Harvard Dropouts Pursue Startups

Every Harvard student who founds a start-up does not become the next billionaire under 30.

Instead, they are faced with a new set of obstacles, such as finding funding and developing management skills. And upon leaving, these former students must also find housing and often form an entirely new social circle.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports a 97.4 percent six-year graduation rate from Harvard, which translates to more than 40 students per entering class not receiving a diploma in that time.

According to Jeff Neal, a spokesperson for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, 682 students are currently on leave from the College, including students who left as long ago as the 1970s.

Those who start a business in the middle of their time at Harvard are certainly taking the road less traveled.

A TIME FOR EVERYTHING

“In the beginning, there were a lot questions and uncertainties,” said John V. Capodilupo, a former member of the class of 2014.

In his sophomore spring, Capodilupo began wondering whether a computer science concentration was right for him.

But when an offer came to work on Bobo Analytics, Inc., a company that designs a wristband that continuously collects heart-rate data and aims to replace the classic chest strap heart monitor, Capodilupo took the summer position.

For Capodilupo, an offer from a start-up seemed like the best way to find his calling.

Anand S. Gupta, however, had already found a project he cared about several months before taking his leave and tried to balance a full course load for the semester prior to leaving.

“At the end of my sophomore year, the amount of homework I was getting done proportional to the amount of project work I was getting done, that ratio was very much skewed in one way [towards the project],” said Gupta, a former member of the class of 2014.

“If you’re going to be at Harvard... don’t screw around.” Gupta said.

Splitting his time between Cambridge and Boston, Gupta is currently developing software to aid pathologists searching through digitized images of cancer-affected tissue.

Similarly, Merrill H. Lutsky and Erik C. Schluntz, both former members of the class of 2015, found themselves without enough hours to work on a project they co-founded.

“I had to take a midterm for my psych course, and then I literally had to leave that, get in a taxi, and leave for the airport to fly out for the interview.” said Lutsky, referring to an interview with Y Combinator, a selective for-profit start-up incubator that provides start-up founders with seed money and mentorship.

Lutsky and Schluntz were accepted into the 2013 YC “winter class” for their start-up, Posmetrics. Originally inspired by their Computer Science 50 final project, Posmetrics provides a mobile application for giving real time feedback of hotels and restaurants. According to its website, the app could increase feedback rates over 100-fold compared to current survey methods.

A DAY IN THE LIFE

“Working on a start up company sort of consumes your entire life. I find myself constantly thinking about how we could be growing faster than we are,” Lutsky said. “If you can’t really sustain that high pace of innovation and progress and growth within your company all the way from day one to [initial public offer], you’re likely to be outrun by competition.”

Lutsky said founders of a start-up need to be adaptable and capable of covering all the bases while their start-up is in its initial stage before developing their team.

Coming from technical backgrounds, Lutsky and Schluntz had to reinvent themselves as “sales guys.”

“Having to train ourselves to fulfill that role was one of the more interesting personal challenges of starting a company,” Lutsky said.

“You think your college life is kind of a roller coaster. Like, ‘Oh, this week I’ve got psets, like I’ve got three psets due tomorrow and two midterms to turn in the morning after,” Gupta said, moving his finger up and down in front of his face. “For [a start-up], the roller coaster highs and lows are much bigger.”

Besides running a business, leaving Harvard means having to start a life on your own, which comes with all the difficulties that some would gloss over.

“Housing is a pain in the ass and ridiculously hard to find,” said Ben M. Yu, a former member of the Class of 2014. “I lived in a garage for a good while. A bunch of the [Thiel] fellows had this awesome ‘mansion.’... They needed someone to take a temporary lease on it until the end of April.... They had two rooms available, one of them was a garage and the other was the pool house.”

Because the pool house was 8 feet long, Yu opted for the garage, where he found new value in heated blankets.

Yu became a Thiel Fellow in 2011, leaving Harvard after his freshman fall semester. He initially planned to work on Pricemash, a tool designed to compare prices for online items fitted with the ability to consider online deals from outside providers, such as Groupon.

But when Pricemash failed, Yu started work on Sprayable Energy, a topical caffeine spray, which delivers a more even energized feeling when compared to the energy spike from caffeinated drinks. Launch has been delayed for some time because of the health requirements that Sprayable Energy has to meet.

THE “TROUGH OF SORROW”

“It’s extremely difficult to work on something by yourself,” Yu said. “Inevitably, every start-up goes through a ‘trough of sorrow’ and everything is going to shit and everything looks like it’ll never succeed.”

