"It's easy to start a business, but it's hard to survive. You have to have mental toughness to survive. It's like going to war."
Bal Dixit '74 (MBA), founder and chairman of the board of Newtex Industries Inc.
"I always told my children as they grew up that if you can support yourself, that's really good. If you can support a family, that's better. If you can run an enterprise that can support many families, then you're a hero."
Sir Terrence Matthews, serial entrepreneur
"The free market is a very honest place and dictates which products are needed and which are not. Why would you develop something for your employer who is undervaluing you in the first place? Why not own what you develop and then sell to the end user?"
Bob McCook '07, sales and marketing director, Teldio
Alumni are finding creative ways of starting businesses soon after graduation - or even before
Go to college, graduate and land the dream job with an important company.
RIT students have been doing exactly that since the university's creation. But for many, the dream takes a different shape. A growing number of graduates are launching their own businesses, choosing to follow the entrepreneurial path.
"There's a very clear trend among students and graduates to embark on the independent road," says Emanuel Contomanolis, associate vice president and director, Co-op and Career Services. "The environment at RIT, our culture of innovation, is well suited to encourage the entrepreneurial student."
In fact, an estimated 10 percent of students have started businesses - typically something computer related - before entering RIT. Exactly how many graduates have started and are operating their own companies is unknown; thousands, certainly, including photography studios, design companies, restaurants, professional engineering firms, manufacturing companies and Internet-related startups.
A friend in high places
Nicolas Otamendi was looking for a co-op job when opportunity knocked.
"Professor (Carl) Lundgren (mechanical engineering technology) asked me if I wanted to meet a billionaire," says Otamendi '09 (mechanical engineering technology).
Bob McCook '07 (marketing) had a "techie sales job" with ESPN when he received a call from Richard DeMartino, director of RIT's Simone Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. "Dr. D invited me to 'interview with a really famous rich guy.' "
Mark Dabrowski '08 (computer engineering technology) "couldn't believe it" when he received an e-mail from Michael Eastman, department chair, Electrical, Computer and Telecom Engineering Technology Department, encouraging him to come to an unusual meeting. "I thought he was joking."
It was 2007. The three were introduced to Sir Terrence Matthews, serial entrepreneur and knight of the British Empire. He has founded more than 80 companies and is current chairman of Wesley Clover Corp., a venture capital firm, and Mitel Networks Corp. and March Networks Corp., both involved in developing Internet Protocol (IP) systems.
Matthews has become a frequent visitor to RIT, giving presentations about business, meeting with students - and sometimes hiring them. Otamendi, who came to RIT from Argentina, McCook of Holmdel, N.J., and Dabrowski of Manchester, Conn., were soon on their way to Matthews' headquarters in Ottawa, Canada. Their challenge: Take an idea and develop it into a viable business. Matthews would provide the idea, the funding - and an ambitious timetable.
Their efforts led to Teldio Inc., which launched its first product, Radio Branch Exchange (RBX) platform in 2009. The patented technology allows telephone communication over two-way radios. Teldio formed an important partnership with Motorola and now has customers in 10 countries. In April, the company was named one of the Top 25 Up and Coming technology companies in Canada, and in June, Teldio opened a sales office in Chicago. They are currently focused on raising capital, growing the business and developing product ideas.
Otamendi is CEO, McCook is director of sales and marketing, and Dabrowski serves as technology director. Teldio has grown to 15 employees, including one more RIT grad, Ben Willis '08 (computer engineering technology), of Lawrenceville, N.J., technical lead.
All agree they have had an amazing opportunity. But they work very hard; in fact, they work pretty much 24/7. Everything else comes second, says Otamendi.
"This is what you do when you're 23. This is the time to work hard."
"This is a lifestyle, not just a job. You live and breathe this," says McCook. "Terry basically empowered us. When something like that happens, you don't walk away from it."
Dabrowski agrees. "It's been a challenge, but I wouldn't have given it up for anything.
I like the chance to make my own future."
The world needs more entrepreneurs, Otamendi believes. Generating work, generating wealth, generating innovative technology - entrepreneurs have an opportunity to make a positive impact on the world. It's tremendously exciting.
"I recommend it," he says. "Everyone should start a company."
Learn more about the company at www.teldio.com
High hopes and aspirations
The business idea that Sandra Turner and Shen-Chuang Lin are working on isn't exactly glamorous. But it could solve a real problem faced by many people.
