If you’ve even got the slightest entrepreneurial itch, Zach Simkin is a familiar name in the startup community here at Penn. As co-founder and organizer of the Founder’s Club, Zach is one of the first people that new students hear about once they arrive on campus. He previously started his own company and spent 3 years at a manufacturing startup before coming to Wharton. The Wharton Journal wanted to get to know more about him and how to make the most out of Wharton as an entrepreneur.
Wharton Journal: Tell us about your early experience as an entrepreneur and how you got to Wharton.
Zach Simkin: I had the entrepreneurial bug from a very young age. Whether it was going door-to-door offering to shovel my neighbors’ driveways during the winter when it snowed, or selling homemade art on the street corner during the summer, I was always looking for ways to make a few bucks.
I think that I must have gotten my entrepreneurial genes from my great-grandfather, who started a business in New York City that manufactures neckties (the business still exists today, run by my grandfather and aunt).
After I graduated college in 2006, I started a collegiate marketing company that created a new out-of-home advertising medium. I grew the company to over 500,000 users nationwide, but we ultimately couldn’t weather the storm of the economic downturn and had to close our doors after two and a half years. It was an incredible learning experience though, and in some ways I think that early failure can be a good thing.
Afterwards, I still wanted to do something entrepreneurial, so I joined a small startup that manufactures public health and hygiene products. Our flagship product is a patented device that disinfects door handles automatically. Once we achieved our goal (we signed a global supply agreement with a Fortune 200 company), I knew that it was time for me to move on, and so I decided to head off to Wharton with the explicit goal of starting another company.
WJ: You’ve got some serious entrepreneurial DNA. Word on the street is that you’re working on a startup in the 3D printing space. How did you arrive at your idea?
ZS: This story is beyond cheesy. I took an Innovations course first semester last year, and there was an assignment on business ideas for the 3D printing industry. I met a classmate who had what I thought was a genius idea for the B2B side of the industry (my idea was also B2B), and the rest is history – we’re now co-founders!
WJ: What do you think are some areas in manufacturing that are ripe for disruption?
ZS: I recently spoke to the authors of an IBM white paper on this topic, and I think that they really hit the nail on the head. It’s not necessarily one individual technology that is going to be disruptive, but rather the confluence of three: 3D printing, robotics, and open-source software. When used together, these technologies will lead to lean, flexible supply chains that will be better able to rapidly respond to market demands.
WJ: Can you tell us about how you prepared for the Wharton Venture Award application and your summer experience?
ZS: I was “all-in” on starting a company from day 1 when I got to Wharton. That meant no coffee chats, no employer information sessions, and no resume in the resume book. I believe that this level of focus and commitment to my startup came across in my application, which hopefully the Wharton Venture Award judges appreciated. That said, the Award shouldn’t necessarily be something that is specifically targeted; rather, it should be an extension and byproduct of the work that you’re already doing on your startup.
My summer experience was incredible. A group of over 15 Wharton startups stayed in Philadelphia over the summer, and the school was kind enough to give us each our own private office space in 2401 Walnut. The community that we built and bond that we had will be something that I never forget. Whether it was playing basketball into the wee hours of the morning or tasting the latest food creations from two of our classmates’ Italian deli startup, there was always just the right balance of work and play.
WJ: And how does the Founder’s Club fit into the picture?
ZS: Being an Organizer for Founders’ Club has been my most rewarding experience while at school. The Club’s mission is to support students across Penn who are actively working on a startup. We’ve expanded the club in the past year and I’m proud to say that we now have members from Wharton, the Engineering School, Medical School, College, Nursing School, and School of Design. The cross-pollination of entrepreneurship across the university is something that I’m passionate about, and I’m excited about the progress that is being made.
WJ: Along with Founder’s Club, there are so many resources at Penn/Wharton for startups. How do we decide which ones to go after?
ZS: Go after them all. The resources are tremendous, and virtually none of them are mutually exclusive. Be mindful, however, that the resources available to students are vaster than they are for alumni, so it’s important to hit the ground running as soon as you get to school. I also encourage student entrepreneurs to branch out beyond Penn and to take advantage of the greater Philadelphia entrepreneurial ecosystem, which has been gaining a lot of momentum in recent years.
WJ: We often hear about the tradeoff between working on your startup versus everything else here at Wharton. You’re working on your startup, go to class, AND you’ve managed to work with us while traveling in the Amazon over Thanksgiving break. How do you manage your time?
ZS: There are so many incredible things to do while at Wharton. I’d love to do them all, but the reality is that there are only 24 hours in a day. Every hour I spend doing one thing is an hour that I can’t do something else. So the key is to know what your priorities are, to stick to them, and to be OK with the fact that there will be things that you miss out on.
WJ: Any final words for the Wharton community?
ZS: Your time at Wharton is very precious. Fight the FOMO temptation and do what makes you happy.