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Successful Businesses Founded in College Dorm Rooms

Successful Businesses Founded in College Dorm Rooms
Credit: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

Facebook's dorm room origins may be the most famous of college startup stories, but it's hardly the only one. To name a few, Microsoft, Yahoo, Insomnia Cookies and even The Onion can all be traced back to college.

Universities want to avoid the cliche of the 20-year-old dropout founder. Steve Jobs did it. Mark Zuckerberg did it. Bill Gates did it. But that doesn't mean all college-age entrepreneurs must. The share of incubator programs associated with universities has grown to a record high of 42 percent, according to the International Business Innovation Association's 2016 IMPACT Index.

Achieving long-term business success at a young age while juggling a full course load isn't easy. But with hard work and a lot of luck, you may catch a break like the entrepreneurs below.

In 2013, Johnny Fayad and Ali Kothari of Northeastern University got into the habit of running late for their 8 a.m. financial accounting class, leaving them with no time for breakfast and coffee. Their solution: a vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO snack bar packed with 80 milligrams of caffeine from real, fair trade, roasted coffee.

The Eat Your Coffee Bar was first created in a dorm room, sold around the library and officially launched on Kickstarter in late 2014. Since the launch, the 2017 graduates have gotten their product into more than 1,000 locations throughout the country and sold more than 1 million bars.

"Luckily, we had the product that helped us not sleep: caffeinated snack bars," Fayad said. "We were really stretched thin and it was definitely difficult, but it was all around priorities."

The two Northeastern graduates relied on many resources provided by the university. Both Fayad and Kothari participated in the university's co-op program, and each took a semester to focus on the business.

"Play the student card and ask for help," Fayad said. "We've had almost every aspect of our business touched and improved upon by someone else."

Founded by three students at Clemson University, Kanga LLC offers a convenient solution that's "kooler than a cooler" to keep your on-the-go beverages chilled.

"It's like a koozie for your case of beer," said Austin Maxwell, Kanga's head of marketing.

With a tailgate culture like Clemson's, it's easy to see why founder Logan LaMance wanted to provide his peers an alternative to the clunky coolers they dragged to Memorial Stadium every Saturday during football season.

"After a few beers, it hit us: If the case starts out cold, why not just keep it cold for the entire time you actually drink it in the most easy, portable and convenient way possible?" LaMance said. Kanga's patented Kase Mate weighs less than a pound and uses five layers of insulating fabrics to keep drinks cold for up to seven hours without ice.

"Kanga is a brand that revolves around fun," said Teddy Giard, head of content. But as fun-loving as the five young entrepreneurs are, they've sacrificed a traditional college experience for the betterment of the Kanga brand. "We've described it as working a 9-to-5 job, then a 5-to-12."

The Kase Mate generated $34,295 in less than two months after launching on Kickstarter in March.

"We are preparing for an incredible football season with collegiate licensing partnerships, forming strong relationships with retailers, and getting our foot in the door with major beer companies to bring the most fun and convenient beverage-cooling solution to as many people as possible," LaMance said.

After Ritwik Pavan had continuous trouble finding parking for his job in Chapel Hill, he decided to formulate VADE in December 2017. 

"Is there any application out there that can show me where to park?" he asked. He discovered the problem isn't locating parking lots, but finding available parking spots. According to his company's website, "VADE is a smart parking solution using a network of sensors to provide real-time parking availability and give cities new insight into driver behavior."

"Initially we were just looking to make an application for users, but then we realized that cities and governments are a much bigger client," Pavan said.

VADE uses beacon technology to provide big data to local and city governments on parking and traffic patterns, something typically only found through costly case studies. The team of five plans to raise $240,000 by mid-July and have one city up and operating by the end of the fiscal year. Several cities in North Carolina have already shown interest in the company's services.

But VADE isn't this UNC Chapel Hill student's first rodeo. Pavan has been working on startup companies for the past five years, beginning with an app that reached half a million downloads when he was a sophomore in high school. By May 2014, he had received so many inquiries from colleagues about help with app and web development that he created Linker Logic Technologies. In the last four years, the company has served more than 60 clients and grown to 42 to employees, eight of whom are students.

After Jamika Martin finished two rounds of Accutane and was still dealing with breakouts, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She developed ROSEN Skincare, an effective brand of plant-based products with a few ingredients.

"We started ROSEN because we were tired of the thoughtless formulas in acne care," the website says. "We were tired of choosing between safe ingredients and genuine results. We wanted cleaner options to treating acne."

Martin received her bachelor's in business economics from UCLA in just three years so she could pursue ROSEN full time.

"I think being at UCLA was a huge bonus for what I was doing," she said. "Not only was I able to take courses on entrepreneurship and connect with resources like Startup UCLA, but there are just so many creative and hardworking people around you."

After launching in January 2017, the company grew 225 percent within the first six months of generating revenue. ROSEN has even begun to develop customer loyalty, with 40 percent of its revenue coming from repeat customers.

"As a founder with a personal history and need for my product, seeing the joy and result people get from using ROSEN is the most rewarding component," Martin said.

Many entrepreneurs have proven that a college degree is not a prerequisite for running a successful business. At the same time, the opportunities of simply being a student can give a startup substantial leverage.

"The level of risk you have as a student is so little that you might as well start something if it is something you're truly passionate about," Fayad said.

Everything you do seems more impressive the younger you are. People are more willing to help students, so reach out to mentors, ask questions, and take advantage of competitions. On a college campus, there is a sort of cushion to explore ideas that isn't available anywhere else.

"You can fail and make no money and no one really cares," Martin said. "It's when you graduate and you're all on your own that the pressure is on."

With low stakes and minimal expectations, the spirit of entrepreneurship is flowing through undergraduate campuses. However, exploring bright ideas fueled by university grants and scholarships and connections is very different from independently running a sustainable business that will continue after you graduate. The founders of Eat Your Coffee, Kanga, VADE and ROSEN have encountered the necessary sacrifices firsthand.

Martin said prioritizing was easy for her because she was always excited to work on her business. But these young entrepreneurs all agreed you shouldn't explore your own student-led venture unless you're prepared to seriously prioritize.

When asked how he manages it all, Pavan said, "I don't really sleep that much."

Carlyann Edwards

Carlyann is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in Business Journalism with minors in sustainability and music at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and will graduate in 2020. She is incredibly interested by the intersection of business development and environmental preservation. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys working for non-profit organization Carolina Thrift, running and playing the ukulele. She can be reached by email or LinkedIn.