Meet the new wave of Penn entrepreneurs streamlining your college experience.
After spending an entire Sunday afternoon serving Penn students customized omelets, the tattooed waitress seems understandably weary when College seniors Adam Feldman and Tatiana Peisach ask her to wait as she hands them our dinner bill. Both turn their attention to a pair of iPhones sitting idly on the table, and drag their fingers across the screens with a ferocity that belies the apologetic manner in which they then announce their findings: every person who checks into Foursquare at Marathon gets 10 percent off his or her meal, and there’s a promotion for free matzo ball soup on Groupon — can you deduct that from our bill?
Tools are only animated by the intentions of their users, and Feldman, Peisach and Wharton senior Harley Miller clearly view their smart phones as more than a means to enrage wait staff. Over the past year, the team has worked tirelessly to design and develop MobileEatz, a mobile ordering application for iPhone and Blackberry projected to launch on April 7th. For a group whose previous work experiences include consulting jobs for the Starr Restaurant Group and summer stints at Hard Candy Shell, the project is a chance to marry their combined passions for technology, business and food in a professional realm.
“When conducting research on our competitors, we realized that CampusFood was annoyed any time we’d call in phone orders or changes. Directly calling in an order and then waiting in line at a restaurant is incredibly inefficient, and sometimes, customers who anticipate this don’t bother,” Feldman explained between sips of his free soup. “MobileEatz doesn’t poach business from restaurants, it gains profits for them which would have otherwise been lost and helps to replace more agnostic restaurant technologies.” Miller elaborated on MobileEatz goals, aptly, while waiting for a sandwich in Metropolitan Bakery’s comically long Sunday lunch line: “Mobile commerce and dependence on smart phones have placed a huge demand on technology’s speed and connectivity. We knew there had to be a better way to get food on this campus, and we decided technology was the way to eliminate queuing inefficiencies we personally can’t stand.”
In a world where entrepreneurship is a trending topic in itself, it is hard to view those working on startup companies without a sense of ennui. The unfathomable (and exceptional) successes of Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and Nat Turner — the ’08 Wharton alum who sold his company, InviteMedia, to Google last year — have mainstreamed the concept of startups to a fault, as countless hopefuls with big dreams and utter disinterest in the rote tasks of business are lured to an already–saturated business arena.
Cultural outlets have been quick to stereotype the would–be businesspeople of the Millennial Generation as overachieving slackers. HBO’s newly renewed series How to Make it in America follows two 20–something males as they repeatedly try, and fail, to break through the barriers of entry into New York’s fashion business. After their weak attempts to hock leather jackets and skate decks are repeatedly unsuccessful, they shrug and distract themselves by attending hip loft parties on the Lower East Side.
What separates the undergraduates at the vanguard of Penn’s increasingly visible network of serious entrepreneurs is practicality, the measurable sweat–equity they invest in their projects, and sincere passion for the underlying assets of their ventures. However, they are true millennials, and have used their acute familiarity with the social and consumptive habits of their target demographic — college students like themselves — to match business endeavors to their fast paced lifestyles.
Wharton senior Nate Adler understands the intrinsic value of accessibility. When I recently ordered dinner from his new delivery/takeout only restaurant, Kitchen at Penn, Adler himself called to apologize for the fact that they were all out of spaghetti squash and offers a substitution. Adler has always been a foodie, and noticed that the niche for dining options that delivered fresh and healthy meals was left unoccupied in University City.
Kitchen at Penn’s business model — which Miller helped refine — uses locally sourced ingredients while still maintaining price parity with affordable campus restaurants by operating out of a commercial kitchen. Adler carried the business to fruition by overseeing every detail of its operation, spending the past academic year meeting with cafe owners and even writing the menu with chef Jordan Miller. Delivery times can be long, but customers find it is worth it when perfectly seared Ahi Tuna sandwiches, homey macaroni and cheese or freshly roasted vegetables arrive at their doors.
Like Adler, Fresh Prints CEO Jason Israel knows how pivotal user–friendliness is to the success of his tee–shirt company. Israel chooses his words with the same care and genuine concern that has helped Fresh Prints edge out its competitors on campus. “We know the concept for Fresh Prints is not generally innovative,” he admits “I’m not insulted. But we bring a different attitude to our business — our service is by students, for students. You may be able to get a similar tee–shirt from CustomInk.com or another printing outfit, but none of those places will have (Penn Campus Representative) David Portnoy answer questions about an order at two in the morning.”
Israel has grown Fresh Prints from a joint venture with a friend from Washington University into a company with a configured supply chain, a sizeable network of serviced campuses, and a team of graphic designers; the ubiquity of sorority girls and lacrosse players outfitted in Fresh Print’s manufactured pinnies during Spring Fling are tangible marks of his success. “You don’t have to be doing the sexiest thing; social media is a bubble, and we believe making physical things will remain important.”
When I asked about his expectations for MobileEatz, Miller offered a swagger–filled smile. “We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel,” he says coyly, “we’re just trying to make it drive better.” Peisach confirms that MobileEatz already has a competitive market as she opens a folder labeled “Food” on her home screen and thumbs through pages of apps. “There are tons of online ordering applications, but none of them have it quite right,” she says with confidence. “We really feel MobileEatz is keyed in to how people at Penn are interacting with food.”
