As summer approaches, college seniors and graduate students alike are in a frenzy to firm up post-graduation plans. Most often, these include job offers, internships, further study, travel or returning home — but it’s becoming increasingly common for graduating students to pursue their own start-ups full-time, according to Dane Stangler, director of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation, an entrepreneurship research nonprofit based in Kansas City, Mo.
This entrepreneurial push could be a remnant of the recession, he said, when established companies laid off large numbers of young people who then felt compelled to start their own businesses, and now “just the very idea of entrepreneurship and start-ups has cachet.”
It could also be that new methods of financing, such as crowdfunding, allow entrepreneurs to raise capital from their dorm rooms, or because business plan competitions, entrepreneurship programs and accelerators are gaining steam on university campuses, he said.
Here’s what a few local students told us about why they decided to pursue their own start-ups after graduation:
Jordan Rich, 20
University of Maryland, College Park
Government and politics major, technology entrepreneurship minor
Start-up: Escapist, a DJ and entertainment business
When Jordan Rich arrived at the University of Maryland as a freshman, he thought he’d go into politics, “maybe get involved on the Hill,” and eventually attend law school.
But as a graduating senior, Rich has decided instead to work full-time on Escapist, the event entertainment business he’s been running since he was 12 years old. Rich and his business partner, who he met at a bar mitzvah, provide music, videography and party-planning services for about 55 events a year. Rates vary depending on the event — for a bar mitzvah, for instance, the base fee is about $2,000.
After his first year of college, Rich realized he preferred working on Escapist — finding new leads and working events — to the pre-law classes he was taking. “I wanted to grow my project. Every day we find new things to do and new ways to get more business.”
Rich also trains horses for equestrian competitions through his side business, Rich Dressage. He charges about $55 an hour for 45-minute riding sessions, and operates out of a barn in Boyds, Md. Between Rich Dressage and Escapist, Rich is sure he can support himself on his own income. So far, the business has been self-funded — when he was younger, Rich used to fund equipment costs by shoveling snow.
If the business falls through, he said, he plans to work in real estate, which he thinks might require some of the same networking skills as the entertainment business. “Our DJ business is mostly referral based, and from my understanding, the way real estate works at a residential level is referrals.”
He hasn’t ruled out law school.
“I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. I don’t know what the future holds, or where I’ll be in five years.”
Kevin Hubschmann, 21
Start-up: Ubicard, developing GPS tracking devices for locating wallets
Kevin Hubschmann’s start-up, Ubicard, began as a project during his sophomore year for an entrepreneurship fellowship through Georgetown. But after several months of working on it, he found, “it didn’t seem like work anymore,” and thought, “that’s what the real world should feel like.”
So he promised himself that, after graduation, he’d continue working on the start-up. Hubschmann and his chief technology officer — a sophomore at the University of Colorado at Boulder — are developing a credit-card sized tracking device for locating wallets and other personal items. They’re on their fourth prototype, and hope, once they launch, to charge users a $4- to $6-a-month service fee for using the locator.
Hubschmann is moving to New York after graduation for another internship at an event invitation company called Splash That, but has worked out an agreement with his supervisor to devote two days a week to developing Ubicard, building relationships with manufacturers and refining the product. He said he didn’t expect his supervisor to be so understanding.
“My goal was to bartend while working on our project,” he said.
So far, Ubicard has been funded using prize money from various pitch competitions, but the team will soon start looking for their first round of outside investment.
Jeff Stefanis, 22
Start-up: Riide, engineering electric bicycles
Jeff Stefanis always thought of himself as an entrepreneur. His admissions essay for Georgetown mentioned his interest in social entrepreneurship, which he hoped to pursue.
Four years later, Stefanis has found his niche at the intersection of entrepreneurship and energy efficiency. He spent time working for a solar energy consulting firm and then started his own solar energy ventures — most recently, he’s developing electric bicycles through his start-up, Riide. He plans to work on Riide full time once he graduates.
Stefanis started the company nine months ago, and is working on the prototype for a bike which can use either pedals or a battery-powered motor. Such bikes are popular in other parts the world, particularly in Europe, he said, but haven’t found a market here.
“D.C. is the perfect place to launch this type of product, because we have very frustrated commuters,” he said. “I’m all in. I haven’t interviewed for a single other job,” he said.
Though he said he sometimes felt pressure to pursue traditional job offers — during his junior year he found himself applying for finance jobs, though he wasn’t really interested. Stefanis said he thinks now is the best time to start his business.
“We don’t have a family we need to be worrying about; we can get by from couch to couch if we really need to.”
He’s also leveraging connections with other young entrepreneurs — Stefanis and Hubschmann are planning to eventually integrate GPS technology into Riide’s bikes, helping riders locate them.
Will Mannie, 22; Raleigh Fatoki, 21; Chinedu Okpala, 21
Start-up: Golden Eye Recruiting, an online platform allowing high school football players to showcase their talent for recruiters.
When they won $10,000 at a business plan competition in October for Golden Eye Recruiting, Will Mannie, Raleigh Fatoki and Chinedu Okpala thought they might be on to something.
A few months after the competition, the three have decided to take the plunge and pursue their start-up full-time after they graduate. Once it launches, their service aims to help high school football players build athletic profiles, easily viewable by college recruiters who buy access to the product.
“As an economics major, you learn that working for somebody else is not the best way to accumulate wealth,” Mannie said.
For at least one member of the team, pursuing the start-up full-time wasn’t part of his original career plan.
“I fully expected to go to medical school,” Fatoki said, but added, “I started putting more and more time into Golden Eye.”
Fatoki gained admission to the University of Illinois’ medical school in Chicago, but has deferred his start date for at least a year. “My parents are pretty upset with me, but they see the time I’m putting in and the drive.”
The team will start by building the platform out in D.C., which they estimate will take just a few months because they’ve already built contacts with high school athletic programs and coaches in the District. “This could happen anywhere, but it’ll happen much faster here,” Fatoki said.
Tim Richards, 26
American University’s Kogod School of Business, MBA student
Start-up: Reefcam, broadcasting video from coral reefs
After working for a year as an environmental scientist in the Everglades, Falls Church native Tim Richards realized “being a scientist wasn’t for me.”
So he came to the Kogod School to combine his passion for the environment with an interest in business — and two years later, as graduation approaches, he’s doing just that.
Richards and a handful of other Kogod students founded Reefcam, a start-up which broadcasts live, high-definition video feeds of coral reefs around the world. Once it launches publicly next month, any subscribing customer with an Internet connection will be able to access the feed, which can be projected on walls or screens in hotels or corporate lobbies as decoration, Richards said.
“We’re trying to put coral reefs in front of people who don’t think about them every day. Whether you care about the environment or not, it’s still a great view.”
Richards and his team have partners in Australia, the Caribbean, and Florida, who are responsible for setting up video cameras near the reefs.
Richards is the only member of his team who will work on Reefcam full-time after graduation, and he plans to stay in the D.C. area. “There’s so much here that lends itself useful — from the science world to nonprofits to media companies,” he said.