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Undergrads build site to help fellow students get involved with start-ups

By Ruby Gee     4/7/11 7:00pm

In his spare time, Will Rice college senior Abhishek Nag, an electrical engineering major, started a business with his friends. Embarking on an entrepreneurial effort that surpasses the typical lemonade stand-esque simplicity of most college student businesses, they founded SimpApply.

SimpApply (http://www.simpapply.com), which is a play off of "simplify," and "apply", is a service that connects students with jobs and internships at start-up companies, which typically do not have the resources to actively seek out students on campus.

"These are companies you wouldn't traditionally see, at say, a career fair at Rice," Nag said. "These are not the extensions of Exxon Mobil. These are the start-ups down the street that are exciting, young and energetic — and are looking to hire students — but do not have the visibility or the resources to make themselves as visible as bigger corporations."

Nag founded SimpApply along with two other electrical engineering majors: Hanszen college senior Norman Pai and Sid Rich college senior Yilong Yao. Officially launched in February, the website had Rice students as its first beta users. As of April 6, SimpApply has been open to students at SMU, UT Austin and Texas A&M.

Part of their motivation for starting this web service lay in helping students who wanted firsthand experience with entrepreneurship at a start-up company, but lack the knowledge of how exactly to accomplish that goal. Nag, Pai and Yao personally experienced such a situation.

"My co-founders and I were looking and were interested in internships with start up companies, but couldn't find one because they don't post on Monster [a job listing site] — it's too expensive — and they don't have HR departments of course," Nag said. "So we decided to build this web service that acted as an arena for students and small businesses and start-ups to connect."

Nag cited his ELEC 394 class as the course that triggered his interest in entrepreneurship. Titled "Professional Issues and Project Management for Electrical Engineers," the course covered aspects of professional electrical engineering outside of Rice such as ethics, resource allocation and intellectual property.

"Students are actually quite enthusiastic about this, these opportunities that they won't find anywhere else…that are unique in what they offer," Nag said.

Pai said that since their company is targeting start-ups and students, SimpApply is operating in a relatively unique market.

"We were really motivated because we knew there's a problem with the way things are being done now and there was a need for [our service] because students will always need jobs, [and] start-ups are always looking for more people," Pai said. "We were really passionate about the idea and didn't have that much apprehension."

Despite their success, the team behind SimpApply has run into its own share of struggles. Juggling a heavy summer schedule, the co-founders all spent full work-days interning for energy and technology companies, and utilized what free time they had trying to make their idea a reality. Even more testing was the fact that, Yilong, the co-founder with the most technical expertise, was separated from the other two that summer due to an internship with Microsoft in Seattle.

"There were tons of challenges," Nag said. "You're a full time student — no one's expecting you to do this. We had plenty to do as it was and were very involved with all the activities — it took some time for us to figure it out and make sure we were all really in it to win it."

Nag said that initially, the founding team consisted of four Rice students. However, one of the more skilled students dropped out of the project early on.

"That sort of rattled us because we had someone leave at such an early stage-it [made] us doubt whether [our idea] was really going to work and take off, whether it's a good idea or not," Nag said. "Definitely getting a good solid team together that you know will work and is committed is the biggest challenge initially."

Other challenges they faced included site development, pitching SimpApply to a critical audience of experienced business professionals, and an unsuccessful, costly attempt to outsource some of their technical work to Vietnam, which Nag labeled as bad decision number one.

"The way people make it seem with outsourcing: they make it seem like it's magic," Nag said. "But it's not that easy and we ended up spending a lot of money … that we made from our internships over the summer and what we got in the end was not something we were happy with."

In the end, Yao and Sid Rich senior Amanda Shih worked for three weeks, with no sleep, to build the SimpApply website.

According to Nag, the site that the two Rice students created was 10 times better than the site created by the outsourced workers, even though the outsourced workers took much longer.

"Once we actually got the service up … and heard how enthusiastic [clients] were about the idea — that's when I first got the feeling that this could actually go somewhere," Nag said.

Will Rice sophomore Stephen Crowe was one the Rice students who took advantage of SimpApply's services with positive results. Crowe was able to secure a job with a small firm in Houston that specializes in consumer electronics.

"Someone contacted me back immediately from the place I applied — a really cool, smaller company that I couldn't have found through larger sites like the Rice link," Crowe said.

SimpApply's short term goal is to try to organically expand their service to other states.

Their long term vision, however, is to expand and rebrand the service as a website that can be used to connect any two markets that would typically have trouble connecting with each other.

"Honestly for a student start-up, launched by three extremely busy electrical engineers, I'm very happy that we made it this far…when we could have quit at any point on the way," Nag said. "Just to hear companies and students say that our service is of value is very fulfilling."

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