Josh Greenberg and Sam Tarantino are among the enterprising UF students who are starting their business careers while they’re still in college.
By Alisson Clark (BSJ ’98)
Grooveshark, the tech startup UF Entrepreneurship Club members Sam Tarantino (3LAS) and Josh Greenberg (3BA) launched in 2006, has been doubling in size every three months, expanding from three employees to 70 in less time than it takes some companies to design their business cards.
The company, which was serving a growing population of 21 million users (as of early November), streams music over the Internet as a legal alternative to music piracy.
It’s Greenberg’s third business.
This story isn’t just about Grooveshark, although the company’s tale of out-of-the-box thinking, business sense and youthful chutzpah could certainly fill several pages. Grooveshark is one of dozens of businesses launched by young alumni who, in many cases, were still in school when they drew up their business plans.
“New Wave of Growth”
The Fortune 500 roster is a testament to college entrepreneurs: Larry Page and Sergey Brin were in grad school at Stanford when they started Google. FedEx sprung from a term paper at Yale. Bill Gates left Harvard to start Microsoft, and Michael Dell sold IBM computers out of his University of Texas dorm room.
The economic impact of startups extends far beyond their CEOs, says Jamie Kraft (MBA ’98), managing director of UF’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Entrepreneurship Club’s faculty adviser. Kraft points to a study released this summer by the Kauffman Foundation, which revealed startups as the only reliable source of net job growth in the United States since 1977. During the same period, existing firms lost an average of 1 million jobs a year.
“In an economic downturn, it’s entrepreneurship and innovation that help to propel the new wave of growth,” Kraft says. “It’s incredibly important that these young students aren’t waiting for the phone to ring with a job opportunity. They’re out there creating positions for themselves and others in the marketplace.”
For some young entrepreneurs, starting a business is a way out of a stifling 9-to-5 corporate environment — although most agree they devote much more time to work than they would if someone else were at the helm. But that doesn’t mean they take themselves too seriously. Grooveshark’s telephone directory prompts callers to press 3 if they’d like to make a prank call. The website for Fracture, a startup that turns photos into affordable art by printing them on glass, recounts how founders Alex Theodore (BSCHE ’08) and Abhi Lokesh (BS ’09) created the company while “thinking about things they cared for the most, things like art, entrepreneurship and peanut butter.”
Their corporate philosophies may be playful, but young-alumni businesses are racking up accolades. In June, the Web-based Tutor Matching Service, co-founded by Ethan Fieldman (BSBA ’03), won the $50,000 Cade Prize for Innovation. (The award is named for the late Gatorade inventor and UF professor Robert Cade.) Like many young-alumni startups, Tutor Matching Service combines tech savvy with entrepreneurial spirit, in this case using Facebook to connect students with tutors in their areas.
Another Facebook app, RoomBug, was founded in 2007 by four young people, two of whom are UF’s Rob Castellucci (BSBA ’07, MS ’08) and Michael Hacker (BSBA ’09, 1LAW). In 2009, the roommate matching application was named a finalist for the fbFund, which supports innovators on the social networking site. Both services leverage their founders’ insight into their generation — in this case, how Web-savvy people plan their lives and forge connections — to address the needs of a coveted (and, to many older execs, puzzling) demographic.
“We are the market,” says Greenberg, who likens Grooveshark to “YouTube for music.” “That has helped us so much.”
At UF, budding entrepreneurs can join the Entrepreneurship Club, where Grooveshark — which now boasts 21 million users — got its start, as well as take advantage of mentoring, graduate and undergraduate courses and workshops through the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. UF is among just a handful of universities offering an intensive one-year master’s program in entrepreneurship.
Kraft says CEI’s emphasis on real-world experience grooms students for the realities they’ll face after college.“It’s not just classroom work. They learn by doing, especially at the graduate level,” he says.
