup, sodium, or preservatives. After 10 attempts, the recipe was finalized. Workman and his family put up $200,000 in start-up capital. Today, Punch is sold in Indiana and Illinois and on track to do $1 million in revenue this year.
Of course juggling a full-time class schedule and the demands of running a business can be difficult. While some college students schedule classes so they can sleep in as late as possible, Danny Klam, a University of Houston senior, often begins his day at 3 a.m., opening one of the three Simply Splendid Donuts and Ice Cream stores he owns with his cousin Rock. The chain employs a staff of 12. Last year, it grossed $750,000 and, this year, revenue is on track to top $1.2 million. "The hours are crazy," Klam says. "You just have to make time and get your priorities straight."
University of Michigan sophomore Caroline Rooney, who has founded an upscale T-shirt line called The Bearon, also finds herself making trade-offs. Rooney currently sells her designs on 6 college campuses, and her plan is to add sales reps at a few more colleges and see where it goes from there. "I can tell you all the awesome things I'd like to do with the company and all the great places I think we can grow," she says. "But at the same time, I have a 10-page paper due tomorrow. There are definitely times when ambition and academics collide."
As the stories of these students suggest, an ambitious and enterprising kid like Michael Dell is no longer the exception to the rule.
With reporting by Andrew Bartholomew, Caitlin Brody, Zaneta Loh and Allie Townsend.