While Penn students attempt to follow the paths of tech giants like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs by taking time off from school to work on their tech startups, the ultimate decision of whether to return to classes or forgo the degree isn't an easy one.
George Beall — founder of Touch Tiles — and Penn students Arjun Jain, Adam Elkassas, Michael Powell and Matt Wojo — founders of Down to Chill — have chosen different paths but are satisfied with their choices.
Leaving Penn to outsmart Apple
After finishing his freshman year at Penn, George Beall returned to his home state of California to found Touch Tiles, a tech startup that develops touch screen tiles that customers place together to essentially build their own devices.
Apple and Samsung create all of their devices using basically the same hardware, but do not cater to individual customers. Beall imagined giving consumers the power to customize their own devices — dictating size, storage and features — simply by adding and subtracting tiles.
“It’s Legos except for technology,” he said.
Beall first came up with the idea when the iPhone 6 was released. He realized that there is such thing as “too big” and not everyone has the same preferences.
Beall now splits his time between his hometown of Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. Though he is not averse to coming back to school, he hopes to continue running his company.
“I would prefer not returning to Penn,” he said.
Beall hopes that Touch Tiles will be in the minority of tech startups that end up succeeding. To give Touch Tiles the best chance of surviving, Beall devotes all of his time to the project.
“I was not looking to drop out of school; it just happened,” Beall said.
Considering the low success rate of startups, Beall anticipates that he will not be working for Touch Tiles in the next five years. The majority of startups either fail or are sold to larger companies.
Despite the risks involved in temporarily dropping out of school to start a project, Beall stands behind his decision to take a leave of absence. One risk is the cost — Beall’s next step is to raise $5 million dollars to finance his next prototype.
“The problem with a hardware startup is that everything you do bleeds money,” he said. “I think we have a good shot, and I would prefer to not sell … but I can’t even tell you what’s happening in two months."
Catching Google’s attention with a student-built app
Sophomores Arjun Jain, Adam Elkassas, Michael Powell and Matt Wojo took leaves of absences during the 2014-2015 school year to create a social media app called Down to Chill. The app provides individuals with a platform for informing each another of their social activities and reconnecting with old friends. Jain describes the app as “Tinder for friends.”
“We made it exclusive to your Facebook. As you grew older and your network grew it was hard to keep in touch with friends that you made a while ago,” Jain said.
To participate, users indicate the times that they are free and post the activities that they are engaging in and those in their social network can swipe down or up depending on whether they are “down to chill.” If both parties swipe down, it is considered a “match.”
Aside from spending time at Penn, they also went to State College, Pa. to test the app on Penn State students. After a year of trials — which gained 25,000 users — at both Penn and Penn State, the students collectively recognized that it was time to return to Penn and decided not to launch the project due to inadequate funding.
“You have to learn how to cut your losses," Jain said. "Yes, you have to be attached to your startup, but you can’t be blinded by the fact that it didn't work.
Recently, Google launched an app called “Who’s Down” which is almost identical to “Down to Chill.” Jain said that he and his co-founders members are flattered by the fact that Google has indirectly endorsed their idea.
“The fact that one of the most valued firms in history just entered the exact same space is kind of cool,” Jain said, adding that they are planning on reaching out to Google and Who's Down in the hopes of possibly merging their ideas.
After coming back from their leaves of absence, the founders had a fresh perspective on how to get the most out of their college education. They learned where their academic and entrepreneurial strengths and weaknesses lie. Now, they are more equipped to align their education and extracurricular priorities with their long term goals.
“Knowing what you don’t know is incredibly valuable,” Michael Powell said.
In addition to becoming more self-aware, their gap year allowed the students to make numerous connections within the tech startup industry, and now, they are well known in the industry and consult for other startups.
“The skills and the network that we have gained have been completely worth it,” Jain said.
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