October 7, 2010

Recession Encourages New Student Entrepreneurs

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Cornell has a long history of producing successful entrepreneurs — the creators of hotel.com, Microsoft Outlook Express, Palm Pilot and priceline.com all hail from the Big Red. Cornellians continue to develop new businesses — an effort that may have become more popular since the recession began.

According to Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship at Cornell program Prof. John P. Jaquette, the recession brought with it cheap labor and a serious need for services to help keep companies afloat.

“If you can scrape by with enough money to start something, [the recession] presents a good opportunity,” said Keith Cowing M.B.A. ’10, who founded Seamless Receipts, a company that offers a platform for retailers to send digital receipts to customer. “I started this thing with 39 bucks to register the website.” The idea for Seamless Receipts was grounded by the need for physical stores to better compete with the online marketplace, Cowing said.

Seamless Receipts now offers a way for these stores to bridge the gap into the cyber world. Retailers can more easily reach out to customers by placing targeted promotions at the bottom of a receipt, which is sent electronically to the customer, and by keeping tabs on customer satisfaction through this online interaction. The beta version of the platform, which launched a few months ago, has received “hugely positive feedback,” Cowing said. “The tough economic times make it easier to proposition people. Everybody needs a little help,” he added.

The fuel for development came from Cornell where, Cowell said, brainpower and networks have aided him and other start-up thinkers. An information science class that builds programs for local companies created a demo for Cowell, which he used in a 60-second elevator pitch competition held on campus. The competition won Cowell $250,000, which he used to turn the student prototype into a professional software and to hire a full-time team.

Prof. Daniel Cohen, entrepreneur in residence at Cornell’s eLab, explained that fewer job opportunities tend to encourage start-up activity.

“Many students come to us with a business idea that they want to flush out as they interview for jobs with the intention of seriously focusing on their start-up if no job offers materialize,” Cohen said.

Cohen said that the start-up community at Cornell is vibrant and growing. eLab, a business accelerator for Cornell undergraduate entrepreneurs, started only two and a half years ago and already attracts fifty applicants each year for only ten available slots.

“We’ve now helped produce six companies that generate revenue,” said Cohen.

Wiggio.com, an online service that helps students work in groups, is one of them. Upwards of 550,000 users have signed up and the company raised more than $1 million in venture capital.

Alexander Veach M.Eng.’10 and partner Benjamin Roberts ’10 — who are working to launch Terran Exchange, an online marketplace and analytical platform for commercial software and software utilities — were also inspired by a market need.

“Where is the marketplace for small time developers to list their products, many of which are super innovative? It doesn’t exit,” Veach said. So he and Roberts have been working to create one, he said.

Veach explained that he was particularly encouraged by Prof. Donald Greenberg, who told him that their idea was viable because of the timing in the electronic technology S-curve, a curve which describes the adoption of an innovation and that restarts every few years.

“Greenberg told me that right now, we’re at the beginning of the electronic technology S-curve,” Veach said. He explained that the rate at which people adopt new tools in this arena is still climbing and that the saturation point is still far off.

Veach said that he and Roberts were able to capitalize on the Cornell community’s enthusiasm for innovative ideas. When they started to fall behind in a start up competition, they requested votes from the alumni network. The alumni helped them from about 400 votes to about 1700 votes, landing them in first place with the most votes garnered in the history of the competition.

“It’s amazing to see how fast you can mobilize your network,” Roberts said.

Prof. Jaquette said that because of Cornell’s isolated location, the start up culture is far less pervasive than is exhibited by other universities such as Stanford, which is located near Silicon Valley and San Francisco. It is growing, however, he said.

“This year’s introductory course to entrepreneurship has an enrollment of 460 students,” he said. “Students are going to be the sole proprietors of their own careers, and they know that … We seek to teach students how to develop a competitive advantage in their own space and how to understand their space in ‘the marketplace’ … the feedback has been remarkably positive.”

Students are also involved in social entrepreneurship ventures. Greg Cohn ’05 co-founded The DoBand Campaign, which he describes as “an action-oriented social network.” Users buy wristbands that are registered on the DoBand website. They then enter what goal they want to accomplish, and by what date. The wrist band serves as a reminder of this goal, and users are meant to wear the bands until they accomplish their decided actions, after which they enter the information on the website and pass the band to someone else.

“It’s a very pay-it-forward mentality,” Cohn said.

Original Author: Danielle Davis