7 of the Most Successful Student Businesses Started at University

Many students try their hand at entrepreneurship at university – even if it’s just selling a few homemade candles. But you might be surprised to learn how many hugely successful businesses were started in a university dorm room.

From Facebook to FedEx, university is where some of the creators of the world’s top companies met and started the businesses that would make them multi-millionaires (or even billionaires).

This is by no means an extensive list, with other hugely profitable firms such as Dell, Dropbox, Yahoo and Microsoft also making a sizable dent in the business world. 

1. Google

Google

The world’s most famous search engine, Google, was started in 1996 by two PhD students at Stanford University: Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The two met when Page was considering Stanford for graduate school and Brin was assigned to show him around.

Together, from their dorm rooms, they developed the well-known search engine, giving it the far less catchy name BackRub, due to the site’s ability to check backlinks to estimate the importance of a website.

Its new name, Google, was a twist on the word ‘googol’ which is a very large number (10 to the power 100). The invention became known to Silicon Valley investors, who liked the idea wrote the two students a cheque for $100,000 to start the business.

The company’s first office was in a garage in California and had a ping pong table and a bright blue carpet – a tradition that has stayed with Google to this day.

Google is now worth more than US$280 billion.

2. Facebook

Facebook

Facebook was started in 2004, in a dorm room at Harvard University, when a group of friends wanted to connect Harvard students through an online community. 

One of these friends, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook’s CEO) created an online ‘hot or not’ game, Facemash, which allowed students to compare photos of their peers and select who they deemed ‘hotter’.

This was quickly shut down by Harvard Administration when it was revealed that Zuckerberg had hacked into the university’s security network to steal the ID images.

Facebook as we know it today was launched as TheFacebook in 2004, based on the printed face books handed to students to help them identify other students.

To start with, membership was limited to students at Harvard University, but was soon expanded to other Ivy League colleges and then all universities in the US and Canada.

3. Time Magazine

Time magazine

The American weekly news magazine was first published in New York City in 1923, by Briton Hadden and Henry Luce, who had worked together as the managing editor and chairman of the Yale Daily News. 

Time Magazine was the first weekly news magazine in the US and has now become one of the largest circulated weekly news magazines in the world, with a readership of 26 million. 

4. Snapchat

snapchat

The popular picture messaging app, Snapchat, was started in 2011 by Stanford University students Evan Spiegel, Reggie Brown and Bobby Murphy. Spiegel originally presented it as part of a product for his product design class.

They claimed that the app provided a unique opportunity to share awkward and funny pictures with friends that could then quickly be deleted, removing the need to de-tag embarrassing videos and photos before a job interview, like you’d have to with apps like Facebook.

In 2012, Spiegel described the company’s mission in his blog post: “Snapchat isn’t about capturing the traditional Kodak moment. It’s about communicating with the full range of human emotion — not just what appears to be pretty or perfect.”

From March 2020, Snapchat had 229 million daily active users and more than four billion Snaps are sent each day.

5. Reddit

Reddit

The popular news, social networking and discussion website was started by two University of Virginia students, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian who wanted to create a sandwich ordering app.

When they pitched the idea to Y Combinator’s Paul Graham, Graham suggested they tried to create the ‘front page of the internet’.

So, Reddit was born. The aim was to create an online bulletin board, which they did successfully using a series of web links and text submitted by users, with ‘interesting’ and ‘uninteresting’ buttons for users to click on.

After 16 months, they sold the site to Condé Nast and the two friends became multi-millionaires by the age of 23. Reddit is now the 5th most visited site in the US, with over 430 million active monthly visitors.

6. FedEx

Fedex

FedEx was founded in 1971 by 28-year-old Yale University student, Frederick W. Smith. The idea for the overnight shipping service was originally outlined in Smith’s economics class.

He believed that a company specializing in airfreight, rather than making it an add on to passenger service would make an excellent business model – and he was right. FedEx Express is now the world’s largest express shipping company.

To fund the company, Smith used his US$4 million inheritance from his father with $91 million in venture capital. The company lost lots of money to start with, losing $29 million in its first 26 months – but Smith persevered. By 1977, the company’s profits were a much better $8 million and had over 31,000 customers.

7. WordPress

Wordpress

WordPress was started in 2003 at the University of Houston. A popular blogging software, b2/cafelog, was discontinued and two of its users, students Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little, decided to build a new platform using the original software as its basis. 

The company has evolved over time and is supported by developers, designers, scientists and bloggers around the world.

By June 2019, WordPress was used by over 60 percent of all websites online.

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