Dan Shipper has a trait that’s exceptionally rare among young entrepreneurs—he’s focused on building a traditional stable business.
Dan’s formula for startup success doesn’t at all resemble the hype-fueled dreams of most budding entrepreneurs. He advocates strongly for staying in school and against taking venture funding. He’s gotten plenty of very public interest in his talents and turned it down. If it’s not about customers or revenue, it’s a distraction.
Firefly, his company, received the first investment made by Dorm Room Fund, a student-operated venture fund. The Firefly team accepted the $20,000 investment to experiment with new customer acquisition strategies and accommodate growth. Dorm Room’s investments are designed to allow founders to grow their companies without dropping out of school.
Avoiding the temptation to drop out is about more than just ignoring the hype of Silicon Valley. Dan explained that not having to pay rent or living expenses eases financial pressures and encourages focus on the fundamentals of a business. Students are given a lot more free help and advice, plus “it’s the last time you’ll be around a large population of unemployed coders.”
We talked a little bit about the startup ecosystem at U Penn, where Dan is a junior majoring in philosophy. The most valuable entrepreneurship events are informal—a couple of founders and entrepreneurs have weekly coffee meet-ups, for example. I conceived this project with the expectation that I might discover some singular missing factor that explains the depressingly anemic startup community at Columbia. It’s already quite clear that I’m not going to find that. Dan doesn’t see the university as a major driver behind student entrepreneurship, nor does he see much of a role for it to play. I pressed him for some magic ingredient that Penn had and Columbia didn’t. It just doesn’t exist.
Wharton attracts plenty of entrepreneurs, which certainly helps. But when I asked about how the Firefly team met, it became clear that quality matters a whole lot more than quantity. All three co-founders (Dan, Patrick Leahy, and Justin Meltzer) are technical. Firefly was built at a hackathon (PennApps) and rewritten from Rails to Node.js at another (AngelHack). It’s rare enough to find one student fluent in both programming and business development. Firefly has three. Yet of the three, not one is studying computer science.
A number of major universities, Columbia among them, focus their efforts on supporting entrepreneurship in their engineering schools. I think that’s a big mistake. Dan and I see very much eye to eye on how to build a great software company. It has nothing to do with being the most technically proficient software engineer. He’s a self-proclaimed terrible programmer, but he writes and ships code that customers use. If you’re the founder of a software startups, that—not technical skill, venture funding, or media coverage—is all that matters.