Editor’s Note: This story is part of an occasional series on the world of startups. The series focuses on MBAs and undergraduate business students who developed their ideas or launched their businesses while still in school, as well as the many ways their schools helped them get the new ventures off the ground.
Most B-school students are still figuring things out after their freshman year. Not Charlie Dolan. A mere two semesters into his degree in management information systems at Villanova University, Dolan co-founded Sequoia Waste Solutions, a company that offers to solve the waste and recycling problems faced by small businesses.
“Going into college, I knew I wanted to do something entrepreneurial,” says Dolan. Once he arrived on campus, he immediately immersed himself in the programming offered through Villanova’s Center for Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship, known as the ICE Center, for short.
In the summer between his freshman and sophomore year, Dolan, along with his brother, Brian, and a friend from high school, Graham Rihn, developed the idea for the business after wondering why overflowing trash was a recurring issue at an office building where they worked. At the time, the three were focused on real estate, but they realized that there might be more room for industry disruption in handling trash.
As they saw it, small businesses were having trouble disposing of their waste. These businesses, in most cases, didn’t generate enough trash to warrant hiring a larger waste-management company, but they still needed an efficient and inexpensive way to dispose of garbage that was also environmentally sensitive. Sequoia runs a client’s data through a complex algorithm that examines a number of factors, such as equipment size and secondary recycling markets. Then it generates a tailored system for the client and works to optimize collection routes and dispose of waste locally. This, in turn, generates cost savings for the client. Sequoia then takes things a step further by providing customers with data about their waste.
Dolan, who is responsible for the technological side of operations, created an online portal that lets customers track their output and hauling fees, along with a host of other data about any number of locations in their portfolio, including distance to landfills, recycling centers, and transfer stations. “We noticed an inefficiency in the market,” Dolan says. “You’ve seen a big technological revolution in all these other areas. We hadn’t seen that happen for trash yet.”
The two-year-old company, initially funded by a small seed investment, currently has 12 full-time employees who work from a Pittsburgh office. Dolan will continue to run the company from campus this fall when he starts his senior year. Dolan’s days are long, juggling classes, extracurricular activities, and Sequoia. He jokes that as a sophomore in Villanova’s Sullivan Hall, one of his challenges was getting his hallmates not to make noise while he is on a conference call.
Villanova School of Business Dean Patrick Maggitti, founder of the ICE Center, says that Dolan positioned himself well to learn everything he could about running a business early on in his college career. “Charlie has done a great job of taking advantage of all of the classes and activities that we have for budding entrepreneurs,” Maggitti says.
The ICE Center’s mandate, according to Maggitti, is not only to support student entrepreneurs, but also to teach a broad range of students from different disciplines how to approach situations with thinking informed by the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. Dolan is vocal about the influence the center had on his business. He says he has benefited from one-on-one time with executives from big companies (“your Facebooks, your Googles”) and activities that helped him brainstorm outside the classroom.
ICE has also introduced Dolan to contacts on campus to help expand the business. For example, Maggitti says he was able to help make introductions when Dolan needed to find someone who could write code for an iPad.
Maggitti says Dolan and his co-founders have been incredibly smart in identifying an opening to build a business. “They found a little niche that was being underserved between what big companies were doing and very little companies were doing,” he says. “They picked a target market, and they went after it. They found a middle market. That’s kind of a classic entrepreneurial perspective.”
Sequoia has set its sights on expansion, with the goal of constantly delivering better and more complete data to their clients on their output and savings. For example, a native iOS app is in development so that clients can access their accounts from Apple (AAPL) mobile devices. “I think that we’re doing a fundamentally different thing for an industry where we haven’t seen much change over the last decade,” Dolan says of Sequoia. “It’s really taking an old industry model and taking a step back to say, ‘I think we can fragment the way that industry is set up right now and create a local opportunity and make it really intelligent.’”