For the average college student, school is stressful enough--juggling classes, doing homework, calling mom and fitting some partying into a seven-day week. Now imagine running a business out of your already-chaotic campus home--persuading your dormmates that rap isn't good background music for business calls and assuring your clients there won't be pizza stains on their invoices--and you've got your work cut out for you.
Elliott Frutkin and Harry Schechter began their Web solutions company with these obstacles and more: The two childhood friends were attending universities half a country apart, they knew next to nothing about Web design, and they were doing all this while living in dorms. But when a professor offered Frutkin $200 to build a Web site, the starving student couldn't say no. He called Schechter, a systems analysis major, who cracked the books and figured out this new thing called the Web--new in 1995, anyway. One professor led to another, and the partners christened their company Doceus Inc. Now housed in posh offices in Washington, DC, the company brought in $1.3 million in 1999 and expects $4.6 million this year.
"The joke is that our first office was 4 inches by 4 inches--Box 269 at Mail Boxes Etc.," says Frutkin. Soon after start-up, the partners moved their operations out of Frutkin's dorm room and into slightly classier digs: the basement of Frutkin's fraternity house at American University in Washington, DC. Schechter commuted in on weekends and holidays from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
Though the partners sometimes rented office space for meetings, their good clients always insisted on having meetings at the frat house. "We would have to prep all the fraternity guys, because it always worked out there was a party the night before," Frutkin says. "We'd wake up real early, clean up, scrub everything down and take our clients through the back door."
Doceus was enmeshed in the day-to-day routines of the frat house. The basement office shared space with the washer and dryer. Parties often spilled over into the work space. The partners hired Frutkin's frat brothers as employees. "It was a really crazy environment," recalls Frutkin, 24. "We lived together; we worked together; we socialized together. It eventually became too much, and that's why most of those people aren't with us anymore." Frutkin eventually dropped out of school to work on the business full time, while Schechter, now 23, completed his degree. And though their business has moved off campus, they haven't left their roots behind. They've personalized their offices with bright paint, loud music and office dogs, and the successful mix of business and fun they developed in college still guides them.
"The best ideas we ever came up with were while we were sitting on the couch drinking beers," Frutkin says. "That's what the business was founded on, and that's an advantage we have. We are a true Internet business in that we enjoy doing what we do."
Helpful hints for college entrepreneurs, courtesy of Elliott Frutkin and Harry Schechter:
- Separate lives: "Be very careful to keep a separation between your business and your social life, because it's very easy to hire the guys that live in the house [or dorm] with you--and it's probably a better idea not to," advises Frutkin.
- Private meetings: The partners rented by-the-hour shared office space to protect their clients from the horrors of dorm and frat life--but their best clients enjoyed their real home office.
- Wake-up call: "We would do client meetings early in the morning, from 9:00 to 10:00," says Frutkin. "I don't know where you went to school, but I don't know a fraternity guy who's up before noon or 1:00."
- Dorm vs. frat: While the partners enjoyed the Internet connection Frutkin's dorm offered, they pre-ferred the frat. "We could have phone lines installed and packages delivered at the fraternity house," says Frutkin. "Instead of stacking four desks in a dorm room and each person's office being where they lived, [the frat house] gave us a little bit more room and flexibility."
What, No Watercooler?
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Doceus Inc., (202) 785-8100, http://www.doceus.com