PICKING YOUR FOUNDERS is one of the most critical aspects of starting a new business. Typically most founders pick one or two additional people to partner with. Imagine for a second having seven additional co-founders to start off with from day one.
That’s where Jeff Eiden of Present Bee found himself in a new initiative at Northwestern University called NUvention:Web . The program is described as “a two-quarter capstone course in which students work across disciplines and Northwestern schools to design, plan, and run web-based businesses coached by faculty and software industry experts.”
That translates to taking the experience of launching a new business, converting it into a classroom exercise, and bringing together students from multiple different departments within the university to all work together. Although the company has continued to be strong since the initial launch, it hasn’t been a smooth ride.
“To coordinate with everyone was a mess and to keep everyone doing something productive and doing it in a timely fashion. I think it proved to me that that is just too big of a team to have. I think you’re much more efficient and just a better oiled machine if you have a few people working on the project as opposed to seven to eight.”
In the next six months after launching Present Bee, the team would slowly shrink as students went back to their studies. Some found jobs. Others simply lost interest.
“And I mean, we try to give people clearly defined roles, but at the same time that’s not the way that start-ups are created. You can’t really have a clearly defined role all the time. You have to be resourceful, you have to be scrappy, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty in a bunch of different areas. And I think you’re always better off, when you’re starting off, to have a smaller team as opposed to a larger one like that, because there’s definitely a lot of inefficiency in that regard and to be honest, I’m feeling a lot better about things now that we’ve made our team a little bit smaller.”
Though looking back, there are no hard feelings about the way Present Bee got started. NUvention:Web is a new breed of hybrid college/real-world entrepreneur experiments that colleges are trying, and, as with any new endeavor, there are plenty of learning experiences.
“I felt like this would be a great opportunity for me to take advantage of. And it was the first year of the course, so Northwestern had no idea what to expect; I had no idea what to expect. So I applied and ended up getting into the class, and for the next two quarters, I was gung-ho working on this. And I met some of the most bright, intelligent and talented people that I’ve met in Northwestern.
“I still consider the people that I met to be some of my closest friends at school, in a very different way as someone who you meet in a social context. But, to have that experience with someone else and to go through all the long nights and those constant little slip-ups that you have and the stresses of delays and things like that – it really brings you close to those people…”
CHOSING NORTHWESTERN was a simple decision for Jeff. Staying in Chicago not only felt like the right choice, but it was something Jeff wanted to do for his family. Growing up in Deerfield with his two siblings, he was always a little saddened about his parents’ families being spread out across the country.
“It goes back to my family, to be honest. Both of my parents have siblings who are dispersed around the country. My dad has a sister who lives in North Carolina. My dad’s mother lives in Florida. My mom has a brother, lives in Oregon. When it comes to holiday times or dinner on Sunday night, it’s unfortunate when you don’t have your family around.
“I see what they’re saying when they say, ‘I hope, you, your brother and your sister stay around Chicago after you graduate.’ I agree with them that it is important to stick around with your family. At end of the day, your family is going to be there for you. Without family, all those holidays – they become absolutely meaningless. So, a big reason that I wanted to stay around Northwestern is that I knew a lot of the opportunities that would come my way after school would be in the area. And that’s proven to be very, very true.”
Coming from a family where both parents are practicing doctors, there was always a deep appreciation for education and pushing himself to reach higher. Hearing the tales of his parents working their ways up from nothing resonated deeply with him.
“They both came from pretty meager backgrounds, in terms of their family. My mom worked as a waitress and had another job to put herself through college. I respect my dad for making it as well. His parents had no idea about college at all – neither of them went to college. And his sister didn’t go to college; he was the only one in the family to do so.
“I got a sense of the American dream where if you do work hard, you put the effort into it, and you have a passion for something, that you will make something of yourself. That was a lesson that was drilled into my head over and over again.
“Both my mom and my dad, they had a vision that they wanted to succeed and they went out and they worked hard, and they now have jobs where they help people on a regular basis. And they have a certain level of ownership over it, and I respect them a lot for it.”
The more he learned about their pasts and their struggles to succeed, the more Jeff realized that he too wanted to be his own boss and to take a leap of faith into a business venture of his own.
“Whether it’s in the business world or in the medical field, it’s really important for me to take ownership of myself and make something of myself. And I live with it everyday now. I wake up in the morning, and I say: ‘What can I do to, to better myself?’ So, good or bad, that’s kind of been the ideology that’s been put into my head.”
WHEREVER PRESENT BEE goes from here, there is still the question of the city in which Jeff wants to be an entrepreneur.
“I’m very, very drawn to Chicago, because there are people who are so excited about cultivating a start-up culture here, and I think it’s a very cool time to be in Chicago and interested in online web companies. There have been some huge success stories.
“And I think there’s just so much potential. We have really great universities that are here like University of Chicago and Northwestern University and there’s a lot of talent already in the city. And I think if it became more accepted that Chicago was another hotspot for start-ups, I think it would really start picking up traction quick.
“Even at the University level, you see people starting [to get] glimmers of hope that there can be something great here. The Nuvention:Web class is a great example of the fact that there is increasing demands for entrepreneurship in Chicago, and they built this course to satisfy that demand. There were twice as many applications as there was for the previous year, and they had to turn away other people. They’re actually starting up a seed fund for companies that come out of classes.”
THE FIRST ATTEMPT at entrepreneurship was far from a success. We all get bombarded with email messages, banner ads, and TV ads advertising that claim “anyone can make millions of dollars working only three hours a week from the comfort of your living room.” One of the most common is the eBay business, which practically runs itself and entices us with examples of eBay store owners selling merchandise nationwide with zero inventory by means of drop shipping.