They're developing a product for people who perspire excessively.
Options currently on the market are limited to deodorants, antiperspirants or uncomfortable shields - all of which have remained pretty much unchanged for decades, says Turner '10 (M.F.A., industrial design). Their product would make use of new materials that are more absorbent, smaller and more comfortable.
"Our research shows that people who have this problem are looking for a better solution, especially today, with more close-fitting clothing," says Turner.
"The technology is out there to do this," says Shen-Chuang Lin '09 (M.S., professional studies/packaging science/industrial design). "We're not promising to solve world hunger, but this is something people can benefit from. That's the biggest reward for me."
Turner has bachelor's degrees in business/marketing and photography, both from SUNY Brockport, and many years of varied business experience, including marketing and retailing. Before starting her graduate program at RIT, she worked at Rochester Works, an employment training and consulting service. It gave her an opportunity to assess her own career and discover an aptitude for industrial design.
"All those years in different jobs really helped me be more empathetic," she realized. "That's a key in industrial design."
Likewise, Lin, who has an undergrad degree in physics from University of Rochester, was attracted to industrial design because "it's about people."
Their business got started when they took a class, Entrepreneurship and New Ventures, with Richard DeMartino, director of the Simone Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, RIT's student business incubator. Their company, Aspire, is now among the startups there. They're investigating possible patent/intellectual property protection, developing prototypes and researching production options. They hope to have their first product on the market this year.
Meanwhile, the concept got a test run in May at Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival, where they had a booth.
"It was so validating for us to hear all day long from women - and men - who have this problem and are interested in our product," says Turner.
"The idea was like a tiny little seed," she adds. "You have to figure out how to help it grow into something bigger. If I was doing this by myself, it would have stayed my little idea. Collaboration with Shen and others here has brought it this far. That's what I've been really excited about at RIT."
A taste for Web ventures
"My biggest fear in starting a company is I could go on forever living in my parents' basement."
Greg Koberger '10, co-founder 10 Tangent Labs
"Entrepreneurs are not huge risk-takers. That's a myth. They're calculated risk takers. It's not like Vegas."
Richard DeMartino, director, Simone Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
You have a Facebook page, photos on Flickr, a personal blog, a Twitter feed, a LinkedIn profile and you post your own music videos to YouTube. You're scattered over the Web in so many pieces that it's hard to find them all.
Enter Flavors.me, launched in February. "This revitalizes the idea of the personal homepage," explains Jack Zerby '03 (new media design), company partner, co-founder and designer. "It allows people to design their own homepage and collect their content in one place. Our goal was to make something that would be easy, fast, magical, fun to play with for people." The website makes it easy for users to create a personal page with a unique look and links to numerous social media sites - everything about you all in one personalized package.
Time will tell how big this concept can grow, but Flavors.me has an excellent pedigree. Founder Jonathan Marcus is former VP of the popular video-sharing site Vimeo, which grew to more than 1 million users and is now owned by IAC/InterActive Corp.
"Vimeo was amazing," says Zerby, who worked as a designer for the company. (Zerby was a former RIT classmate of Jakob Lodwick, co-founder of Vimeo.)
When Marcus started developing Flavors.me, he asked Zerby to help develop initial concepts.
Zerby already had a good deal of experience under his belt. His first job after RIT was with the prestigious design firm Pentagram. "I got started in the interactive part of the company," he says, adding that Pentagram partner Lisa Strausfeld was a big career influence. "I got lucky. It was like boot camp for designers."
After three years, he moved on to R/GA, an award-winning communications and marketing agency specializing in technology brands. "I realized advertising wasn't for me," says Zerby. He was working at Frog Design when Lodwick offered him a job at Vimeo. He was working full-time at Vimeo and nights and weekends on Flavors.me when he was offered the opportunity to become a partner in the new venture.
"It was the scariest thing ever," Zerby says. "It was doom and gloom in the economy. I have a wife and a baby. I'd always been an employee, and I had that mind-set."
But he took the plunge. For the first three months, he had no salary. Now the company has grown to 13 employees - who all work from different locations. The website is catching on and gaining a reputation as a fun, creative addition to social networking.
"You can respond two different ways to the economic situation," says Zerby. "You can use it to push you forward, or you can let it pull you down. As Warren Buffet says, Microsoft was born in a recession."
