The view of New York from the 54th floor of the Rockefeller Center is haunting. The buildings below shrink into Lego-like shapes, the cars flow in silent metallic streams and, for once, you can see the expansive grey-blue of the sky. Standing in an office lobby amidst wall-sized windows and cubist art decor, I found that the world of business meetings and conference calls suddenly gained some appeal.
I had recently joined a 4-year-old nonprofit organization and had spent a week processing phrases like “onboarding” and “company ethos” in an attempt to figure out what my role would be. It was my first excursion into the world of startup philanthropy, and as part of our welcome, my colleagues and I were invited to a “team day” in New York. The leaders of the group — drawn almost exclusively from Oxbridge and the Ivies — spoke with passion and eloquence, explained the organization’s mission in colorful flow charts, and related moving personal anecdotes about why they joined the nonprofit. The UK-based organization was upscaling and expanding its reach to the US. The decision-making was collaborative, and the coffee was free. By the time we had to leave the lounge and its cityscapes, I felt as though I finally understood something of my tech friends’ interest in startup culture.
From humble beginnings in the garages and basements of Palo Alto, the “student startup” has taken hold of the national imagination and pumped millions into the economy. Facebook and Uber are now so bloated that they’ve been forced out of the startup category due to their incessant upscaling. The nerds and tech-tinkerers who have historically found themselves marginalized by mainstream culture are now the forces propelling it in one direction or another, with Facebook influencing presidential elections and Amazon overhauling the retail industry. But despite their global expansion, the origins of most burgeoning tech giants still lie in the college campuses of the U.S.
‘Change for the sake of change’
While it clings to an image of creativity and problem-solving, startup culture is predicated on the disruption of existing markets. The phrase “disruptive innovation,” originally coined by the Harvard Business Review in 1995, refers to the launching of a product or service by a small business which eventually dislodges its larger predecessor. And a startup that becomes successful and upscales often does so to the detriment of the established businesses in the market.
“I think startups do attack a lot of big companies … it’s what we refer to as disruption,” Michelle Lim ’20 told me. Lim has been heavily involved in startups at Yale and began her own student incubator, the Yale Helix Group, specializing in startups aimed at improving the efficiency of healthcare technology. Over coffee, Lim related the story of Oracle, a company that used to manufacture storage disks back in the day of CDs. Seagate, an ambitious ‘80s startup, developed a cheaper, smaller disk and ultimately ousted its predecessor. While this form of takeover may be the “modus operandi” of the entrepreneurial world, according to Lim, startup culture’s internal dialogue has a particular angle on the phenomenon.
“You know, sometimes it’s disruption for disruption’s sake,” Lim said with a smile. “People love to say, ‘Oh, this industry hasn’t been touched in a while, let’s disrupt this so-and-so industry.’” Lim thinks that university campuses, as startups’ typical breeding grounds, contribute to this undercurrent of “change for the sake of change.” In the age of influencers and activists, this potential to disrupt and improve may be a key factor behind the flow of thousands of university students into Silicon Valley.
The Snackpass era
While joining an established business allows one to climb a well-secured ladder, founding a startup — though risky — allows the freedom to dream up an original business model and contribute to solving real-world problems. For Snackpass founders Kevin Tan ’17, Jamie Marshall ‘19 and former Berkeley student Jonathan Cameron, that problem was the line at Chipotle. The solution was an app that integrated social media channels with an online ordering service. Today, Snackpass operates at 11 college campuses and claims a user base of over 50,000 students.
“We’re quite proud of disrupting the status quo, just because we see how silly it is,” Tan said, referring to the routine inconvenience of restaurant wait times. Snackpass started off as a small startup named Happy Hour, which Tan and his colleagues developed over time into the ordering and gifting app that has become synonymous with getting takeout. “The way we look at it, if anywhere there’s anyone standing in line to order anything, we think that Snackpass can solve that problem.”
Tan’s evaluation of the waiting line (something most consumers view as an unavoidable part of the takeout process) as a malleable problem in need of a solution was his initial breakthrough. But it required months of work and funding for that insight to evolve into the familiar bright blue bowl on the screen.
Tan described the app’s development as both grueling and enjoyable in and of itself. “My favorite thing about [startups] is that it’s a creative platform that’s kind of like painting a painting … then the bigger you get, the more tools and the more resources you get, you have a bigger audience, a bigger user base. It just feels like you get to play with more colors the bigger you get,” he explained.
Snackpass is an unusual example in which the disruption game has been played to the benefit of existent business. With the rise of Snackpass, many restaurants and businesses in New Haven have been positively affected by getting onboard for the ride. A seemingly endless scroll down the Snackpass website displays the food outlets that have chosen to partner with the app, whose revenue grew from $20,000 to $80,000 within a year of its creation. In a talk entitled “Life After Yale,” Tan commented that Snackpass had assisted in the growth of local businesses such as Tropical Smoothie Cafe, which has hired more people to cater to growing demand.
