Enterprising minds

Jan. 12, 2010, 11:10 p.m.

With a multitude of successful Stanford student startups — from Google to Sun Microsystems — innovation and entrepreneurship are central components to the University’s identity. Three current undergraduates discuss the companies that they have started and their respective roads to success.

Tom Currier

“I have a list of some of the failed concepts,” Tom Currier ‘13 said. “Here, let me pull this up.”

Currier got out his MacBook and opened a document that described some of his projects that never quite made it. When he spoke of them, it wasn’t with any kind of defeat, but with detectable humor.

Dressed in a hoodie and jeans, Currier is just like any other Stanford student — except that he has founded three successful companies and is working on more.

When Currier was nine years old, he started his first business, Scanboy, which produced wedding, graduation and birthday DVDs with people’s photos.

“I built this scanner that can scan 1400 pictures an hour,” he said. “It just kept growing. At the time it was a pretty novel concept.”

However, most of his attempts didn’t work. Currier used his profits from Scanboy to fund a range of ideas, inventions and companies that failed, from a seat-cushion called “Seat roll-ups” to a company, Global Gateways, which attempted to create the new “.com.”

“I think the problem was, especially when I was younger, that I had too many ideas,” he said. “I couldn’t focus on one. I would work on one for a little bit and then a new idea would come along.”

Some of his projects were simply not pushed at the right time. For example, Currier started a text-messaging coupon service when he was eleven.

“Those [coupon services] are becoming popular now,” he said. “You can get text message coupons on your iPhone. But at the time, no one was really texting.”

Currier defines his most successful venture as MNSEP, Minnesota Student Energy Project. The non-profit he co-founded seeks to install solar panels in high schools and promote education on green-energy in areas with low environmental awareness.

The organization has grown to 330 students and has raised over $142,000 since its conception a year and a half ago.

“We put up solar panels on my high school, Mayo High School,” he said. “We are going to install them on two new high schools this next week.”

Although Currier identifies himself as an entrepreneur, he is far more concerned with being an inventor. Currently, he is working on a new project at Stanford to solve the global energy crisis, which he sees as being inextricably linked to solving hunger.

“This device that I’m trying to invent would reduce the cost of solar power to the point where it is actually cheaper than coal,” he said. “I’m trying to work on that.”

Ben Cunningham

When Ben Cunningham ‘10 reflected on his childhood, a definitive statement came to mind: “I was a total math nerd.”

Cunningham, a key player in the Stanford start-up Terriblyclever, which was recently acquired by Blackboard, was always drawn toward puzzles as a kid. However, his first introduction to programming was a TI-83 Plus graphing calculator.

“You might do really simple stuff like a guessing game,” he said. “You’re given a range between one and 1,000. You give it a number and it tells you if you’re higher or lower. You just keep guessing and eventually your math class is over.”

He first learned C++ at a summer camp program at Florida State University.

“I started looking at programming as a way to make my mathematical knowledge and background really come to life on a computer screen,” he explained. “And it was really enabling and empowering to be able to watch that happen by typing words.”

When Cunningham came to study at Stanford, he was amazed by the offerings of the computer science department and focused on learning as much within the department as possible.

Freshman year, Cunningham was dorm-mates with Kayvon Beykpour ‘10 and Pablo Jablonski ‘10, who would later invite him to join Terriblyclever.

“Looking back, I remember I walked into Kayvon’s room and said, ‘Kayvon, can you tell me how the Internet works? How a Web site works?’” he said. “And so he gave me this really basic lesson in HP.”

After working for Terriblyclever during his sophomore year and the following summer, Cunningham was invited to own a stake in the company.

“That was really a turning point where I was like, this is no longer my job,” he said. “I was more like, this is what I’m doing.”

Terriblyclever took off at the beginning of Cunningham’s junior year when the startup won an AT&T mobile applications and education contest for developing iStanford.

The team was flown to a lavish venue in Orlando where the members were praised by top executives in AT&T. Cunningham remembers feeling the conflict between being a student and a businessman.

“We were in Orlando and I had a midterm I needed to take,” he said. “The teacher faxes it to me and I’m at this presentation and I’m taking the midterm, thinking, ‘What am I doing right now?’”

The Terriblyclever team got to a point at which it needed to define its priority.

“We realized the magnitude of the opportunity and we realized that we couldn’t worry about school,” he said. “It was then that we sort of lifted up school with weak arms and sort of put it on the back burner.”

Although prioritizing seemed to make things easier, junior year for Cunningham meant being a full-time employee in the San Francisco office and simultaneously being a full-time student.

“There was never one point at which it was easy,” he said. “Coming back home and staying up until 2 after a full day of work to finish a problem set — that’s never going to be easy.”

