Some changes to doing business during the pandemic have stuck around. And that’s helping a growing cohort of local college students run their own startups — without dropping out.
Just a few years ago, running a startup typically involved opening an office, hiring staff, and traveling to investor pitch meetings. But with remote work and Zoom meetings, the requirements have changed. And the rise of Shopify and other logistics services offers instant capabilities for virtual e-commerce startups.
Faraz Khan, a senior at Amherst College who plays on the rugby team, got the idea for his direct-to-consumer e-commerce startup during lockdown. With gyms closed and exercise equipment out of stock, he hit on a simpler product that could be made by a contract manufacturer and sold online: weighted jump ropes.
RhinoRope has since generated millions of dollars in sales, grown to 10 employees, and raised venture backing at a valuation of $5 million. All the while, the computer science major stayed in school.
“I feel like I’m getting an MBA in the form of a business and then also going to school for an undergrad degree,” Khan said.
But doing school and a startup at the same time is a scheduling nightmare that sometimes means getting homework done while untangling a shipping snafu at the Port of Los Angeles from 3,000 miles away, he said.
Middlebury College students Brett Perlmutter, a junior, and Sam Segal, a senior, have been running a weekly newsletter business for the past year while staying in school. Dubbed Bulletpitch, the advertising-supported publication profiles small startups that might be interesting to investors, founders, and early tech adopters.
The pair said they were not ready to give up the rich campus life at Middlebury. And living among other students has helped them spot new viral apps and rising trends.
“Every social media app has really blown up on college campuses,” Perlmutter said. “So I actually think it’s been advantageous to us to have our boots on the ground, understanding early trends.”
TokenTag, meanwhile, is a Web3 startup founded by a trio of football players at Williams College. The service lets users connect digital wallets for nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, with accounts on Twitter, Discord, and other services.
The company has raised money from friends, family, and angel investors and is getting ready to raise a seed round, said Zoe Bank, head of marketing and a Williams senior. TokenTag has a small office in Williamstown, but many meetings have been virtual.
When RhinoRope raised backing, some VCs were impressed that Khan was still in college, but others were wary, he said.
“There were some people saying I wasn’t dedicated enough,” Khan said.
That’s not surprising to venture capitalist Travis Connors at Building Ventures in Boston, who works with early-stage startups and has heard a few pitches from students planning to stay in school. He hasn’t invested in any yet.
“We are fiduciaries,” he said. A founder’s “level of commitment is important. It can’t be seen as just one of their options at graduation.”
Also working against younger founders is research that says that older founders were more likely to find success, said Benjamin Jones, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management who co-authored a study on the subject.
“That said, there is a lot of variation in entrepreneurial talent, and some people may be so good, talented, and inclined toward entrepreneurship that they will succeed even when they are quite young,” Jones said. “The good news is that, whether you are starting companies at young ages or beyond, people likely get better as they get older and more experienced.”
Once upon a time, Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to build Facebook. The next Zuck might already be running a startup, without dropping out.