Jeff didn’t fall for one of the schemes, however his experience trying to sell hockey equipment through eBay was no better than many of those who do.
“In high school, I tried and miserably failed to operate an eBay business buying and selling hockey equipment. I played hockey in high school and I kind of wanted to combine my passions a little bit. And I was all wrapped up about it and I thought I found a supplier. I thought I was going to be able to make some money doing this and not having to store any of the product. Just buy from the supplier and ship it directly.
“Then I realized the reality of the situation was, not only was I not making any money, but there’s so much competition out there. That was my first entrepreneurial failure. But, you know, with all the failures, you kind of learn a little bit and you apply it to your next endeavor.”
The motivation to jump in and try the business not only came from his family’s story, but from his aggravating experiences working at a local golf course. The experience left him jaded by the idea working for someone else.
“I worked as a caddy as well, and that was another experience that really made me want to aspire to something where I could be my own boss. Dealing with stuck-up country club members and having to be completely obedient and respectful, even if they were completely out of line, that was difficult for me. Also being treated as more of an inferior person, that was really difficult for me to deal with. There were times where I just kind of wanted to call it quits; throw their clubs on the ground and walk off the course. And that’s also part of my motivation of why I want to be an entrepreneur, be my own boss.”
In addition to all of that, there is a quote from a friend that has stuck with him for years now. “He said, ‘There’s a farm of cubicles waiting for you after you graduate.’ So I’m trying to avoid that farm of cubicles.”
GIVING IT ANOTHER GO in a much more controlled environment with a large set of resources available to him, the NUvention:Web class at Northwestern University offered Jeff the opportunity to try something truly innovative with little risk. After being accepted into the class, Jeff and his seven co-founders faced the challenge of developing their idea.
“Well, we were officially deemed the ‘marketing team.’ It was such a broad term, but we eventually narrowed it down to the fact that we wanted to focus on social commerce. We felt like that was an area in the web space that was really picking up steam and we wanted to explore that more. As we looked more into it, we saw that there is really a gap in terms of the practice of gifting. That buying the right gift for someone was still a huge challenge for people and they were constantly looking for something to alleviate their stress. There was an opportunity to develop something that could help them and that’s kind of where the ideology behind Present Bee was born.”
It’s something we have all faced before. It comes down to a birthday, the holidays, a wedding, or maybe an anniversary, and you can’t figure out what to get someone. We all wish there was a magic button we could push and that would spit out a list of gift ideas based on the likes and dislikes of the recipient. Using the power of all the data available on social networks like Facebook, Present Bee is looking to do just that.
“You log into Present Bee using Facebook Connect. When you log in, you bring you entire social network with you. You’re brought to your dashboard where the first step would be you search for a friend who you’d like to purchase a gift for, and you can search for anyone of your Facebook friends. You search for them, you get taken to what’s called their Buzz List. Their Buzz List is a list of gift ideas and the discussion of gift ideas that’s specific to that particular person. So, the first thing that Present Bee offers is social gift recommendations based on their Facebook activity and their information.
“Facebook allows all that information to be pulled by third parties – whether it’s like favorite movies, favorite TV shows… But then there’s a lot more to it. Someone who’s looking for a gift idea, oftentimes they ask their friends or family for help and Present Bee allows you to do that as well. So, you can invite any of your mutual friends on Facebook to come onto this Buzz List and say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a gift for you, but I’ll talk to one of mutual friends and maybe he’ll have an idea for what may be a perfect gift for you.’ So, he can access the Buzz List and he can offer his own ideas and insights on what would be good for you. Multiple friends, ideally, are all interacting on this one page, voting, commenting on various gift ideas for you.”
CHOOSING THE RIGHT PATH is the kind of decision one can take on alone or go out and find comfort in the knowledge of trusted friends. However, the decision Jeff now faces is not one that his friends have previous experience with, he has found.
As Present Bee gains users and needs additional funding and resources to grow, it also requires more and more time from its founders. So much time, in fact, that there is a thought sneaking into Jeff’s mind that he never thought he would face: What to do if entrepreneurship starts to get in the way of college. Which one does he choose?
“If money doesn’t come, I think it depends on how long we go at it and how much failure we see. I think if by the end of this year we haven’t picked up a lot of traction and we don’t have substantial amount of interest from investors, I think it’s a sign that maybe it’s not going to work out. If at some point I do feel that all the work that I’m putting into this thing isn’t really panning out, I think it’ll be in my best interest to move on in some way. And I’ve thought about this a lot and I do think that meeting like-minded people who have this kind of passion for entrepreneurship in college is one of the most valuable things you can get out of going to college.
“I think we [the Present Bee team] have such a valuable timeframe right now where we don’t have a substantial amount of risks to deal with. We’re still in college. We don’t have a family to deal with. We don’t have a full-time job on the side yet, and if we can take advantage of that rare window of opportunity and make something happen, it’ll be something really special.”
The advice has been varied so far. Many advocate for staying in college, many advocate for chasing the company wherever it may lead.
“I definitely have been getting conflicting messages from different people, depending on what route they’ve taken is the route that they advocate most of the time. I think there’s a lot to be said about going the entrepreneur route, but when I have these discussions about the future with my parents, it’s much more geared towards going the less risky route. They want what’s best for me and they want to make sure I’m happy, I’m stable and comfortable. But, it’s just amazing, it’s like you walk out of a discussion with one person, you’re totally one way and then you have another discussion and you are thinking the opposite way. I have these great discussions and my head starts to spin.”