Students Experiment with Entrepreneurship at Stanford Venture Studio

Graduate students from around Stanford use this dedicated space to try out start-up business ideas, and learn from them.

April 03, 2013

Whiteboard and hands

Student collaboration at the Stanford Venture Studio. (Photo by Wayne Serrano 2010No)

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are well known for building companies out of a garage or, more recently, at cafés, where they might nurse a cup of coffee for hours while cranking on their startups. But nearly three dozen teams of aspiring entrepreneurs are now pursuing new ventures out of the new Stanford Venture Studio at Stanford GSB. Among them: Danny Donado, who hopes to launch a cloud-based decision-making tool called BipSync for professional investors; Bastiaan Janmaat, who has created DataFox, which aims to be the first Bloomberg for private company data; and Lusi Fang, whose company 4Soils builds Bible story-based apps for children.

The studio was launched in June to give graduate students throughout the university a dedicated, around-the-clock place to practice the entrepreneurship concepts and skills they learn in the classroom and work elbow-to-elbow with fellow entrepreneurs, says Aileen Sweeney, associate director at the Stanford GSB’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, which manages the studio. The studio provides a residency program, workshops, advising, and community events to support entrepreneurial students’ success. “We don’t ask for equity or fees for services. Our interest is purely educational,” she says. It “is a safe place to experiment, take risks — even fail. This makes our graduates better equipped to build sustainable ventures that create high impact in the world.”

For the budding entrepreneurs, access to the space means opportunities to collaborate on projects, and to talk with colleagues facing similar challenges. Sweeney says people starting a company encounter a lot of unknowns and don’t often have a clear path to follow. “Working in isolation, often at home, can exacerbate an entrepreneur’s challenges,” she says. “At the Venture Studio, students can turn to their neighbors and say, ‘Hey, I don’t really know where to go from here — do you have any thoughts?’”

Janmaat, a Class of 2013 MBA student, says he found the collaborative aspect to be particularly helpful. “For instance, if you have to put together a presentation for a potential investor,” he says, “it’s great when the team across from you is working on their own pitch deck. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

In his case, the collaboration even changed the direction of the startup. He began a company with the idea that people should be able to experience different jobs by shadowing others for a few hours before committing to a career. But after pitching and sharing concepts with others at the studio, his team realized that idea was far too complicated. “We learned it’s very hard to build a marketplace if you’re not starting with a narrow group of users,” he says. So the company switched gears and now focuses on providing in-depth data on private companies to equip investors, advisors, and others in need of business intelligence to make more informed decisions.

Similarly, Donado, also a class of 2013 MBA student, working on a startup called BipSync, says the space gave his team “an office to come to — a place to leave our notes on the whiteboard and prepare to take some risks.” They also found community. “Our studio space is next to RentLingo,” says Donado, referring to another startup. “We exchange ideas and talk about highs and lows. It’s really therapeutic because life in a startup can get lonely.”

In this spirit, the studio welcomes all Stanford graduate students in order to create a multidisciplinary environment that fosters great ideas and creative problem solving. The result? Business students are working with engineering, computer science, and law students on solutions that range from flash sales for green products to election transparency.

The studio also provides a context to apply classroom lessons to real-life situations. One of Donado’s classes discussed ways to confirm that a product is actually meeting a need. Talk turned to the value of getting a letter of intent (LOI) signed by a potential customer to demonstrate traction to investors. “We ran with that idea,” Donado says, “and ultimately got an LOI signed by a company that will pay for the beta development costs. It’s been a great validation for us.”

“It’s unbelievably complementary,” says Janmaat, “to be sitting in class where the topic is sales for startups and get some real-life tips from a guy who worked for Groupon early on and had to sell to hundreds of small businesses; then I run up to the studio and follow his advice in my own sales calls to prospective customers.”

The space also supplements classroom learning with weekly group discussions with experienced entrepreneurs, advising sessions with legal and finance professionals, skills-sharing workshops, and practice pitch sessions. “Some of the best guest speakers are often young entrepreneurs just a few years ahead of us,” Fang says. “I learned a lot about how to optimize SEO [search engine optimization] for my website, which proved really helpful to us.”

Any one of the teams practicing there could build the next big thing. But equally important, the space to build offers students a taste of the realities of life as an entrepreneur. “As the daughter of Chinese-American immigrants, I grew up thinking an entrepreneur was someone who opened a dry cleaning store,” says Fang. Fang is now working on her consumer internet venture at the studio.

Through the studio, she says, “I discovered my passion; I’ve thrived as an entrepreneur; and now I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m living my dream.”

By Elizabeth Wray

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