Back to School, Back to Business

In publishing this inaugural 2008 StartupNation Dorm-Based 20 ranking, it occurred to us that some things don’t change.

You can bet that on college campuses across the country this month, there’s madness similar to what went on at the Delta Tau Chi fraternity in “Animal House,” complete with epic food fights and drinking insane amounts of booze.

But something else is happening in these first weeks of college, too. It’s not just a return to the books and the parties. It’s the return to business.

Students who once would have defaulted to getting a job at the college bookstores or local restaurants to make ends meet, are now starting up and running their own businesses as their preferred path. They’re taking the reins of business ownership well before they exit college instead of waiting to enter the business world after graduation.

Here at, we’ve seen this phenomenon brought to life as contestants for our recent “Dorm-Based 20” competition piled up. The ranking is a “watch list” of sorts, saluting select collegiate entrepreneurs across America for their achievements as well as their future prospects.

We chose winners that represent a cross section of these collegiate impresarios divided into three categories:

  • The “Huge Upside Potential” group, whose current businesses have meteoric growth potential
  • The “Clearly Very Talented” group, whose personal talent is at the core of the business opportunity they’ve created
  • The “Blocking and Tackling” group, whose capacity to tough it out with basic entrepreneurial grit, focus and business fundamentals bodes extremely well on their future as successful entrepreneurs.

One thing was clear across all three groups. The winners fully embrace technology. Remember, these are the people—the generation—who were first seen with those white cords leading from their ears to their pockets – the early adopters of iPods. These are the people who used MySpace before corporate America had its eyes set on it. These are the ones who know within milliseconds what every button on a smart phone actually does. Their brains function like search engines. Let’s just say they aren’t intimidated by technology like past generations. They are of it.

Just take Jon Wood, leading off our “Blocking and Tackling” group, who runs a dog-poop scooping business. You wouldn’t think of his business as one that utilizes technology, right? But alas, he designed his own Web site and conducts Internet marketing campaigns to drive business his way. The same goes with Jared Sherlock, a professional magician who led the “Clearly Very Talented” group. He places a huge emphasis on marketing himself online.

This command of technology—and the advantages afforded by it—are part of what’s made these students think like entrepreneurs. Gone are the days of huge expenses to set up shop or get the word out. All it takes is an Internet connection, a great idea, some tech savvy and a healthy dose of passion.

And if you thought age might be a stumbling block for these young entrepreneurs, think again. Many of the students who entered the StartupNation Dorm-Based 20 competition were already making money from various online endeavors when they were still in high school. Our “Huge Upside Potential” winner Andy Tabar, who is launching a social-networking Internet site, was already making money building Web sites as a teenager. Ilia Nossov, runner up in that category, heads up a marketing company while in college, but he also started as an entrepreneur well before matriculating.

Don’t confuse today’s bright-eyed collegiate entrepreneurs for the reckless dot-com types back in the late ‘90s. This generation came of age during the “dot-bomb” and saw tech companies raise millions of dollars only to come crashing down months later in failure. Add to that the financial stress that their families felt when the stock market tanked. The lessons were seared into the young bystanders, and they know to avoid over-hyping and mysterious revenue models.

Cool ideas alone are simply not good enough for the Dorm-Based 20 and many of their fellow competitors. It takes more than a hip-sounding Internet business concept to get investors to write checks. They understand the thinking behind a sound business plan and the need to follow through on a creative idea with hard work. They have positioned themselves to overcome obstacles those before them could not get past.

To further fuel their entrepreneurial spirit, this generation of college students also understands that there is no longer such a thing as job security. They saw the disasters that were Enron and WorldCom. And fraud aside, it’s impossible to avoid headlines nowadays announcing layoffs at major corporations. It’s pretty apparent that there is no more deferring to corporate America as a safe bet for life-long employment. This generation is more comfortable taking its future into its own hands.

While compiling our list of finalists, we made two other observations that surprised us.

First, in stark contrast to statistics positioning women as the fastest-growing segment starting businesses, only a handful submitted themselves to be considered for the Dorm-Based 20. What does this suggest? Does it reflect an issue of timing? Perhaps women are not starting up as young, and are instead going into business for themselves after they become frustrated with the male-dominated corporate workplace a decade past graduation. We say, co-eds, don’t wait!

A second surprise came in the form of the contestants’ senses of “responsibility.” In stark contrast to the “greed is good” mentality business people are sometimes associated with, the majority of entrants were adamant about their social responsibility as entrepreneurs. Every winner we talked to, without prompting, mentioned ways in which they would like to become involved in philanthropy and social venturing.

Magician Sherlock wants to start a foundation for aspiring magic practitioners. Web guru Tabar wants to build sites that help developing and third-world countries. Poop scooper Wood is interested in starting a pet-adoption service. Marketer Nossov would one day like to start a venture that would help third world communities connect to the Internet. And the social imperative was shared by many of the other finalists as well.

Naïve? Idealistic? Maybe. But these students are nearly as passionate about helping others without monetary gain as they are about growing profitable startups. Apparently, these young entrepreneurs understand how powerful it is to run a business and utilize the resources generated by business to address the ills confronting society.

Put it all together and you begin to realize that this generation of college students is positioned as phenomenal breeding ground of business success stories. They have the technology, skills, wisdom and sense of duty. Combine all that with the passion to live true to your dreams, and you’ve got this year’s Dorm-Based 20.

We hope you find inspiration in their stories and agree that you’re likely reading about tomorrow’s business icons.

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