When I was in college, guys usually pretended they were in a band. Now, they pretend they are in a startup. The times have definitely changed.
A friend sent me a note asking if I would meet her new co-worker for lunch. He graduated in December and took a job as a programmer at a large local company. He was interested in entrepreneurship, and what was going on locally, so she thought I might be a good person for him to talk to. I agreed.
I'm skeptical of people that want to be entrepreneurs. I think people jump into it without realizing how much work it can be, so I asked this guy (let's call him J) why he was so interested in startups. "The chicks," he said, without missing a beat. I laughed. "Sure," I said. "Women your age love workaholics with no money, no stability, and an uncertain future." He spent a few seconds talking about how he liked building things, and how entrepreneurship seemed like a good fit for that. Then said that he and his college roommates had used a startup to meet girls. I didn't believe him, and had to hear the story for myself.
It started, like most dumb ideas, over a beer. J and his roommates were talking about beer, and one of them suggested they brew and market special beers targeted to different colleges. An attractive young lady who shared an accounting class with one of the roommates had recently missed the class, and came over to ask him if there was a homework assignment. She asked what they were talking about, and they told her their million dollar idea for college branded beer. She sat there for a half hour listening to their plan. She said it sounded exciting. The guys took note. And thus began a regular ritual of "getting the story straight" about their latest idea before they went out to the bars.
Over time, the startup ideas changed. Different ideas had varying levels of success, but the guys all agreed that it was an easy way to talk to women, and many women really liked listening. They particularly liked it when the idea was something they would use, and they could give real feedback about how it should work. That's when the guys decided to take it to the next level. After honing in on a business idea (that was very similar to Dodgeball), they actually made business cards. J, who was relatively shy, began using the cards to approach women. His pitch was that their software was going to launch in a couple of weeks, and that they were looking for some early testers. "Would you be interested?" was all he had to ask. That's so much easier than a pick up line.
The business idea moved through phases, particularly when one of the guys had a steady girlfriend for a few months. They spent a lot of time "in testing", "fundraising", and "redesigning key features." The funny thing is that they never really started anything. They never wrote a line of code. The closest they came was a photoshop mock-up of the website, and they only showed that to a few people. All that really mattered was that college girls seemed to like these guys more when they talked about their startup. It went on for three semesters, until J's roommates graduated.
I listened to this story with surprise. I have a difficult time believing this is a real trend. I think perhaps J and his roommates just needed a little confidence, and their fake startup gave them that. Or maybe times really have changed. Maybe the web, and in particular sites like Myspace and Facebook have made technology entrepreneurship seem like more of a normal thing for college kids.
In some ways, I like it. I imagine a future where I can talk my own son out of pursuing a rock career in L.A., and instead tell him to get his engineering degree. "That's where you get the girls," I can say. And to a teenager, that's all that really matters. If technical education, risk taking, and business acumen really do become "cool," then maybe there is hope for the future of this country after all… or maybe we just become a nation full of pretend startups.