NEWS

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November 14, 2006

Sizing up student start-ups

On a campus full of economics students who dream of scoring competitive consulting jobs, several University of Chicago student entrepreneurs are shaping the business world on their own terms. Business-savvy students are starting companies by the dozen and garnering respect and attention far beyond campus.

Karan Goel, who earned both his B.A. and M.B.A. from the University, tops the list of successful U of C student entrepreneurs. Goel started his business PrepMe.com the summer before his first year in the College in 2001 and continued to develop it through his graduate studies.

PrepMe.com won the Edward L. Kaplan New Venture Challenge (NVC) in 2005, as well as the Fortune Small Business Student Showdown, earning a total of $55,000 in prize money. BusinessWeek also included the founders of PrepMe.com on its list of Best Entrepreneurs under 25.

“PrepMe.com is my life,” said Goel, whose company provides customized help to students studying for the SAT, PSAT, and ACT exams. “I try to sleep, stay healthy, and be social when I have a few moments to spare.”

Christian Perry, the founder and CEO of ZapTix and a 2006 U of C graduate, said starting a business as a U of C student is similar to “trying to juggle while riding a bicycle.”

Perry managed the feat, and ZapTix, the beta version of which was launched in February 2006, is now serving campus organizations nationwide. ZapTix is an “online box office” that sells tickets to student activities and has been used by student groups such as the Major Activities Board and Hype.

Some campus organizations offer support and guidance to aspiring student entrepreneurs.

The International Leadership Council (ILC) is a student-run, U of C organization whose members have helped launch such companies as PrepMe.com, NoDorm, and Collectica.com. Founded by Goel, the ILC provides resources and assistance to student entrepreneurs and also has an investment management division.

“The focus is on building leaders,” said fourth-year in the College Calvin Truong, ILC’s head of entrepreneurship. Truong attributed the success of ILC-founded companies to a combination of luck, passion, and helpful resources.

“We don’t see ourselves as experts on entrepreneurship,” said Truong, citing the Graduate School of Business’s Leadership Effectiveness and Development Program as one of ILC’s most beneficial resources. The program consists of a class that teaches team building and communication skills.

The University’s Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS) has also taken note of ILC’s businesses. CAPS considered making a position at one of the ILC start-up companies a Metcalf internship, though none of the companies have been able to afford the $10-per-hour salary that is required to host an intern.

Despite the help of University programs and the support of alumni and faculty, student entrepreneurs have said they still lack resources.

Truong said the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania is the model undergraduate business program. The U of C lacks Wharton’s resources, Truong said.

Though some student ventures have been successful, countless other start-ups have succumbed to competition and the pressures of entrepreneurship.

“The funny thing about student businesses is that they do not really fail, they just disappear,” said fourth-year in the College Geoff Domoracki, one of the founders of the Entrepreneurship Club, which launched this quarter.

“I do not know anyone who has devoted themselves completely to a new business and watched the business fail. I have seen many ventures disappear due to disinterest,” said Domoracki, whose own entrepreneurial history includes several businesses ranging from a web development company to a service that provides an easy way to pay back student loans.

Students whose businesses have won the uphill battle are often able to give words of wisdom to aspiring self-starters.

Fourth-year in the College William Thoburn of Collectica.com, an online collectors’ website founded by two U of C College students, advised those with a business plan to “become dispassionate with the business and figure out if there truly is a market.”

Drew Massie, 2004 GSB alum and finalist in the 2003-–2004 NVC for his company TixNix, said potential entrepreneurs should focus on “core strengths…and outsource everything else.” He also suggested avoiding unrelated distractions, a lesson he learned from TixNix, which provides legal counsel for those fighting traffic tickets.

Although obstacles and distractions preceded the success of these student companies, the proud owners have looked past the frustrations and continue to focus on the triumphs.

“Starting a business is an amazing way to channel your passion, energy, and ideas,” Perry said. “While it’s a challenging, often frustrating process—similar, perhaps, to the U of C—the rewards more than make up for it.”