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Young Entrepreneurs Put College on Hold

By Amy Guan and Radhika Jain, Crimson Staff Writers

Students who worry about balancing classes and trying to start a new company shouldn’t fret—they’re in good company. Bill Gates, arguably the University’s most famous drop out, used to fall asleep in his combanitorial applied math class because he had been up writing code all night.

But—technically—he is not a drop out.

Harvard’s leave policy—which allows students to return and complete their degree after an indefinite time of absence—is a boon for contemporary tech entrepreneurs following in Gates’ footsteps. For them, attending Harvard full-time while simultaneously building a company is an impossible balance.

John B. Collison, who would have been a sophomore in Winthrop House this year, officially went “on leave” last fall to work full time on his tech start-up, Stripe, a web company that allows businesses to charge money online—without the long processing delays of companies like PayPal.

Collison can no longer swipe into Harvard’s dorms or dining halls, but he does have access to Harvard’s libraries and can log into fas.harvard.edu.

“I think nobody ever actually drops out of Harvard,” Collison says. “It’s a very optimistic view.”

“Harvard is great because the cost of taking time off is extremely, extremely low,” Collison adds. “You just fill out a housing form.”

In a field that has volatile rates of success—according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, only six out of 1 million high-tech business ideas ultimately become companies that go public, and 60 percent of high-tech startups that get venture capital eventually go bankrupt—the decision to leave Harvard is unconventional.

And at a campus that has given birth to some of this generation’s most successful tech entrepreneurs it has become clear to those who hope to pursue their own start-ups that if they want to make their idea happen they probably have to go on leave.

While the College can provide prospective tech companies with great resources—experts in the field, business acumen, and access to a young, tech-savvy audience—it is also difficult to balance classes and a young company.

But it also represents a deal of courage to leave Harvard, according to Harry R. Lewis ’68, a computer science professor who taught both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg before they left Harvard.

“This field is extremely dynamic—the windows of opportunity are very narrow sometimes,” Lewis muses between stories about Gates falling asleep in CS 121 and an email exchange with Zuckerberg that introduced “Six Degrees to Harry Lewis,” the precursor to Facebook.

“They both had an idea, [and] they just saw an opportunity that they recognized ... was not going to be there in six months,” he adds. “The real question is whether they’re willing to risk failure on some kind of dream they have.”

DECIDING TO LEAVE SCHOOL

Working 80 hours per week on his start up, Meir Lakhovsky was quickly realizing that building his company while taking classes at the same time was simply not a workable option.

Lakhovsky left Harvard after the fall of his junior year to co-found a Cambridge-headquartered company that helps businesses acquire new customers.

“I was evaluating my options about maybe taking easier classes and trying to split my time, but I want to take classes that I enjoy and that are meaningful. Those tend to not be the easy ones, but I also wanted to focus on the project—but it just takes up a lot of time,” he says.

Greg D. Brockman currently works for Collison at Stripe, but just over a year ago he was a sophomore at Harvard planning to transfer to MIT.

“I really wanted to get more involved—to get as good as I could at the things I was interested in,” Brockman says. “Classes had started to feel like they weren’t fulfilling that role anymore ... I wanted to be surrounded by a group of computer scientists and do computer science all the time.

And the constraints of college life lets an idea go only so far. “You just don’t have enough time to turn something from a prototype into a real product,” Brockman says.

Collison says he thinks Harvard’s decision to let students take time off is a smart move, on that he thinks “diversifies the student body.”

Max D. Novendstern ’12, a Social Studies concentrator who has never taken a computer science class, took last semester off to develop his company, CommonPlace—“a centralized networking platform” which aims to rebuild community engagement across the country by encouraging people to share civic information. He considers tech startups a “promising mode of activism.”

“Technology is about making the world better ... It doesn’t matter if you win start up awards, doesn’t matter how technically sophisticated your coding is,” he says. “All that matters is: do you have users who are actively engaged?”

