When John Xie began studying business and entrepreneurship at Babson College, he didn't have any of the typical freshman worries about workload or time-management skills. Xie, now 22, entered the Wellesley, Mass., school already accustomed to long hours, high pressure and tight deadlines, thanks to the fact that he founded his first company, the successful web hosting firm CirtexHosting, when he was just 13 years old.
"High school was really challenging, because I didn't have any time. Basically, the schedule was terrible," Xie says. "I really had very little time to work on a business. But I would say that when I entered Babson, it was at a level where the company could run on its own without me having to run the day-to-day operations."
Like any good CEO, he worked even harder to expand Cirtex to the point at which it is hosting more than 100,000 websites internationally and bringing in about $2 million annually. Then, he set his sights on starting another business.
In 2010, in the fall of his senior year at Babson, Xie met Carl Hu at an entrepreneurship mixer. The two worked together through the remainder of Xie's college career to form the universal file-sharing platform now known as Minus.
"The whole concept was to focus on the simplicity and the minimalism of sharing: photo sharing, video sharing, file sharing," Xie says. The free service allows users to easily upload documents, photos, videos and music files to the Minus site, where they can be viewed and shared by others using any browser or device.
Immediately after his graduation in May 2011, Xie, who now serves as Minus' CMO and CTO, achieved three major milestones: He and Hu, now president/CEO, moved the company to New York, raised $1 million from IDG Capital and purchased the commercially superior Minus.com domain (to replace the original Min.us) for a little north of $100,000.
Since then, they've used this progress to build on their initial foundation and improve the product by adding functionality such as drag-and-drop uploading and increasing the range of acceptable file formats. Minus now has more than 500,000 users.
Xie and Hu's ability to raise funds and expand is all the more impressive given that the firm does not yet have a monetization plan. In the future they may opt for revenue generators such as charging for premium features, but the emphasis through 2012 is on building market share. The $1 million in capital allows them to operate as a free service during this building phase.
"If you build a great product that users love, you should have no problem finding a way to make money from it," Xie says. "But if you get distracted by turning a profit too early, it could come at the expense of growth and customer satisfaction."
Without an advertising budget, Xie and Hu have leveraged their user base for crowdsourced marketing. Users who are pleased with the platform have begun sharing not just files, but also praise and recommendations. As Minus' monthly downloads approach 50 million, the tweets, texts, referrals and forum posts from users urging their peers to join in the sharing have surged.
Meanwhile, recent upgrades have included Facebook integration; mobile, desktop and open-source apps; and an interface that lets users share experiences and interactions. Such platform changes have further fueled the pace of tweets and user endorsements.
Minus' model (and name) is based on the mantra of simplicity, and Xie's advice to other entrepreneurs is equally straightforward. "Believe in yourself, believe in your idea, believe in your own vision, even if other people tell you otherwise," he says. "If everyone tells you it's a bad idea, probably it is a bad idea; but if a couple of people tell you no or turn you down, just keep going."
Joel Holland, 25, is the founder and CEO of Footage Firm in Reston, Va.