Yu learned from his experience at Pricemash that he was not cut-out for a management position and belonged closer to the technical side of a business. He believes his decision to manage his company was a hasty one.

“I misconstrued that as, ‘I need to work with what I have,’ rather than ‘I need to build the skills that I want to have,’” Yu said.

Lutsky remembers the difficulties he and Schluntz had getting off the ground upon moving to California.

“It was pretty much me and my co-founder running around San Francisco all day going to various hotels and businesses, getting kicked out of various hotels and businesses,” Lutsky said. “Going from sort of a Harvard lifestyle to the depths of being kicked out of hotels was an abrupt transition. There were very hectic days of not much sleep, getting phones hung up on us [while] talking to more professional clients.”

REGRETS?

“I’m trying to think of some juicy ugly stories...but I can’t think of anything. I’ve had a wonderful time so far,” said Connor N. Zwick, a former member of the class of 2015.

Zwick left Harvard after his freshman year to work on his “coco controller” after becoming a Thiel Fellow. The slide-on “coco” cell phone case features an analog stick and tactile buttons, which allow users to play games on their phones the same way they would play on hand-held consoles.

Zwick and co-founder Colton T. Gyulay, another former member of the class of 2015, put up their Kickstarter website to crowdsource funds for their company in August 2012. They took the page down after less than three days when they decided to redesign the case to accommodate the iPhone 5, and consequently raised over $26,000 in the process. They plan to relaunch sometime this year.

Like Zwick, other former students had similarly positive comments regarding their choices to take leaves of absence.

“The greater danger at the time was in not leaving, the regret we would’ve had had somebody else pursued this kind of thing and been successful in the space [while] the two of us had been sitting around in class,” Lutsky said. “Even if everything were to fall apart tomorrow, I still think I would have made the same decision.”

“I actually don’t regret it at all. And I think I would have regretted it if—well, one, if the business failed—but more importantly if we were away from Boston,” Capodilupo said. “The biggest drawback I experienced was just being away from all the relationships I’d built,...not having that daily interaction of going to a party Friday night with everybody. It’s a dramatic difference that I didn’t think was going to be as stark.”

Yu echoed similar sentiment.

“Do I regret taking my leave? No, not at all,” Yu said. “The only downside is that I’m still technically a freshman.”

IN THE SHADOW OF “THE SOCIAL NETWORK”

After the 2010 film was released and since the Thiel Fellowship has gained so much publicity, dropping out of college to make millions of dollars almost seems trendy.

Beyond putting budding entrepreneurs in the public eye, however, the “dropout fad” has also changed the tone within the start-up sphere.

“I think obviously that there’s a danger in overly romanticizing this kind of lifestyle,” Lutsky said. “The reality is that it’s very difficult work. If you come out here to work on a company...that is pretty much all me and my co-founder do.”

As college students see an increasing number of their peers leave academia to start businesses, the reality of the situation is often warped.

A March article in “The Atlantic” mentions research on Chicago Public School students, saying that students often do not apply to selective colleges because of the misconceptions they have about opportunities outside of higher education.

“I think this was not the best time to start because it’s marked with a lot of idealism, and not so much realistic, pragmatic expectations,” Yu said, reflecting on his entrance into entrepreneurship.

“DROPOUT”

“It’s not like I’m dropping out forever,” Zwick said with an emphasis on “forever.” “It’s more like I’m taking a few gap years.”

Each of the former students mentioned stated that Harvard’s policy on leaves of absence is generous. The policy allows any student to take a five-year leave once they’ve been enrolled at the college for a semester. None of them ruled out the possibility of returning completely.

“I talked to a lot of entrepreneurs from other universities in Boston where you can’t take more than a term of light course load or else you have to decide to permanently leave,” Lutsky said.

And, of course, the term “dropout” often comes with a stigma that many would choose to steer away from.

“I don’t like the word ‘dropout’ because I didn’t drop out,” Capodilupo said. “It’s got a lot of funny connotations to it. Some people are like, ‘You’re too good for school?’ and other people get angry when you say it, like, ‘Oh, how could you possibly drop out of Harvard?’”

Gupta also avoided the term ‘dropout.’

“In the grand scheme of things I will be back in academia,” he said. “Whether it’s now or 10 years from now, it will happen.”

—Staff Writer Manny I. Fox Morone can be reached at mmorone@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @mannyfoxmorone.

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