business

Your Campus Startup: Working the Advantages

There may be no better place to launch a business than a university. With mentoring professors, alumni networks and inspired fellow students, it's a resource-rich environment

By Asi Lang

My name is Asi Lang, and I am president of Windward Mark Interactive, a video-game and simulation software company located in Waltham, Mass. I launched WMI in 2003, during my senior year at Harvard University, along with four friends with whom I had worked on graphics and military-science research. I have often been asked about my experience launching the classic "dorm room enterprise." I have to my credit all of the telltale experiences: the bloated international phone bills from my room, the last-minute, red-eye flights from meetings to take my final exams, and, of course, the restlessness that inevitably comes from having to finish up that last year.

But my time on campus was instrumental to my company's success. As a result of our time spent there, we've built an extremely strong network of professional advisers, forged critical business relationships with top industry leaders, and developed patented graphics technology for use in advanced simulators. We will soon be bringing on three employees, and are currently raising our next round of financing.

As a result, I've encouraged other students to voraciously pursue their entrepreneurial ideas, as a college campus is one of the most substantial resources a young entrepreneur can have.

A MINUTE OF YOUR TIME.

  As a student -- likely with very little business experience -- the advice of professionals is worth its weight in gold. However, with most top professionals and executives, so is their time. Getting a moment to chat with them can be quite difficult.

Most active businesspeople won't take the time to respond to job requests, offers of services, or other such forms of solicitation. What they will do, however, is take 15 minutes to share their knowledge with a genuinely interested student, especially if that student is attending the school from which the person graduated.

By approaching such key people for advice, you're both gaining a direct benefit in the form of a free business education and making critical connections. The alumni network of your particular school can be enormously beneficial in making such inroads. I was amazed at how many Harvard alums I found at important entertainment and simulation companies. What's more, I consistently found them personable, open to communication, and, when the stars aligned, very interested in our work.

In one instance, I contacted a Harvard alumnus who served as an executive of a military firm. He invited us to meet with him and present our technology to the company. We're now in talks to develop a full-featured simulator application for the firm.

THE CAMPUS DRAW.

  Universities play a very important role in the worlds of research and business. They serve as magnets for companies, researchers, and institutes looking for young talent. A major moment for our business came when a leading graphics-card manufacturer arrived on campus to speak about its newest technology. Our cutting-edge software happened to compliment the company's latest hardware perfectly, and, after introducing ourselves and our work to the company representative, a vital business relationship was born. Now, a year later, that firm is one of our most important partners. We are using its hardware as a platform for designing our software, and the company is supporting the development of our first military-themed title.

Regardless of the particular market your business targets, odds are there is some link to it on your campus. Scour departmental announcements, go to student/professor meetings, and attend job fairs. Saturate yourself in the goings-on of that particular facet of the university, because what you have at your hands is a rare case of them coming to you. Leading companies have their fingers on the pulse of school campuses, especially in this age when breakthroughs come more from those with blue hair than grey.

When important companies and researchers come to your campus, go out and meet them at every possible opportunity -- because once you actually start your venture, you'll have to work much harder for them to break down your door!By Asi Lang

THE VIBE.

  Nowhere else but in college will you be surrounded by so many like-minded, like-aged people with whom to start your future business. There is a constant buzz about college campuses. You'll always find a kindred spirit or three with whom to share your ideas (or contribute a few of their own.) Back in the dot-com era, one couldn't walk down a hall at Harvard without hearing some new radical venture plan. Things have obviously toned down since that time, but the general ethos still remains.

The best places to find potential partners are among business or technology majors, but there's always the successful company started by a shrewd English major. If you have an idea, and can find people you can both trust and rely upon to contribute to it, grab them quickly, and get moving. It's amazing how much a group can add to your idea's momentum. Our venture began from idle discussions in a computer-theory class. Within a year, a group of two became a group of three, and we were soon renting an apartment to accommodate five for a summer of intense coding.

It's important to remember, however, that the entrepreneurial energy of your campus is not strictly limited to the freshman quad. Your university's graduate schools, and the campuses around you, are fertile grounds for both personal enrichment and valuable business partnerships. By the time I graduated, I had taken classes at nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard's Graduate School of Design, and the Harvard Business School. Each offered something I couldn't obtain in my normal undergraduate curriculum.

At MIT, I was able to study military science and make valuable contacts with professors in that field. At the Design School, I studied the 3D art applications I would need to make a more polished product. And Harvard Business School offered me the chance to work with a world-class research professor on our company's business plan. At each campus I met students with similar interests, similar ideas, and similar motivations. Remember, then, that the entrepreneurial value of your time on campus grows exponentially with every new campus at which you spend that time!

THE MESSAGE.

  There are, unquestionably, obstacles to launching a venture while still at school. As I alluded to before, your class syllabus will inevitably conflict with your business trip to, say, New York. You won't possibly comprehend the importance of an arcane theory class required by your major. And you'll have to work against a system that, at times, would rather see you contribute to the ivory tower than your investors' stock portfolios.

But, that said, I have advised countless undergrads to pursue their entrepreneurial vision while on campus. The ability to get professional advice, the immediate access to valuable contacts, and the massive pool of talent are never greater than they are during those four years. There is, no doubt, an interesting game to be played as a student-cum-entrepreneur. But, if you do know how to play the game, and capitalize on the advantages, the gains to be had for you and your business are tremendously rewarding.

Asi Lang, 23, co-founded Windward Mark Interactive, LLC, as a senior at Harvard University with four classmates in 2003. Lang currently serves as president and chief executive officer. The company develops software that substantially enhances the quality and realism of military simulators and computer games. WMI is located in Waltham, Mass., and expects its patented technology to be ready for market in the first quarter of 2005. Lang earned a B.A. degree cum laude from Harvard in 2003, majoring in computer science with a focus in graphics. A native of Los Angeles, he graduated from Viewpoint High School in 1999, where he was named valedictorian of his class.

Entrepreneur's Byline comes to BusinessWeek Online readers courtesy of EntreWorld.org, a resource for entrepreneurs that is sponsored by the nonprofit Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

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