Why I Launched StartU

You can’t spend more than a few days at Wharton without hearing the story of Warby Parker.

First, at Welcome Weekend; then in your Marketing 611 class with Barbara Kahn or Jonah Berger; and finally, in just about any elective you take on entrepreneurship, operations, or marketing during your time at Wharton.

And, of course, we all have seen The Social Network, which details the story of Mark Zuckerberg and how he turned a dorm room project into Facebook. These success stories are inspiring, and everyone wants to be the next Zuck (minus Cambridge Analytica) or the next Blumenthal (plus the Zuck market cap).

But launching and scaling a startup is hard. Really, really hard.

Karl Ulrich, Vice Dean of Wharton Entrepreneurship at Wharton, recently shared that we have 396 active startups on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

Yes, 396.

Most Penn startups die before getting funded, most Penn startups that get funded die after getting funded, and the chances of becoming the next Warby Parker are slimmer than beating Justin Tuck in an arm wrestling competition.

I launched StartU to help improve the odds for the most passionate, talented founders by sharing engaging, thoughtful content on their companies with the right audience: investors, strategic partners, and the broader student startup ecosystem within and across universities.

The Challenges Student Entrepreneurs Face

At Wharton, I am laser-focused on understanding the challenges that entrepreneurs on campus face. I took Ethan Mollick’s Entrepreneurship course in Fall 2016 and then Patrick Fitzgerald’s Venture Implementation course in Fall 2017, and I asked student founders, “what are some the greatest challenges you face?”

These founders consistently cited a difficulty getting coverage or air time. While companies that have raised a Series A or B are covered by TechCrunch and Forbes, earlier stage companies that have compelling IP or customer traction often have difficulty connecting with the right media source, which in turn makes it more difficult to get connected to investors, strategic partners, and talent.

I wanted to close that gap.

That’s why, in the Fall, I began writing about Penn-founded startups.

I shared stories on startups founded by current Wharton students – including Chen Feng at NomGoGo and Nick Martell at MarketSnacks – as well as those of Penn alumni like Stephen Kuhl and Kabeer Chopra at Burrow and Jane Fisher and Jenna Kerner at Harper Wilde.

And the response was robust.

With each post, an increasing number of investors, strategic partners, and other relevant actors in the startup ecosystem would reach out to me to learn more about the startup I had written about.

And that got me thinking, what if we could help share the stories of the most promising entrepreneurs across multiple campuses? That is how StartU was born.

An Incredible Team

What I am most excited about at StartU is the team we have built.

We have brought on the most talented, passionate group of 36 Campus Leads and Scouts that I could possibly imagine. Our team boasts an undergrad who writes for the Washington Post, an MBA who co-founded an internal startup accelerator at McKinsey, and several graduate students with extensive experience in venture capital – just to name a few.

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StartU’s Harvard & MIT Campus Leads and Scouts

The diversity of experiences that our team boasts allows us to effectively identify the most promising student and alumni companies at each of our campuses. Additionally, since our Campus Leads and Scouts are all current students, we have the best eyes and ears to identify the best student and recent alumni founded companies at each of our schools.

Plus, we have a lot of fun. Case in point: going on Jon Steinberg’s Cheddar TV in a blue wig (see picture below).

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We Are Content Creators and Connectors

At StartU, we are content creators and connectors. While we launched with written content, we are quickly expanding to podcast and video.

This month, John Hammond, a current first year MBA at Wharton and a StartU x Penn Co-Lead, is launching a pilot podcast series. For the series, we identified promising early stage founders at each of our schools, and Johnny asked them tough questions: the types of questions that really get you thinking about what founders can do to tackle specific problems, from unreasonable wedding dresses prices to youth unemployment in West Africa.

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Johnny Hammond, First Year Wharton MBA and StartU x Penn Campus Lead

 

Events are also a crucial part of our strategy, as we have seen significant siloes in the entrepreneurial ecosystems at each of our universities. At Penn specifically, entrepreneurial Wharton MBAs, Wharton undergrads, Penn engineers, and Penn Med students don’t have sufficient opportunities to interact.

This leads to difficulty building teams with cross-functional skills, which in turn generates a less diverse mix of high-quality companies founded at Penn. As Philadelphia-based First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund highlighted in its 5 Year Report last year, companies funded at Penn tend to be focused on business model innovation (e.g. vertical integration at Warby Parker or Burrow), while companies at MIT and other campuses tend to focus on deep technology products in AI, blockchain, and more.

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Excerpt from Dorm Room Fund’s 5 Year Report

 

StartU’s events are designed to build more connectivity across disciplines, and ultimately generate a healthier mix of companies that disrupt both technology and industry at each of its schools.

In March, StartU held its first event for Penn student entrepreneurs and Philadelphia area venture capital investors. In collaboration with Techstars we brought in investors and founders from across the entire university ecosystem – which is essential to ensure that Penn births quality companies across sectors. Similarly, this month, we held an event in Boston with Eric Paley, a prominent early stage investor at Founder Collective and one of the earliest investors in Uber.

 

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Eric Paley (GP Founder Collective) Leads Fireside Chat at StartU’s Harvard & MIT Launch Event

 

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Michael Aronson, GP at Red & Blue Ventures (left) and Maya Baratz, Managing Director at Techstars (middle) at StartU x Penn Launch Event

 

StartU looks forward to similar events at Stanford and Berkeley; at Stanford, we are hosting a fireside chat with Keith Rabois (PayPal Mafia, GP at Khosla Ventures, & former COO of Square), moderated by Josh Constine (Editor at TechCrunch).

Our Audience: Investors, Founders, and Startup Enthusiasts

The quantity of companies on each campus creates a difficult task for campus-focused investors. In short, where to look for the next Warby Parker or Jet.com?

StartU simplifies that process by identifying the most promising companies founded by students and recent alumni. Our 8 Penn Campus Leads and Scouts are constantly meeting with companies, and they have developed an acute sense for which ones are the most likely to be successful.

 

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Snapshot on Stanford-founded Jetpack in StartU

 

We have collected feedback from several mentors and investors, including Alexia Tsotsis (former Editor in Chief of TechCrunch). One of the most useful pieces of feedback we received was the importance of collecting data from these companies; unlike many VCs, we at StartU are on the ground with student founders and can more easily access relevant data points like traction and capital raised.

 

The Future

In addition to expanding the number of data points we collect, StartU plans to continue expanding in the coming months. We are constantly receiving inbound from startup enthusiasts at other schools – like Columbia, UT – Austin, and UVA – and we plan to build teams at each of these schools.

We ultimately want to be the universal source of truth for investors, founders, and startup enthusiasts on campus and recent alumni startups, and I’m excited to be on that journey with such a talented team.

Not every campus startup will be Warby Parker or Facebook – but we want to enable talented entrepreneurs who are trying to get there.

 

I am the Founder and Editor in Chief of StartU, a publication that identifies and shares stories on the most promising student and recent alumni founded startups. We launched in early March with a team of 36 Campus Leads and Scouts across Penn, Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, and Stanford, including a team of 8 at Penn specifically.

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