Link up start-up

Feb. 3, 2011, 3:00 a.m.

“This chair has nostalgic value,” Alexander Atallah ’14 said, nestling himself on a nondescript canvas chair in an equally nondescript freshman dorm room. “It’s where we came up with our business plan.”

Link up start-up
Alexander Atallah '14 (left) and Bryant Tan '14 (right) browse their social media creation Dormlink, which has thus far been released to two all-frosh dorms. (Courtesy of Bryant Tan)

Atallah and Bryant Tan ’14 fit the Stanford student template to a T. Intelligent and entrepreneurial, the two bonded over a mutual love for Physics 61, eventually partnering up to create a social networking website for dorms.

The site, Dormlink, allows students to connect with others within their dorm or house on campus. Its features include the Corkboard, where students can post messages and pictures, the Stuff page, where students can catalog items that they are willing to lend or sell, and the Classes page, where students can find others in the dorm taking the same classes.

Students can also integrate Google calendars on the site, like and unlike posts, sort content by popularity, create “profile pages” for their rooms and create projects of their own that others can collaborate on.

The idea for the cross between Facebook, Craigslist, Google Docs, Courserank and dorm mailing lists came from a casual comment in Atallah’s dorm.

“Someone said we should make a Dormbook, a Facebook just for dorms,” Atallah said. He then approached Tan, who he had met while working on Stanford’s Solar Car Project.

Tan, an international student from London who also photographs for The Daily, had worked for a small software company called Firefly in the UK. The company worked on content management systems, sites where users can create content and control what they see without needing technical knowledge.

“He told me about Firefly, and because the idea for Dormbook was essentially to make a content management system, I was like ‘Oh that’s convenient!’” Atallah said.

They later realized that Facebook could sue them for the name “Dormbook” if they were ever to make profits and instead decided on “Dormlink.” So far, the website has only been released to two all-frosh dorms in Wilbur Hall, Cedro and Otero. But despite its limited release, the site has experienced early popularity.

“In the first 24 hours we had about 2,000 hits,” Tan said. “Now we have 113 users.”

While they have ambitions to expand across the Stanford campus, to other colleges and eventually even overseas, their current plan is to release the website to more dorms slowly, through live demos in dorm meetings.

Atallah, The Daily’s Web editor, found his passion for programming after taking on a challenge to design a website for a children’s museum in his hometown in Colorado. He had wanted to go to debate camp but didn’t have the cash, so instead, decided to design the site.

He went on to create applications and programs to “help out companies” that he liked. An internship at a firm in Washington, D.C. last summer also led Atallah to build a map application that showed all the businesses in the U.S. importing goods under a trading preference program. The same application was later used in lobbying the Senate Finance Commission.

“The amazing thing about CS is that you can create cool tools that help others at no cost to you, except time,” he said.

Indeed, the only cost Atallah and Tan have incurred so far is printing. Even Atallah’s laptop, which hosts the website, is held open by a granola bar to prevent it from falling asleep.

“There are programs that prevent Macs from falling asleep,” Atallah clarified.

“But the granola bar is better,” Tan said, citing its cost-effectiveness in comparison to purchased software.

Like Atallah, Tan has extensive programming experience–he began programming at age 13.

“I found tutorials online and found code examples and kind of worked it out,” he explained.

“We can pretty much put on our business plan that Bryant [Tan] can code and do physics faster than any of your people can,” Atallah joked, likening Tan to Facebook’s creator, Mark Zuckerberg–“but faster.”

Tan first started creating “dynamic websites” when a friend asked him to make a site related to football.

“But by football I mean soccer, not egghand,” he laughed, poking his British humor at American football. “Or handegg, rather.”

The pair balances each other out well. Atallah comes from a strong debate and youth-in-government background and is considering a degree in economics, physics, computer science or symbolic systems. Tan, who completed A-Levels–similar to Advanced Placement courses in the U.S.–in the UK and was the top scorer in the country in Physics, did not take a single humanities course in his last two years of high school. He is considering electrical engineering and computer science.

“They seem to work really well together,” said Professor Cliff Nass, who they consulted about launching a start-up. “What you really want to see from a venture capitalist point of view is passion, and those guys have that…They’re both passionate about solving a problem that they have perceived.”

The problem, according to Tan, is that they “want dorms to be able to share things that matter to them in a more private environment than Facebook can allow.”

Tailoring their site exclusively to such a niche group of users gives them a unique advantage over larger companies, they believe.

Atallah and Tan see numerous potential uses for their site, including holding dorm elections online or sharing photos over vacations–all privately.

“My dorm is using it to figure out what kind of music everyone likes,” Atallah said about the “Projects” feature.

The underlying premise is that, contrary to the global behemoth that Facebook has grown into, the site is limited to a smaller, more intimate community that values privacy. This allows for freer expression and an increased willingness to engage in commercial transactions via the Stuff feature.

The enterprising freshmen are continually thinking of new additions for Dormlink, including an interactive map feature on which people can tag places of interest, and a “Whiteboard” feature that would operate like Microsoft Paint, where students can practice “Social Doodling” on each other’s virtual rooms–similar to writing on an actual whiteboard outside one’s dorm room.

Atallah and Tan do recognize, however, that their ambitious start-up faces significant hurdles.

“We recognize that something like 95 percent of start ups fail,” Tan said.

“If people don’t end up using it very much, this will have been a fun side project,” Atallah added.

And if they happen to end up in the 5 percent of start-ups that do succeed, Tan and Atallah will not be the only beneficiaries–Tan’s roommate, Kevin Hurlbutt ’14, has a stake in the matter too.

Looking up from his laptop, he announced, “I’m going to sell that chair for so much money.”

Marwa Farag is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. Previously, she was the managing editor of news, managing editor of the former features section, a features desk editor and a news writer.

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