College Students Focus Start-Ups on Their Peers

Starting a business in college can offer many benefits and challenges.

Running a start-up in college may give students the opportunity to apply skills learned in the classroom to real-life situations.
By + More

Opinions are split regarding students interested in creating start-up companies: Should they go to college or bypass it for hands-on experience?

"Certain people are just ready to go into the real world and tackle all the problems that exist," notes Robert Reich, an entrepreneur and instructor at the University of Colorado's Boulder Digital Works. "And other people want to have an extra four, six, or eight years [in school]."

[Discover why some students favor start-ups over academics.]

For some students, launching a start-up in college gives them time to build and the opportunity to learn from mistakes, notes Jane Zhu, a recent graduate of New York University and cofounder of SleepBot.

"A start-up really is a leap of faith, and when you're a college student, that's your one advantage," Zhu says. "You can take a leap of faith before you get into the real world."

Here are four start-ups created and operated by college students.

1. SleepBot: For many students, sleep is one necessity sacrificed while in college. Motivated by a late-night conversation in 2009, NYU students Zhu and Edison Wang created SleepBot, an Android-powered app that enables people to track their sleep activity.

The application was never intended to be a start-up, notes Zhu. "We just wanted to learn something … and build that into a fun project."

Zhu, who graduated in December 2011, says that she thrived while balancing the demanding schedule of college and a start-up.

"Being in school helped drive me to work more because you have this feeling of always having to keep to your schedule," she notes. "If you invest all your free time into working on your start-up, you actually get a lot of stuff done."

2. Involvio: As a freshman at Drexel University in 2008, Ari Winkleman wanted to get involved. "If you're a college student and you show up on campus, one of the most important things you want to do is find out what's going on around you," says Winkleman, a graduating business major. But relying on campus bulletin boards, which may not always be current, and Facebook event invites, which a student may not receive, made it difficult.

Because of this issue, Winkleman founded Involvio, an event calendar app and website that integrates with Facebook and school calendars to find events based on a user's interests.

Since launching in 2011, the start-up boasts a user base of students from more than 100 campuses. While he acknowledges that running a start-up in college is difficult, Winkleman says the opportunities to leverage the business on campus have been greater than leaving school to focus on the business.

"For us, having direct access to our target users within literally feet of us has been invaluable," he says.

[Learn to code for free in college.]

3. Centsless: College students often have many interests but lack financial resources to pursue them, says Michael Haas, a rising senior at the University of Puget Sound and cofounder of Centsless.

To bridge the gap, Centsless allows college students to lend and borrow items from other students at no cost. Inspired by Burning Man, a festival held in the desert of Nevada where money is worthless and attendees share or barter items, Centsless works on a currency of "karma," where users gain virtual credits by lending items so they can borrow in the future.

The first version of the site will be available to Puget Sound students in August, but Haas says that having knowledge of the target market has made the development process smoother.

"When we [make an update] to the site, we know that if we'd love to use it, there's a good chance that other college students would love that as well."

4. Moneythink: A nonprofit organization founded by University of Chicago students, Moneythink trains college students to teach basic personal finance concepts to local students at urban high schools.

[See what start-ups offer to business students.]

Inspired by the economic recession, the founders discovered that the most affected areas were disadvantaged urban areas, notes Ted Gonder, a graduating geography major and executive director of Moneythink.