Seniors might be surprised to see Matt Newberg slapping numbered stickers on their coats as they enter Smoke’s rather than at the back spinning turntables on Kweder’s night off. But tonight he is testing his latest venture, MeepMe — an SMS based service that allows people to anonymously “flirt” or send messages to others in the bar in real time. Tonight, a continuous flurry of messages ranging from personal shout outs to descriptions of lurid activities involving Justin Bieber replaces the basketball game on the television screens.
Newberg has long been intrigued by technology’s capability to shape offline experiences. “I always have a core group of people that I brainstorm with, but this summer I started to look at online dating and found the industry was poised for disruption. The sites are not viral, subscription costs are high and users have no way of knowing if a match is similar to their page description in a real time setting.”
The creation of MeepMe was catalyzed by the Weiss Tech House’s annual Penn Apps competition this January. It just so happened that the theme of the “Hack–a–thon,” which gave participants 48 hours to develop a working product to pitch to industry experts and investors, was serendipity. Along with Engineering senior Sam Oldak and a small team of students, Newberg set to work at digitizing Post Office, a bar game he played this summer in which people left anonymous paper messages for others at the bar.
The team pitched MeepMe as the next generation of bar games, and used technology and their powers of persuasion to message judges during deliberations using the technology. MeepMe won first prize in competition and considerable attention from investors and local Philly bar owners intrigued by its ingenious capitalization of technology people already use and understand. “Flirting and dating under the guise of a game is much less intimidating — this SMS technology lends an interesting dynamic to an ancient way of communicating.”
Newberg understands the importance of rapidity in a world where tomorrow’s ideas are already obsolete, and has therefore employed a ready–fire–aim approach to his business; develop, launch quickly, then refine based on real time observation. “I’m still trying to learn how people are using this technology; we put up the live feed that we’ve been using after we realized how much people at the hack–a–thon enjoyed voyeuristically looking at other conversations.”
It is undeniable that the financial and knowledge–based resources the University has gained through its stellar business reputation cast a wide safety net and foster a safe atmosphere in which students can pursue personal ventures. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn everything on the business end without worry because of the low–risk nature of my business,” Israel explained. “If Fresh Prints closed tomorrow, I wouldn’t incur any personal loss.”
Adler and Miller agreed that they could not have maintained a balance between school and work, or executed their ventures to a professional extent, had OPIM professor Eric Clemons not offered them an independent study credit and acted as a springboard for their ideas. Peisach similarly recognized her independent study, App Design, and its faculty advisor Susan Buck as invaluable resources in her aesthetic iteration of MobileEatz.
College junior Elizabeth Wessel acknowledges that encouragement by Penn’s supportive startup network was elemental to the success of her business ventures. As a sophomore, Wessel founded the Penn Social Entrepreneurship Mentoring Program (PennSEN) to provide undergraduates with a formal opportunity to explore careers in social entrepreneurship. She saw the strength of Penn’s nationwide entrepreneurial network firsthand when a mentor invited her to attend a conference sponsored by Forbes in California. Wessel conceptualized PennEats soon after the affirming experience, and her company, which offers paying cardholders discounts at popular on–campus restaurants, generated instant profits. Wessel is humble as she reflects on PennEats’ success and the local businesses affinity for its central idea that their majority clientele should be rewarded for their efforts in school. This fall, PennEats will be incorporated under the name UniEats, and offer its services to students on Columbia, Harvard and Northwestern’s campuses.
Though it is lunch hour on a quiet Tuesday, the walls of the Career Services office reverberate with the drone of ringing phones and syncopated speech of undergrads eager to gain advice about their resumes and summer internships. When I wonder aloud whether the uptick in undergraduate–run businesses is endemic of a larger trend towards joining startups immediately after graduation, Barbara Hewitt, Senior Associate Director of Wharton Undergraduate Advising, is hesitant to agree. “There are two types of students with an interest in startup companies — those who want to employ their entrepreneurial skills right away make up less than one percent of graduating seniors. As a matter of practicality, the majority enter two–year training programs to build their skills, grow their network of contacts, and then apply their newly acquired skill set and capital to personal ventures down the road.” Career Service’s statistics on On Campus Recruiting confirm that entry level training programs are stronger than ever; in 2010 employers scheduled 12,821 OCR interviews, a slight increase over the previous year, and a staggering 42.9% of Wharton students accepted jobs through this method.
Most of the aforementioned businesses owners plan to work for other companies full time after graduation: Wessel plans to complete an internship at Google this summer and Feldman will move to San Francisco to work for the Internet giant full time. Miller is working for a venture capital fund and Israel begins working for Morgan Stanley as an Investment Banking analyst in July.
Though Israel’s traditional job offer conflicts with his work as an undergrad, he and his peers are quick to point out their excitement to learn from others in their fields. The steep learning curve set by starting their personal ventures will likely make them invaluable assets at their respective companies. However, their inventions have already profoundly shaped the way Penn students interact with their campus. For now, we can sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labors.