Georgetown seniors deciding the fate of their start-up after graduation


WASHINGTON, DC. NOV.19, 2012. Undergraduate Georgetown business students James Li and Mike Hauser in class making a presentation about their startup Encore in Washington, DC. 11/15/12.( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan) (Jeffrey MacMillan/JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST)

Georgetown University senior James Li has a tougher decision than most about what to do after graduation.

Many of his friends — especially other undergraduates at the McDonough School of Business — are going through a rigorous on-campus recruiting process with competitive multi-step interviews, often for high-paying finance or consulting jobs.

“If you don’t go through the process, maybe you’re being left behind,” he said.

But Li is already heading up a business venture of his own. A few weeks ago, he and fellow senior Mike Hauser launched Encore, an online app allowing non-profits to more effectively campaign for donations by sending out highly visual stories in newsletters from their volunteers and activities.

In the first few weeks of its launch, Encore was already voted “Hottest Start-Up in D.C.” during an event hosted by media company Tech Cocktail. Last week they purchased a booth at a large non-profit convention in San Francisco.

Though about 100 non-profits are already interested in signing up for Encore’s one-month free trial, the two co-founders are still deciding what the fate of their business will be after their graduation in May.

Their decision is an increasingly common one during today’s “renaissance of entre­pre­neur­ship” in which more students are starting businesses in college than they might have several years ago, McDonough’s Director of Entrepreneurial Studies Jeff Reid said.

College students can use university resources, financial aid and support from their parents to help them simultaneously run their businesses and study, Reid said. “But when you graduate and have to support yourself, it often does become decision time,” he said.

Despite the risks, Reid said he thinks more students are choosing to work on their start-ups than to take corporate offers, possibly because they no longer see the corporate path as significantly more risk-free than the start-up paths. “They’ve seen people a couple of years ahead get laid off from big company jobs,” Reid said.

Li’s co-founder Hauser has decided to pursue a career in finance. He had interned with Citigroup in New York the summer after his junior year, and has accepted its full-time job offer for an analyst position. He’ll move to New York and start working for the banking giant in July, though he plans to stay involved with Encore in an “advisory capacity,” he said.

Li isn’t quite so sure what he wants to do. He said he feels pressure from his parents, who want his career path to be more secure. “They’re supportive of me doing [Encore], but are concerned maybe I’ll end up one day with nothing to do,” he said.

To allay his parent’s fears — and to explore options his peers were pursuing — Li participated in Georgetown’s on campus recruiting process. He looked into “all the standard places” like McKinsey & Company and Accenture, he said. After going through several rounds of interviews, Li emerged with a place on Accenture’s waitlist for analyst positions.

Experience from Encore may have helped Li distinguish himself, he said. “It was definitely on my resume, and people were interested in asking about it. A lot of the interview process asks you about overcoming challenges, and there’s no better example of overcoming challenges as a team than the daily ups and downs of entrepreneurs.”

He’s not sure he will take the offer, even if he gets off the waitlist. As of now, he and Hauser spend “literally every minute” when they’re not in class working on Encore, he said. “It’s a matter of getting the work done in class as soon as you can so we can turn around and work on Encore. We’re definitely spending three to four, or four to five hours a day on it,” Li said.

Even if they wind up in different geographic locations, the two co-founders aren’t concerned about losing control of their venture. The young company already operates on a virtual basis; the team includes a chief technology officer at University of California at San Diego, and a business development intern at Wellesley College in Massachussetts. The company hopes to use the team’s dispersion to its advantage — connecting the business to non-profit organizations and potential clients in D.C., Boston, New York, and San Diego.

“Our plans are what an entrepreneur’s plans would be depending on what their venture was doing at the time. It could be at a place where it takes off, or it could be something we have a lot of struggles with through early next year that leads to further conversations,” Li said.

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Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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