Nov. 14, 2009 -- Most college students are recovering from midterms this time of year, bracing themselves for the second half of the semester or studying the drink menu at a nearby bar.
And in today's struggling economy, more and more of them are starting their own businesses instead of banking on employment. Such budding entrepreneurs manage to maintain their full-time course loads while taking on the role of CEO, with many sleepless nights to show for their efforts.
Facebook Founder Motivates Students
Mark Zuckerberg co-founded Facebook in his Harvard University dorm room back in 2004. Five years, 300 million users and $500 million later, Zuckerberg is still working full-time at his booming business.
According to Gerald Hills, co-founder of the Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organization, "On college campuses there's really been an explosion in interest in entrepreneurship. One number I've seen cited a lot, which I'm sure, if anything, is understated, is that more than 1,500 universities in the U.S. have entrepreneurship courses now and most have some semblance of a program in entrepreneurship."
Zuckerberg's success is just one reason students have been inspired to create their own companies. "I think it's a growing visibility," said George Burman, professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse's Whitman School of Management. "The success of some of these significant entrepreneurs and this generation has watched that happen. They see it as both a viable alternative and an exciting one."
Hills said, "There just seems to be a real swing towards testing out ideas, and selecting venture ideas that have a low downside risk and just going for it and seeing what happens."
But starting a business can be tricky. Half of all new businesses fail, according to some estimates.
"People are making the argument that the percentage of successful ventures has risen above 50 percent, some have even said higher," Burman said. "I have a little trouble with that. I think it probably is true that the success rate has risen some.
"A typical pattern is, the first thing you try doesn't work," Burman said. "And then you take what you've learned and you do another new venture and you eventually get it right, and it works if you've got the patience and the resources to do that. But, obviously, launching a new venture, there is a significant element of risk."
Bradley Ericson is taking that risk. Ericson is a sophomore at Drexel University in Philadelphia and CEO of 3SecondReceipts LLC, a software company that creates a digital receipt at the point of sale. So, rather than wasting time and paper, your receipt is sent to you digitally.
Ericson is a marketing and entrepreneurship double major who signs his e-mails with his name and a quote that reads, "Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail."
For him, executing the plan wasn't as easy as coming up with the idea.
Balancing a Startup Business With College Classes
"To have a social life and to have a business and to do well academically, I basically don't sleep a lot," Ericson said. "I wrote a 30-page business plan for a competition and I was running on three hours of sleep and five cups of coffee. I think they knew me by name at the Starbucks on campus. So it was really, really tough, and I got sick throughout the year, but it all paid off so far."
Ericson tested his product on Drexel's server last month. While he says the product is still in the testing phase, he hopes that after a few technological improvements, he will soon launch the software on campus.
Others share his ambition. Lauren Kessler also hopes her sleepless nights will soon pay off. A sophomore at New York's Syracuse University, Kessler is the creator of Lauren Nicole Accents, a fashion accessories line of intricately embellished headbands and jewelry she designs.
"I don't really sleep because I am constantly thinking about what I am going to design next," Kessler wrote in an e-mail. "This doesn't bother me, though, because why sleep and dream about my ideas, when I could use that time to actually create them? I always say I'll sleep when I'm dead."
Kessler stays busy making her headbands for friends and students on campus but she hopes to soon expand.
Kessler last month attended Henri Bendel's Open See, an event that gives new and emerging designers a chance to have their line carried at the prestigious Henri Bendel store in New York City.
While she's waiting to hear back, Kessler keeps moving forward. She estimates she spends a few hundred dollars every few months on materials alone, but that doesn't include payment for time spent designing and producing her creations. "I won't go out one weekend," she said. "Or I'll stay in for a night."
Jessica Mah can relate to that all too well. Mah is a 19-year-old senior at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-founder of Indinero.com, a Web site geared to making it easier for small businesses to track and understand their finances.
"Accounting takes time to learn and execute, Indinero gives you back that time," reads a banner on the Web site.
Maintaining discipline between work and school is difficult but crucial to staying on track, Mah said. "I was in Model United Nations last year, and I had so much fun with that, and I used to play sports and I used to do all these extra-curriculars," Mah said.
"And, now, I just need to say no to all of those things and just drop those commitments, and it's risky."
Access to College Resources Aids Student Entrepreneurs
While college entrepreneurs continually struggle to find that balance between friends, work and school, it's not all bad news. "One of the arguments about starting [a business] is obviously a student doesn't have the obligations that somebody 10 years out does, with family and mortgage," Burman said.
Another plus? The free and unlimited access students have to their college resources. Zac Workman, a senior at Indiana University in Bloomington and founder of Punch Energy Drink, said he can't put a price on all the help he has received at Indiana, literally.
"I joke with them that I've got this million-dollar management team for free," Workman said. "Because if I've got a question about law, instead of going to my lawyer, who's going to charge me $180 an hour, I can go to a number of different law professors. I went into one of the offices to actually make the trademark. We sat down at his computer, filled out the application, and he helped me with it.
"So it's really nice because where my lawyer probably doesn't know that much about trademarks, I actually went to a trademark business professor, so all he does are trademarks and patents. So accounting questions, I go to my accounting professor. A finance question, I go to my finance professor."
And on a college student's budget, access to professionals who are generous with their time couldn't be better. "It's those resources that I think have made it more intriguing to students to start their businesses," Burman said.
Along with the availability of resources, many of the students say their businesses are successful because they know their market better than anyone else. Syracuse University senior Chelsea Prince founded InternCircle.com, a social networking site for interns and employers.
Being a college student actually helped her build a more worthwhile site for users, she said. "I am relevant to interns because I have this experience. I'm not a 30-year-old creating an internship site for college students. I have their perspective and their interests at heart."
Indeed, Prince is so committed to making her site a success that she took a leave of absence. "I'm taking this semester off to really flush out my vision and hit the ground running," she said.
Big Revenue for Some Student Business Owners
And hit the ground running is exactly what many college entrepreneurs aim to do. Boris Revsin, co-founder of CampusLIVE.com, a Web site designed to provide college students with a centralized location for all of their on- and off-campus resources, also took time off from school and hasn't looked back since.
The former University of Massachusetts at Amherst student left college in 2007 in order to pursue his company full-time. Now, he and nine other employees run the popular college Web site.
And, like Prince, they know their market inside and out. "We're all current or recent students," Revsin wrote in an e-mail. "Our office is in a college town. We have over 20 interns a semester to run focus studies on. I think that's been key to our success. We know our market better than anyone."
Such knowledge has clearly proven valuable to the company. CampusLIVE is projected to make about $300,000 in revenue this year and Revsin said they're expecting to make around $1 million next year.
"The hardest part has also been the most fun part," Revsin said. "Right now, we literally sleep in the office. It's not a joke when we say that. It's that I've got five of our team members with airbeds in the office, working 24 hours a day. And I think that's the most important thing, to put your heart and soul into it.
"But that's obviously the hardest part, too. Because you've got to find a way to pay rent, you've got to find time to spend with your friends, and all of that, so it's a balancing act. So I think, literally, the hardest part is making sure that you're always thinking about your company."