Businesses Ideas I Attempted at Duke

Tomorrow night I have the opportunity to talk at the 14th Annual Duke Startup Challenge and help select a winner for the $50,000 grand prize. The first Duke Startup Challenge, way back in academic year 1999-2000, is nostalgic for me as I was an undergraduate then and I actually designed and hand coded their first site. Each year I’d enter the competition with some new web-based product idea and each year some idea from the med school or engineering school would win.

While at Duke, I had no shortage of ideas and endeavors. Here are four business ideas I launched as an undergrad:

  • textbooks.ml.org – in 1999 I worked with my college roommate on the first textbook exchange marketplace for college students. We launched the site, achieved 1,000 unique visitors, and were promptly summoned by the manager of the on campus bookstore to talk about how they do things and why they had to charge the prices they charge (hah!). It lasted one textbook season and we moved on (textbook rentals proved to be the winner in that market, not exchanges).
  • Devil Laundry – in 2000 I worked with a friend on a laundry service whereby students could go online, create an account, choose what they’d like done to their clothes, pay by credit card, and finally have the clothes picked up on Saturday morning to be returned on Sunday morning. I ordered custom printed laundry bags and coordinated a wholesale relationship with White Star Cleaners on Ninth Street. With everything in place and a few paying beta customers, I realized I wasn’t interested in pursuing it further so I sold it to a friend of mine, Arun Gupta for $300.
  • Devil Community – in 2000 I worked solo on a community site for Duke that would have message boards, events, and most importantly, public course evaluations and reviews of professors. Needless to say, campus administrators heard from professors who were upset by it so I was called into Dean Sue’s office (Dean of Student Affairs). After a nice chat with the dean, nothing much came of the site as it didn’t achieve critical mass.
  • Hannon Hill – in January 2001 I incorporated Hannon Hill, my first serious company, focused on a Software-as-a-Service content management system for small businesses. Hannon Hill ultimately was successful ranking as the 247th fastest growing company in the United States in 2007 by Inc. magazine (read the Iterate or Die series of posts).

Overall, college was a great platform to try out ideas and collaborate with talented people. One of my biggest takeaways was that I’d learn something new in every project, resulting in new ideas and insight I could take to the next one.

What else? What are some business ideas you’ve tried in college?

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