The team managed by going through it together, taking the same classes and working on a common senior project, an analytics platform for the iPhone.

“It’s probably something about Stanford students that we thought it was really fun and really cool at the same time, to be using that much of ourselves, to be really pushing that upper limit of what we previously thought we could do,” he said.

For the purpose of maintaining personal sanity, Cunningham has scaled back on his work hours this year and is enjoying being involved in the Stanford campus.

“You don’t really notice how much being on campus connects you to what’s going on at Stanford,” he said. “Now this year, I’m going to class and you realize how many people you see. I had made a lot of great friends here and I want to respect that.”

Cunningham’s long-term dream is to create a unified audio-visual sensory experience.

“I’m really into music and I’m really into computer graphics,” he said. “One of the coolest things I ever thought you could do was make a visualizer for music — really beautiful, psychedelic rainbow representations of the sound that you hear.”

Cunningham used his check from the Blackboard acquisition of Terriblyclever to buy a RGB 5 Watt laser projector for the project.

“It’s government regulated,” he explained. “I can’t turn it on outside without alerting the FAA because it can blind pilots. And I had to get a special license just to be able to buy it.”

He is working with a friend, Charlie Forkish ‘09, to create a system that merges light and sound in live performances. They are working to merge numerical aspects of music such as beats and pitch with visual parameters like texture, color, size, speed and pulse.

“In terms of my life goal, I really want to capture that connection between light and sound and bring it to as many people as possible,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham describes what it means to be an entrepreneur.

“It’s a person who knows they can do it, that will do it,” he said. “You’re going to hit a bunch of brick walls, but you need to use them as something that makes you prove just how much you want to do it.”

Jonathan Manzi

“It’s like piloting a helicopter 100 miles above ground and then 8 miles above ground and being able to zoom in and out,” said Jonathan Manzi ‘13, discussing the meaning of innovation. “You need different vision.”

Manzi, who is taking his Winter 2010 quarter off to run his company from Boston, describes his first company, V-bux, as the definition of a pioneering company. He explains that his company is an ethical incentivized marketing solution which restructured the way in which Web-advertising companies use pop-ups and free prize offers.

“I rearranged the structure so that people actually get their free prizes,” he said. “It’s a positive, viral cycle. You only have to sign up for one offer and then refer a friend. It’s much easier for the user, but also easier for the advertiser.”

Manzi faced a significant obstacle when his V-bux user database was hacked and external companies spammed users’ e-mail addresses.

“Any time there’s an obstacle I try to exploit it for beneficial outcomes,” he said. “I was struggling with whether or not I should keep the system going.”

Instead of giving up, Manzi apologized to users by offering monetary gifts and re-structured the system. His changes met immediate results.

“We got three big contracts and saw a huge increase in five days,” he explained.

Revenue for V-bux in 2008 exceeded $3.2 million.

After V-bux, Manzi launched his second company, a cost-per advertising network, Vintacore. Outside companies pay a pre-determined rate to Vintacore for each new customer it receives.

“People ask me, ‘Are you motivated by profit?’” he commented. “If I were profit driven, a cost analyst would have told me not to do it.”

Launching two companies means Manzi has anything but a normal lifestyle.

“When I started my company I probably got two to four hours of sleep for three months,” he said. “No one believes me, but I did it.”

Manzi also recalls taking business calls during the school day in the restroom.

“I remember one instance when I was on the phone with an executive from a publically traded company and I’m sure she could hear toilets flushing in the background,” he said.

He recalls playing games with himself to make the most creative use of his time.

“I would exercise by purposely picking a bank that was 2 miles away and I’d run there with my check in a folder,” he said. “I would also go to hockey games and write up legal reports; it became a power play for me to maximize time.”

Manzi perceives two distinct branches of entrepreneurs: fundamental and opportunistic.

“There are opportunistic entrepreneurs, which is the individual or group that looks at stats and hard data and uses a business model to discern the market,” he said.

This would be an individual, for example, who sees a demonstrated need in the market and seeks to meet it through opening a previously structured franchise.

“Then there is the fundamental entrepreneur — the conceptual, philosophical, coming up with something new,” he said. “These are the people who launch Facebook or Google, which the opportunistic entrepreneur uses.”

Manzi sees himself on the side of the fundamental.

Although Manzi is taking a leave of absence to run his Boston-based company, he noted that he could feel the pulse of Silicon Valley in the energy of the Stanford campus.

“New things popped into my head while I was at Stanford,” he said. “It helped with stimulation and with thinking and acquiring visionary thinking. So many different thinking patterns converge there — I think I’ll be back there soon.”

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