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Fund lets students follow entrepreneurial dreams

Think about Facebook, Dell, Yahoo, Google - all businesses started by college kids in their dorm rooms, or in their garages.

(L-R) Dan Shipper, Patrick Leahy and Justin Meltzer, all 21, at the former Urban Outfitters on Locust Street November 27, 2012. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )
(L-R) Dan Shipper, Patrick Leahy and Justin Meltzer, all 21, at the former Urban Outfitters on Locust Street November 27, 2012. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )Read more

Think about Facebook, Dell, Yahoo, Google - all businesses started by college kids in their dorm rooms, or in their garages.

Or the equivalent - such as the West Philly apartment where three University of Pennsylvania entrepreneurs spent last summer holed up in burrito-fueled marathon programming sessions to create Firefly, an online customer-service company.

So far Firefly, however bright the idea, is a long flight from Google, but on Tuesday, it received its first round of venture capital backing: a $20,000 grant from the Dorm Room Fund, a $500,000 venture capital fund.

What makes the Dorm Room Fund different from other VC funds is that the people making the decisions about who gets the money aren't seasoned investors, experts in nurturing start-ups. Instead, they are Penn and Drexel students.

"We have an advantage as students, because we know our peers and we live with them and around them," said Talia Goldberg, a Penn senior and part of an 11-member Dorm Room Fund board.

The committee meets Mondays at the West Philadelphia offices of First Round Capital, a venture capital company cofounded by Josh Kopelman.

Kopelman was a sophomore at Penn in 1992 when he started Infonautics, an early for-profit version of Wikipedia, readying it for the stock market four years later.

In 1999, Kopelman founded, an online seller of used books and movies that he sold to eBay for $350 million one year later.

He started First Round Capital in 2004 to provide early-stage investment in new ventures - the $500,000 Dorm Room Fund is one of them, essentially a larger venture capital fund investing in a much smaller venture capital fund.

One of Kopelman's partners, Phineas Barnes, has been shepherding the student VC funders.

"The Dorm Room Fund is for the modern-day garage, where these great ideas are fomenting," Barnes said.

Some of the VC student funders have started their own businesses. Most are business majors, in finance, marketing, or management. One is Batman-obsessed, several are runners, one plays ice hockey, and another likes to bake. There's even an admitted tree-hugger.

Goldberg worked for two start-ups and has a post-graduation job lined up with a large venture capital firm in New York.

Barnes disagrees with the idea that students should drop out of college to focus their attention on entrepreneurship.

The founders of Facebook and Google all started their businesses in college, while at least some of them had key VC backing - room-and-board payment from their parents.

At least they didn't starve.

"People didn't drop out and start these companies," he said. "It was only when it became clear that they were going to have success that they had to focus on their businesses."

College students are in a "place where they can take a massive risk," he said, "whether it's creating art, or an original piece of research in biomedicine, or new business models and products or services that can change the world."

First Round Capital, he said, typically invests in 20 companies a year, with the average investment at $500,000 - the same amount it is putting into the Dorm Room Fund.

The Dorm Room Fund will make investments of $10,000 to $20,000 to about 12 to 25 companies a year over two years. The thinking is that by getting close to the young entrepreneurs, the Dorm Room Fund - and First Round - have a shot at grabbing the next Facebook.

Students have great business ideas, Barnes said, but little data to validate them. The Dorm Room grants give them a chance to market-test their concepts - the better to attract the next funding round, known as seed-funding.

If the businesses attract seed funding, the Dorm Room Fund will become a partial owner in the business - with its share based on the total in the next round of funding.

So, for example, if Firefly grows enough to attract $100,000 in seed financing, the Dorm Room Fund's $20,000 investment gives it a 20 percent stake in the company, Goldberg said.

Firefly helps a business' customers navigate business websites. Sometimes people call 1-800 numbers when websites are confusing, or they'll abandon a transaction in midstream.

With Firefly technology, a company's customers can get help. When they call customer service, they can click on a link, allowing the service rep to see what's on the customer's computer screen. The representative cannot control the customer's computer, but can highlight the places where the customer should look.

Firefly's partners are seniors Patrick Leahy, 21, from Seattle, and Justin Meltzer, 21, from New York - both Wharton students. The third partner is Daniel Shipper, 21, of Princeton, a junior and a philosophy major.

Shipper, 21, started programming when he was 10, after his father bought him a computer and a book on programming. His first idea was to build Megasoft to compete with Microsoft. Leahy also started programming at age 10. Meltzer got a late start, waiting until ninth grade before programming in Java, an advanced computer language.

"Programming is the only way you can build a scalable business at the age of 10," Shipper said.

True, Barnes said, the tech world and programming make it easy and inexpensive to get into business - but there comes a time when money is needed to move it behind burrito marathons in West Philadelphia.

In Firefly's case, customer-acquisition testing is the next step.

"We like Firefly," Barnes said. A similar company was purchased for $70 million "that does something similar, but does not do it as well."

Shipper is happy that he and his partners got this first round of financing. "For us, it's exciting," he said. "It means that people believe in us."