THE RISK

Harvard’s tech entrepreneurs are very cognizant of the risks they are taking by dropping out of school—and equally aware that their mentality is an unfamiliar one at Harvard.

“Basically a lot of Harvard students think that the key to success is not making any mistakes. The startup mentality is making as many mistakes as quickly as you can until you find the right answer,” Novendstern explains.

For Brockman, dropping out helped him realize the importance of taking a chance on his ideas.

“I guarantee that if you don’t execute—if you don’t try—it won’t go anywhere,” he says. “It’s very easy to not pursue something because you’re not sure about it, but I don’t think that’s the right strategy.”

But not everyone is as comfortable with his risk-taking.

“My mom still, every time I talk to her, will ask, ‘So when are you going back to MIT?’” he says. “A lot of my peers tried very hard to dissuade me.”

Lewis acknowledges the reasons why students are scared to drop out of school—citing the common perception that delaying graduation will obstruct “progress” toward a professional career—but also argues that there is not actually all that much to lose.

“I say to people, if you don’t go to graduate school immediately after you graduate ... what’s the worst that’s going to happen to you? You’re going to be exactly where you would have been later in life, but you’ll reach there at 50 instead of 48,” he says.

THE ADVANTAGES OF STAYING BACK

For those with dreams of launching a tech company, the life of a typical College student can feel not only humdrum but like a constraint on their aspirations. A midnight deadline for a response paper about a half-read copy of Jane Austen’s “Emma” is difficult to balance with seeking venture capital funding, double and triple checking code, and making sure that the servers haven’t crashed.

“To be here you have to hand in response papers about really tedious Victorian novels, but on the other hand your access to resources while you’re on campus expands,” Novendstern says.

But he does not discount the advantages of being on campus and says with conviction that he plans to graduate.

Still, he may very well take more time off from the University before he gets his diploma. CommonPlace, which met with “stunning success” at its full launch in Falls Church, Va., is a major time commitment, and if Novendstern can secure funding this summer, he will not be back at Harvard in the fall.

For Axel R. Hansen ’13 and Jonah L. Varon ’13—who recently created the social networking site Newsle—access to resources has been a key factor in their decision to stay in school despite the average time commitment of over 40 hours a week running and developing the site.

The pair frequent faculty office hours with departments ranging from computer science to business because securing venture capital has been a difficult task, according to Hansen.

Server bills—which cost around $1000 a month—have driven the need to find investors, he says.

“To make something like this work you really have to be invested at all costs,” says Varon.

The ability to say they are students has also given them significant advantages in raising venture capital.

“Most investors aren’t into making an investment if you’re dropping out of school immediately,” says Hansen. The two have raised over $50,000 in investor capital to date.

THE STARTUP CULTURE

While Facebook and Microsoft both have their roots in Cambridge, the Silicon Valley in Calif. has long been considered the center of tech startups in the US. But young entrepreneurs at Harvard say that a startup culture has emerged and begun to blossom at Harvard.

“There’s this real emerging tech community here at Harvard—it’s pretty heartening to see. The institutional support for startups has rapidly expanded,” Novendstern says.

Competitions like I3: Harvard College Innovation Challenge and classes such as Engineering Sciences 20: “How to Create Things and Have Them Matter” drive innovation and collaboration at the College, according to Melissa C. Oppenheim ’12, one of last year’s I3 winners.

Novendstern says he thinks Harvard takes that startup culture one step further by encouraging students who are not traditional “techies.”

“[In] Palo Alto you’re around a bunch of people who are writing code. Here you’re around people who are studying the problems,” he says.

— Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Amy Guan can be reached at guan@fas.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections.

CORRECTION: APRIL 8, 2011

The April 8 "Young Entrepreneurs Put College on Hold" stated that Bill Gates had been writing code in Maxwell Dworkin during his time at the College. That building, however, was opened after he left the school. The article also misstated the year in which Melissa Oppenheim won the I3 competition. It was not this but last year. Additionally, Bill Gates did not fall asleep in Computer Science 121 but in a combinatorial applied math class.

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