Dan Shipper, Patrick Leahy and Justin Meltzer were students at the University of Pennsylvania when they met two years ago, but now they're running a small company. They must be doing something right: A group of equally young investors think the trio has the potential to become some of the next big names in programming. The Dorm Room Fund, established by students at UPenn and Drexel University, has granted the entrepreneurs $20,000 in venture capital to help take their screen-sharing startup Firefly to the next level.
Meltzer recently graduated from UPenn's Wharton School, which Leahy still attends as an entrepreneurship major. Shipper, meanwhile, is a philosophy major. "Philosophy has always been something that I was interested in," he says. "I was thinking about studying computer science in addition to philosophy, but I'm doing a lot of programming on the side and I don't think I'm going to have a lot of time outside of my college years to really go deeply into a lot of the philosophy stuff." He says he isn't studying philosophy to get a job, but "it helps me think about how I want to live and why."
What sets Firefly apart is its focus on sharing Web pages or files, not entire computer screens, which could display sensitive data. It runs without downloading programs and just a snippet of code. The idea actually came from Shipper's father, who was complaining to his son about how hard it was to explain a document over the phone. Shipper shared the conversation with Leahy and Meltzer and what would become Firefly was born soon after.
The three students used to spend every Friday night at an entrepreneurial meet-up group, talking about business and programming ideas. These conversations led to late-night programming sessions and then to a hackathon in January 2012 when Leahy and Meltzer wrote the code what would become Firefly in 72 sleepless hours. They won first place. A few months later they tried it again, re-coding Firefly from scratch at another hackathon called AngelHack. At each event, some of the company sponsors expressed interest in using the product once it was finalized.
With that experience under their collective belts, they knew it was time to go ahead and make Firefly real. "Last May we decided we were really going to buckle down and do it," Leahy says. "We spent the summer really working out the creases and working with beta customers, making sure we were building the right thing, and finally launched the project in late September."
Shipper says he originally planned on staying away from venture capital, but the Dorm Room Fund's offer allowed them to grow the fresh startup while staying on track to graduate. "In general people think you need to drop out of school and raise a lot of money for a startup. I don't think that's the way you need to do it," he says. The money the fund offered "is just enough to get us going and make it so we can experiment without needing to worry if the servers are going to get shut off."
Now that he's out of school, Meltzer is working on Firefly full-time, while the other two squeeze in every moment they can between classes. All three share the title of co-founder and take on whatever tasks need doing as they come up. Meanwhile, the Dorm Room Fund has become associated with the venture capital firm First Round Capital, and Firefly has already moved into its Philadelphia offices, creating a slightly less dorm-centric business venue.
What comes next for the young entrepreneurs? "We're just trying to build Firefly out and get it to as many people as possible," Shipper says. "We're doing marketing, establishing a few partnerships, and just hammering out on this core product because we think it really solves a problem for our customers."