Cool College Start-ups 2010
Ryan Dickerson, RylaxingTroy Rhodes Jr., MyBookBorrow.com Jason Shah, INeedAPencil.comWhitney Williams, TramontiAlfonso Olvera, RailTronixChrissie Harsh, Chrissie's CookiesCurtis Funk, FuneralRecording.comJoe Davy, EvoAppBrent Skoda, CollegeFitness.com
Like most college students, Dickerson, a junior at Syracuse University, found himself wedged into a small dorm room that fit little more than a bed and a desk. The son of an interior designer, he set out to optimize that space. The idea? Turn the bed into a couch during nonsleeping hours. And, in 2009, the Rylaxer was born. The ergonomic, "bed transforming pillow" is made of foam, with lumbar support, and it comes in two sizes and a variety of colors, plus a cheetah print. Rylaxing has an online store, but for now the company is Syracuse-centric: The pillows are made in town and sold primarily on campus. A year from now, though, Dickerson hopes to be selling them at colleges nationwide, through an army of brand ambassadors.
When Rhodes, a junior at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, sold his college textbooks at the end of the spring 2008 semester, he received $18 -- for books that cost him $560 just a few months earlier. There had to be an alternative way, he thought. So over the next year, he developed MyBookBorrow.com, which allows students anywhere to save on textbooks by renting instead of buying. When a student requests a textbook, Rhodes (or one of the three friends who assist him) finds a used copy from one of the two textbook distributors that are his suppliers. He then provides a rental quote (after checking on competitors' rental prices and Amazon's purchase price) to the student. If the student agrees to the price, Rhodes buys the book and has the supplier ship it directly to the customer. When the semester ends, the customer ships the book back to Rhodes, who keeps his stock in a $22-a-month storage space.
A junior at Harvard University, Shah launched his SAT prep site INeedAPencil.com in 2006 when he was still in high school. The free site offers low-income students an alternative to pricier courses such as those at Kaplan and The Princeton Review. Students can log on to the site and choose from more than 60 lessons in math, reading, and writing, many of which use pop-culture and sports references to liven up the material. It's not just a gimmick -- a random sampling of the site's users showed an average improvement of 202 points on their SAT scores. INeedAPencil.com earns most of its revenue by generating leads for colleges and universities eager to recruit the site's 30,000 users, who can opt in to receive information about different schools.
Williams, a senior at Texas Christian University, showed a knack for design and business from an early age. In elementary school, she fashioned her own stationery and sold it door to door. Later, she started a business selling purses swathed in laminated photos from magazines. In 2007, after being inspired by artisans she encountered on a trip to Italy, she started a jewelry business called Tramonti, the Italian word for sunset. After two years selling primarily through trunk shows -- the pieces range from $30 to $300 -- Williams set up an e-commerce site last year (tramontibywhitney.com). Now she's planning for expansion, to coincide with her graduation. A factory in Hong Kong is waiting to produce her necklaces and earrings, and a big department store has expressed interest in her line, which she hopes to expand into a full-blown lifestyle brand with shoes, clothing, and accessories.
Since age 6, Olvera had a deep interest in technology, and within a year of coming to this country at 15 from his native Mexico City, he started a computer-repair business. His current business, RailTronix, sells a Web-based software system that helps rail shippers in the oil industry keep track of their valuable shipments in real time. With no employees (though he outsources some of the coding work to a Mexican firm), the University of Houston senior produced revenue of $250,000 in 2009, his first year in business. Next, he is turning his attention to the grain industry, one of the largest rail shippers in the United States.
Harsh, a junior at University of Texas at Austin, started selling baked goods to raise money for a high school orchestra trip. She raised $700 that first year -- and built a loyal following in the process. When she arrived at college, she continued to bake, and word of her cookie prowess spread. Today, hungry classmates can order Finger-Lickin Peanut Butter and Cranberry White Chocolate Chip cookies online or request custom ingredients. On her Facebook fan page, Harsh lists a bold mission statement -- "Changing the world one cookie at a time." It's a promise she's trying to make good on. Every year, she bakes 700 cookies for a local fundraiser called the Helping Hands Benefit Concert, which in 2009 raised money to dig wells in villages in Africa.
When Funk was 17, his grandmother died, and the mortuary gave his family an audiotape of the funeral service. At the time, he thought that was peculiar. But he found himself listening to the tape and marveling at the stories he heard about his grandmother. That was Funk's inspiration to start attending the funerals of strangers and making CDs, which he sold, through mortuaries, to families of the deceased. He eventually took the business online and now offers live streaming audio and video, transcripts, and other services. FuneralRecording.com has four employees and works with more than 200 mortuaries across the country, charging them $99 a month for broadcast services. The Weber State University senior expects sales of about $500,000 this year. –Lauren Folino
Davy's first college business (though not his first business; he started a Web analytics company the summer before he started high school) was an IT consulting company. As the company grew, Davy found he didn't have the software he needed to keep all of his consultants and the companies they were working with on the same page. He started building what is now EvoApp to use internally. The product, which is being used by more than 200 companies, works through third-party partners to pull all team members' documents, calendar events, and communication activity into one place. The University of North Carolina junior, who has four full-time employees, expects revenue of about $500,000 in his first full year of business.
Skoda, a senior at Texas Christian University, drew on his experience as a high-level amateur baseball player to start CollegeFitness.com, a social networking site for students hoping to drop the "freshman 15" and more. The free site, which is supported by ads from sporty companies like Under Armour and Everlast, has 12,000 members, who turn to it for workout videos, diet planners, a weight-loss tracker, and the like. In January, CollegeFitness.com launched a customized site for the University of Oklahoma (it's called CrimsonFitness.com), and Skoda is negotiating similar deals with other large schools. He and his nine employees have also started to sell on-campus ad space in and around the fitness facilities at some of those schools. All this activity explains why CollegeFitness.com, which had revenue of $250,000 last year, hopes to reach $3 million in 2010.