"I've put 100 percent of myself into this," he adds. "That's what you do when you have ownership. Once you get over the fear of losing stability, it's so much more exciting than working for someone else. You're in control, and there's so much you can do."
Visit Flavors.me online to find out more.
Best of both worlds
"It's a different mentality. You have to be very flexible, self-motivated and detail-oriented. You can't afford to overlook anything. You get out what you put in."
Ben Willis '08, technical lead, Teldio
After receiving their information technology degrees in May, Ian Mikutel and Greg Koberger might have been tempted to spend this summer kicking back.
They both have enviable jobs starting in September: Koberger will go to work for Mozilla in San Francisco as a web developer; Mikutel heads for Seattle to become a program manager for Microsoft.
But since graduation, they have been focusing on their own company, 10 Tangent Labs, which will function as an umbrella for development of business ideas.
"We have four or five strong startup ideas, all Internet-based," says Mikutel.
One possibility is Intersect, which won a top prize in the Alumni Association Board of Directors Innovation and Creativity competition at this year's Imagine RIT festival (see page 24 for a list of winners). Intersect is a tool that allows students to search for interesting and relevant college courses online, making the process of registering for courses more efficient and rewarding. Koberger started working on the idea nearly two years ago. They hope Intersect could someday be used by colleges anywhere.
Mikutel was in high school when he launched his first online venture - TheWiire.com, a website devoted to Nintendo Wii - in 2005, a year before the product came out. TheWiire.com features news, product reviews and podcasts. About 7,000 people all over the world tune in to listen to his updates, which include interviews with key industry figures. The site makes enough money through advertising to cover expenses, and Mikutel has a small volunteer staff including two programmers from Canada, a graphic designer from Washington state and an editor from Milwaukee.
Likewise, Mikutel and Koberger are working from different locations this summer; Mikutel at home in Glens Falls, N.Y., and Koberger with his family in Schaghticoke, N.Y., near Troy. They expect to continue collaborating on the side after starting their new jobs.
Entrepreneurship is a passion for both, and they know they are not alone among
RIT students and grads. This past spring, they created RIT 48, a two-day event that brought students from across the campus
together to collaborate, receive coaching from business professionals and develop plans for startup companies. Ten teams participated.
"Being an entrepreneur is not for everybody," Mikutel says. "I think it boils down to how much risk and uncertainty can you stomach. You have to get used to the idea of going against the grain. You have to be able to take criticism, you have to be willing to change when things don't work out as you expected."
"I'm looking forward to working at Mozilla," says Koberger. "But I also like working for myself. I'm excited about seeing what we can do."
Engineer, writer, movie maker
"Deaf entrepreneurs will bring their own sensibilities and perspectives to the marketplace and thus add to the diversity of business perspectives represented in our country."
Jim DeCaro, interim president, NTID
Nathan Mellenthien '05, '06 (mechanical engineering, MBA) started making movies in fifth grade. He also envisioned designing roller coasters.
When it came time to choose a career path, the practical side of his nature won out and he studied engineering because he felt the opportunities were promising. For the past four years, he has worked as a die technician for Dunlop Tire in Buffalo. He likes the work. But then, on a flight home from Seattle in 2008, a story idea came to mind.
"During my free time, I started writing a film script." When he finished, he wanted to produce it as a live-action feature film. So he talked to an accountant to figure out how he could finance the project. That led him to set up his own company, Linkwise Productions.
"A lot of people spend a lot of money on their hobbies," he points out. "This could turn into a business."
The project brought him back to RIT this spring, when he got permission to film a scene during the annual Tora-Con convention sponsored by RIT's Anime Club. Mellenthien's movie is a love story about an engineer who works at a toy factory who meets a girl at an anime convention, then meets another girl and ends up caught between them.
"It's not really based on my life," he says. But the project is very closely entwined with his life at this point. Most of the actors and camera people are friends and family. He has set up his house like a movie studio. And his hobbies - anime, gaming - "have taken a back seat to this."
His parents, Donna and Don Kathke, have been very supportive. "I was kind of afraid to go to them at first. But I had a serious conversation with my mom and she said 'Go for it.' "
Mellenthien hopes to hold the premiere at Anime North 2011 in Toronto next May and release the movie through independent channels.
"While I love engineering, I love film work. It's been a great experience. We've had a really good time. I can't wait to see the finished product."