The Yale ‘ecosystem’
In tech jargon, the birthplaces of startups are known as “ecosystems” – the various organizations that combine to help create and scale new startup companies. Yale’s ecosystem takes the form of a few prestigious funding competitions, student-led incubators and the lounges of Tsai CITY. The doorway to Tsai CITY — lodged between Gant and Tyco Printing on Broadway — is easy to miss; but once inside, you have access to four floors of meeting rooms, mentors embedded in the tech world, and financial resources aimed towards accelerating the growth of Yale startups. From this central node, students can brainstorm ideas, develop their projects and apply for seed funding for their startups.
I spoke to Lim about her experience with startup culture at Yale, and the reasons why students may be drawn to it. “Some people are in it for the ‘infinite upside,’” Lim said, referring to startups’ potential for increase in value. “But I think that, especially if you’re fresh into college, you do startups because you actually want to change the world.” While Lim has been active in startup culture throughout her Yale career, she doesn’t think that the University has a strong enough emphasis on promoting startups.
“[Yale] has an unusual non-emphasis on startups, actually,” Lim said. “[At] other universities like Cornell and Stanford and MIT, almost everyone has a startup.” According to the business magazine Inc., of schools that produce the most startup founders, Yale comes in at a paltry 11th place out of the top 25. But despite Yale’s comparative lag, the University has still functioned as a breeding ground for tech innovation such as Snackpass, FedEx and Pinterest.
“I guess you have this sort of culture on most college campuses, where everyone’s involved in creating some kind of business that can change society,” Lim said, looking around her at the groups huddled around Bass Café tables. “I imagine that in a lot of conversations people are like, ‘Okay, the world is bad.’ And then the other half of the table would say, ‘Okay, how about if I made this?’”
A national intervention
One of Yale’s newest rising startups is PREPARED, an app developed by Yale undergraduates Michael Chime ’21, Daniel James ’19, Neal Soni ’22, and Dylan Gleicher ’21 in response to the rising frequency of school shootings. The app serves to alert staff, students and the police to potential threats on school campuses in as little as 15 seconds, and recently won Yale’s coveted $25,000 Miller Prize for innovative tech projects.
PREPARED underscores a facet of startup culture that goes beyond the “infinite upside” and monetary prize wins. From its origin, the startup has been a vehicle for young people to intervene directly in the world around them. Without jobs, corporate support, or even degrees, the founders of PREPARED have been able to tackle the kind of distinctly modern problem that often lies outside the expertise of established businesses. While security firms may eventually catch on to the crisis of school shootings, today, it’s undergrad innovation that is being installed in multiple schools across the country.
Chime compared PREPARED’s intervention in school security to the Yale-Harvard climate justice protest: “To effectively change the status quo, you have to first disrupt it.” As 21st-century problems continue to emerge and escalate, startup culture plays a key part in enabling young people to bypass bureaucracy and implement much-needed mechanisms of change. Instead of working one’s way up a company to a position of influence or protesting on the streets in the hopes of spurring administrations into action, students are finding ways of leveraging our tech dependency to address national issues.
The startup life
Despite university startup culture’s growing appeal, both Tan and Lim voiced concern around what it takes for a student to make an entrepreneurial idea a reality in the larger context of Silicon Valley.
“There’s a mantra of work hard, destroy your body, no sleep, lots of coffee,” Lim confessed. “It’s almost like a ‘we need to sacrifice and suffer’ kind of mentality.” Lim described how, in the initial stages of the startup development, there is very little funding and a huge amount of work that generally falls onto the shoulders of a few employees. Lim’s experience confirms the suburban myth of the tech-junkie: “We always imagine someone like Jack Dorsey who doesn’t shave, is wearing a hoodie and working very hard. Or like Elon Musk who put in multiple all-nighters to build the first PayPal,” Lim joked.
Tan commented on the opportunity cost of going into a solo venture with a low chance of success. “It was a little nerve-wracking to see my friends going off to Facebook and Google while I stayed on campus. Everyone has FOMO,” Tan admitted. Considering only half of startups make it to their fifth year, choosing this career route instead of the relative safety of an established tech giant can mean years of hard work and job insecurity.
While the motivations and consequences of startup culture vary, a central draw that many young entrepreneurs highlight is its collaborative nature. “I’m totally going into [startups] for the culture,” Lim said. “It’s not you against the guy next to you. It’s you against the company of the guys next to you.”
Startup culture, with one foot in university campuses and the other in the power-wielding world of Silicon Valley, has the potential to tackle the range of modern problems that existing companies have failed to combat. Offering professional success along with humanitarian concern, startups present an alternative avenue for young people hoping to “make their mark” on the world. While Lim notes that some of her tech friends find themselves drawn towards profit over the public good, many Yalies are nevertheless choosing to apply their technical expertise to problems they observe in their communities — from waiting lines to national crises.