This story originally appeared on the McCombs Today blog.
Long hours, low pay and only a small chance of success — welcome to the world of startups. But the potential to make it big, to grow something from scratch, often proves irresistible.
Seasoned entrepreneurs know the siren’s song of success and have war stories about failed ventures. They know a good idea and enthusiasm aren’t enough. Yet even with a crippled economy, the university has renewed its entrepreneurial spirit, creating an extensive support system that gives aspiring entrepreneurs who do want to take the risk their best chance at success.
Courses at the McCombs School of Business, the Cockrell School of Engineering, the School of Law and other academic departments cover different aspects of entrepreneurship and how to take technologies to market. Programs like 3-Day Startup, Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition (formerly, Moot Corp) and Idea2Product help new ventures take their first steps. And others push startups further toward creating viable businesses, including Texas Venture Labs and the Austin Technology Incubator.
To see this in action we talked to the founders of three companies — each in different stages of development, but all with university roots — to find out how they used the available resources to help launch their new ventures.
Hurricane Party: An Urge to Emerge
When targeting college students as a user base for your mobile application, there is one nearly foolproof way to get them interested.
“We basically pay them to party,” said René Pinnell, one of the founders of Hurricane Party, a social networking application that helps users create spontaneous get-togethers in real time.
“If they throw a party and people show up, and they are new users, we pay them $5 a head,” Pinnell said. “It’s pretty attractive for students, and it’s good for us because it’s word-of-mouth marketing that’s pretty targeted.”
An unorthodox approach, perhaps, but successful entrepreneurs learn to do whatever it takes because, as it turns out, that’s exactly what it takes.
Pinnell, who graduated from UT in 2006 with a radio-TV-film degree, had been kicking around the idea for Hurricane Party since 2009 when he started graduate school in design at the College of Fine Arts. An interest in emergent systems, where simple interactions give rise to something more complex, led him to realize that parties, like hurricanes, materialize when all the right elements come together in just the right way, at just the right time.
“I was interested in mobile application development and the way that people being highly networked can enable new ways of getting together,” Pinnell said. “That was the birthplace of the idea for Hurricane Party.”
A turning point came when he participated in 3-Day Startup, an event that gathers students from across campus to spend a weekend developing ideas for new companies. It was there that he met co-founder Eric Katerman, as well as four others now working at Hurricane Party.
Ordoro: Feeling the Customer’s Pain
The seed for Ordoro, an e-commerce service company started last year by three McCombs 2010 MBA graduates, was planted during Jagath Narayan’s first year in the full-time program, when he worked with a small company, Child Therapy Toys.
Established by two child psychologists, Child Therapy Toys was selling therapy products online to other mental health professionals. But the business had reached a crossroads: the owners didn’t know how to grow further without outside help. They turned to the McCombs School and found Narayan and his classmates.
For Narayan, whose previous work experience had been at Fortune 500 companies, the change of pace was appealing. After investigating the business, he made an interesting discovery.
“We wanted to get data on their inventory and sales,” Narayan said. “And the owners didn’t have it. It was really surprising — how do you run your business like that?”
Narayan realized the tracking software the company used was outmoded and not very user-friendly. He saw an opportunity.
“Here is this guy, selling stuff online and making pretty good money, but with no good way to track what’s happening in the business. There had to be more people like that,” Narayan said.
The following semester, Narayan and his Ordoro co-founders, Sangram Kadam and Naruby Schlenker, all took the New Venture Creation course at McCombs, which focuses on evaluating business opportunities and presenting a business plan.
Continue reading about Ordoro …
Notice Technologies: A Little Tough Love
Sometimes, you just have to wait until the time is ripe for a good idea to grow.
Notice Technologies, founded by Chris Treadaway, MBA ’04, is a social commerce middleware company that helps businesses connect with their customers via social media. The company’s origins trace back to a 2004 Moot Corp competition, where Treadaway presented an early version of the product.
“We finished last,” he said. “The pitch was horrible. The idea got thrown off kilter because we met an angel investor who changed it up, in a bad way.”
Fast forward to 2008 when Treadaway, after a stint working for Microsoft, moved back to Austin to pick up where he left off. He knew Barchus and Bohn at the ATI and approached them for help launching his new venture. Notice Technologies set up shop at ATI in May 2009.
In the years since his original idea, technology and social media have evolved significantly. Advertisers and media companies have more channels than ever to reach both current and potential customers, but the audience is highly fragmented. Therein lies the opportunity for Notice Technologies.
“We want to empower companies that have large audiences,” Treadaway said. “The old media model isn’t gone, but there are new ways for people to consume content — coupons, ads, referrals from friends. How do you bring companies from the old media realm into the new world?”
Notice’s answer is Lasso, software that helps companies manage multiple channels, offers and audiences. Lasso creates a social media “command center” that gives marketers tools for listening, moderating and making offers through Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, Web sites and mobile applications.