Not All Student Entrepreneurs Drop Out

2/5/14Follow @sramana

Today’s generation of students has a high exposure to the Internet, smartphones, social and many other technologies from a very young age. It is not uncommon to see college students tinkering with technology, starting digital startups, and making millions (and occasionally even billions). Some drop out of school to build their business, but not all. Some stay on in school to get the best of both worlds.

Today, we are going to look at some such student entrepreneurs that we have worked with.

Jeff Nobbs is the founder and CEO of Extrabux, a highly regarded shopping rewards site monetized via affiliate commissions on online transactions. He co-founded Extrabux as a student at the University of Southern California in 2006. He and his co-founder, Noah Auerhahn, who lived in the same dormitory, worked on the project while they were still at school. Two years later in their junior year, they submitted Extrabux to the USC business plan competition, where it won first place and received $25,000, its first stamp of credibility. That helped them build a team and raise close to a million dollars over the next year. They are now on a run rate of over $10 million and their revenue in 2012 was about $5 million. Read more about how Jeff made Extrabux a success in my interview with him.

Yatit Thakker, Drew Vincent, and Jake Yap, environmental engineering students at the University of Florida, founded Omninox in the summer of 2012. They were exploring the iBooks platform when Yatit realized how online education programs were not completely utilizing the powerful platform. So they founded the company to create interactive, mobile study guides called Omniguides, starting with Calculus 1, targeting high school students. Their aim is to consolidate the material that students need to learn for Advanced Placement (AP) STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) classes by offering built-in software tools such as a calculator, quizzes, and sketchpad with social sharing. In 2013, Omninox released its first commercial product and it is already in the revenue stage.

Yatit and Jake graduated with bachelor’s degrees in Environmental Engineering and are currently working full time at Omninox. Drew went on to pursue a concurrent master’s degree in environmental engineering and chemical engineering and plans to work full-time at Omninox after graduating.

Mike Mothner is the founder and CEO of search engine marketing firm Wpromote. He got into computers and the Internet when he was very young. By the age of 14, he had written a software program called Calendar Man, which was a moderate success. In his sophomore year in 2001 at Dartmouth College, he wrote a script that would submit a website URL to all 200 different search engines for a nominal fee. By his senior year, Wpromote had a couple of hundred clients and the service was generating a couple of thousand dollars of revenue a month. He worked about two hours a day, but it was not clear if he could turn it into a bigger business.

Mike even went through corporate recruitment in his senior year with Goldman Sachs. He was asked why he would want to work at Goldman Sachs when he had a revenue-generating business of his own. That was when he decided that he would try to build a bigger business out of Wpromote. The company grew by a factor of 27 between 2003 and 2007.. Its revenue in 2012 was $13.9 million. For more about Michael’s entrepreneurial journey, read the full interview.

All these student entrepreneurs had revenue-generating products before finishing college, but they still went on to finish college. Jeff says when they started Extrabux, he and his co-founders were just 17 years old and did not know what they were doing. They are still learning every day, but it was good to do it as a student. For Yatit, Drew, and Jake, finishing their education made the guides richer and more credible. For Mike, it gave him the confidence and inspiration to build his startup into a multi-million dollar business.

For every Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, there are thousands of dropouts who did not make it. They are then at a huge disadvantage entering the workforce without a degree. When you start a business, you don’t know how the market will play out. It is better to experiment at a small scale until you hit the inflection point, rather than drop out and give up on formal education.

Jeff, Noah, Yatit, Jake, Drew, Mike, and many other student entrepreneurs are doing just that. They start a business during college, build it on the side, finish their education, and then devote full time to entrepreneurship.

Sramana Mitra is the founder of One Million by One Million (1M/1M), a global virtual incubator that aims to help one million entrepreneurs globally to reach $1 million in revenue and beyond. She is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and strategy consultant, she writes the blog Sramana Mitra On Strategy, and is author of the Entrepreneur Journeys book series and Vision India 2020. From 2008 to 2010, Mitra was a columnist for Forbes. As an entrepreneur CEO, she ran three companies: DAIS, Intarka, and Uuma. Sramana has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Follow @sramana

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