This Man's Bright Idea Is Tapping Into Others' Notions
At 25, Anand Chhatpar is already a battle-tested start-up veteran. Like many young entrepreneurs, the University of Wisconsin alum is full of good ideas he can't wait to test out. His latest venture, BrainReactions, taps into that vein by using student minds to help companies come up with new concepts.
"Students have the benefit of not knowing what's impossible yet," says Dan Olszewski, director of the university's Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship. That makes them more likely to take the plunge on their ideas. Inspired by the rise of companies like Google and YouTube, more students are trying to become the next Bill Gates, he says. While most such ventures don't make it past the concept stage, more than half of the companies shepherded by the Weinert Center are still up and running after three years.
BrainReactions is a few months shy of that anniversary. Chhatpar came up with the idea of having students brainstorm for companies while a summer intern at Pitney Bowes in 2002 and 2003. He saw that the best ideas came from "interns who had fresh perspectives."
Sugar high. BrainReactions trains 18-to-28-year-olds in Madison, Wis. First, they do a few sessions for pro bono clients. Then a select group of brainstormers advances to paid work-seven to 10 people plus an artist and some toys for a three-hour brainstorming session fueled by sugary snacks.
BrainReactions' first paying customer was Bank of America. Clients, which also have included Intuit, pay the company $20,000 per session, typically to help them target younger consumers. Each session generates at least 500 ideas. At the end, clients are referred to a password-protected website, where all the ideas are listed and the most promising ones are analyzed.
Entrepreneurship wasn't a new idea to either Chhatpar or Chief Operating Officer Darin Eich, who is finishing a Ph.D. in educational leadership. Chhatpar's family had started several businesses in his native Bombay, and at 17 he started a software development company there before moving to Madison for college. Eich, 31, founded a motivational speaking company during his senior year of college.
Founding serial start-ups is common among entrepreneurs, says Gregg Fairbrothers, founding director of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network. "It's like, stop me before I start another company," he says. "You can't hold them back." Students can learn from their mistakes. And when they come up with a "killer idea," Fairbrothers says, "they will know what to do with it."
Chhatpar knew to keep costs low by hiring students on contract starting at $20 an hour and relying on free technology such as online phone services. As a result, he says, the company turned a profit from the start. Still, says Fairbrothers, BrainReactions faces challenges. Plenty of companies are already in the brainstorming business. And students elsewhere could copy the BrainReactions model.
Amil Husain credits BrainReactions with developing hundreds of interesting ideas during a pro bono session for the United Nations Millennium Campaign to fight global poverty. Still, not one has been used, says Husain, the group's global youth coordinator, in part because the brainstormers were American kids and many of their ideas wouldn't work abroad. "If I did use them again, I would target the question with a U.S. college-age focus," he says.
Chhatpar keeps trying new initiatives, like a six-day innovation workshop in November for which executives paid up to $9,000. "I focus a lot more on action than rigorous planning," the young entrepreneur says. "It's a 'try first, adjust it later' methodology."
This story appears in the January 22, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.