GatorNest, for example, is an eight-week program where students tackle projects, from evaluating market opportunities to customer analysis, for Gainesville-area businesses. When they graduate and launch their own companies, Kraft says, “they realize, ‘I can actually do this: I’ve already been doing it.’”
Students in the Warrington College of Business Administration certainly benefit from the curriculum, but the past decade has seen a concentrated effort to extend entrepreneurship courses and workshops to students in other fields, says Kraft. Of the 2,000 students a year who take the introductory course for UF’s minor in entrepreneurship, Kraft says, about half come from outside the business school.
Plenty of young alums have a head start in entrepreneurship before arriving at UF. Greenberg wasn’t old enough to be on the board of his first company, a Web design and development firm he launched in high school, so he appointed his grandpa.
Callahan Fore (3DCP) was also in high school when he founded his first venture, the nonprofit SweatMonkey.org. The website helps students track the volunteer hours they needed for graduation and scholarships. In 2007, Fore brought the idea to the Young Entrepreneurs for Leadership and Sustainability program, a six-week UF summer program for high schoolers founded and directed by CEI professor Kristin Joos (BS ’98, MA ’99, PhD ’03). With Joos’ advice and suggestions, SweatMonkey eventually became the tracking system of choice for UF’s Center for Leadership and Service as well as 34 other UF classes that require students to volunteer. Now, three years later, SweatMonkey.org is being used by high schools, colleges and universities in Florida and across the nation.
Grass Roots, Green Cred
Sustainability is more than a buzzword for many young entrepreneurs, who parlay the ethos of their generation into business practices with environmental and social consciousness.
At Swamp Head Brewery in Gainesville, Luke Kemper (BSBA ’05) buys local whenever he can, repurposes secondhand equipment to reduce waste and sends spent grain from the brewery to farmers who use it for animal feed.
Hudson Harr (BSBA ’07) founded the Clearwater-based ReRev to capture the energy generated on gym equipment for electric power. Gyms from coast to coast, especially college fitness centers, are using the technology to achieve carbon-neutrality.
Social entrepreneurs have made their marks, as well. Bryant Adibe’s (BS ’10, 1MD) Young Achievers Foundation, which has twice won funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, works to help underprivileged kids succeed in school.
Anup Patel (BA ’04, BS ’04) and fiancé Rina Patel (BS ’03) began the non-profit Cents of Relief to empower — through health care and education — victims of human trafficking and prostitution in India’s red-light districts.
For Melisa Miller (BSBC ’05), mission work in Mexico and South America ignited two passions: community service and construction. She brings both to her role as director of Rebuilding Together North Central Florida, which the Gainesville native founded with friends in high school and incorporated in 2005. The nonprofit renovates homes in underserved areas. In 2007, RTNCF (originally Rebuild Gainesville) became an affiliate of the national Rebuilding Together charity. “The past year has been a whirlwind. We’re expanding like crazy,” Miller says.
That kind of growth can mean long hours. At Fracture, where Lokesh and Theodore hope to replace the expensive process of custom framing with photos printed directly on shatter-resistant glass, the hours on the door read “9 a.m. – whenever.”
“It’s not that we feel the need to kill ourselves and work 20 hours a day. But even when we go home, we’re just texting each other about work,” Lokesh says. “We have boundless energy and creativity, and the freedom to use it, because there’s never going to be a time in our lives when we have less to lose,” he says.
“We have the ability to take risks,” he says. “At this point in our lives, with no wife and kids, no mortgage, if I decide I want to drink a lot of coffee and work 48 hours straight, there are no consequences other than feeling groggy the next day. It gives us a lot of flexibility, and that pays huge dividends.”
Even if long hours don’t lead to startup success, UF entrepreneurs are taught that “failure is compost,” Kraft says. “You have to look at what you’re doing in the entrepreneurship world as a journey. If it doesn’t work the first time, you take the lessons learned and move forward with your next endeavor. The more we can get them to get over that fear of failure, the better.”
*UF Alumni Association member
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