UC Berkeley computer science students are dropping out of school.
But they’re not leaving because the classes are too difficult or school is too expensive. Rather, they’re withdrawing to pursue their dreams of entrepreneurship — even though the odds are against them.
Although the numbers vary from study to study, research has proven that the majority of startups fail. A study released in September by a Harvard Business School lecturer found that three-quarters of U.S.-based startups fail to return their investors’ capital.
Still, the students who leave the familiarity of UC Berkeley are excited to embrace the challenge of starting a company.
Eric Zhang did everything from freelance Web design to importing and selling fake mustaches while in high school. Today, the 21-year-old has returned to UC Berkeley after dropping out as a sophomore at the end of the fall 2010 semester.
“Entrepreneurship is never about ‘I’m going to wait until the risk is lowest,’” Zhang said. “It’s always about taking every opportunity, even if the risk is high. And if you take 10 opportunities and you fail nine times and succeed once, then you’ve still succeeded.”
Zhang and friends entered a shopping website they developed into an on-campus startup funding contest. The site was the beginning of Flotype, their company that later built products like NowJS and eventually Bridge, both tools for software and Web developers. Zhang left UC Berkeley shortly after winning the contest.
“(NowJS) became really popular really fast,” Zhang said. “We got thousands of developers using it in just a few weeks.”
Even after leaving school, Zhang stayed connected to the campus community. He helped co-found Hackers@Berkeley in fall 2011, in part because he wanted to recruit people to the Flotype team.
Another Hackers@Berkeley co-founder, Ritik Malhotra, became interested in computers and programming when he was young. Now, more than a decade after Malhotra’s first experience with the Internet, he has left UC Berkeley to pursue his own online startup company.
“I think you have to at some point suck it up and learn everything as you go on,” Malhotra said. “What’s the difference between being 20 or 22 when you graduate? … If you really want to do something and the opportunity comes right now, you should take it.”
Malhotra is a recipient of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 Fellowship, a program that pays teens $100,000 over two years to leave school or quit work to focus on projects like starting a company or conducting research.
Malhotra has taken the business route. After working on a variety of projects, he and co-founder Samvit Ramadurgam decided to build a personal media cloud storage solution that will allow a user’s movies and TV shows, for example, to be stored online.
Like Malhotra, Tony Chen and Peter Wysinski, both 19 years old, decided to take a break from UC Berkeley to launch their own Internet business.
Chen and Wysinski finished their freshman year at UC Berkeley last year before leaving to develop a new location-tracking service, Moby.
“If there was any time to execute an idea, this was the right time,” Chen said. “Berkeley’s traditionally really lenient and really friendly to people like us who decide to take some time off.”
Moby is a real-time location-sharing app. Users can generate links on their smartphones that show their location on a map and then share the link with others. The location is updated in real time for accuracy.
The Moby co-founders began programming long before college, but even with years of experience, all of the programmers say dropping out isn’t easy. The workdays can be long, tiring and unpredictable because of the different tasks necessary to keep a company functioning.
“It’s not a 9-to-5 job,” Wysinski said. “You put in what you want to put in because you’re not going to half-ass your idea. One day you spend your entire day writing code, and then the other day you might spend all of it writing emails.”
Despite the students’ drive, some computer science professors believe that dropping out is a foolish thing to do.
“Getting a bachelor’s degree is a certification to a potential employer that you’re capable of finishing something,” said Richard Fateman, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of computer science. “What you have if you drop out of the program is a certification to a potential employer that you were good enough to get into the program.”
Still, the possibility of failure has not discouraged the new entrepreneurs into backing away from their businesses.
“I think everyone’s a little afraid of failing,” Malhotra said. “You just need to be numb to failure. You’re going to experience a lot of ups and downs, and you’re going to think you failed, but realistically, you haven’t.”