Entrepreneur urges unorthodox approach
CHAMPAIGN — A 19-year-old whose business venture attracted more than $1 million in funding has reached some unorthodox conclusions about how to land venture capital.
Cory Levy, who spent part of a year at the University of Illinois before leaving to build the social-media venture One, told UI students Tuesday to "pitch yourself, not the company."
Business plans, marketing plans and budgets are secondary, Levy said. "Don't waste your time" on those when you first meet with prospective angel investors, he said.
Levy and University of Illinois alumnus Michael Callahan met with key people associated with Google, PayPal, Square and other tech companies this year — and wound up getting $1 million from eight angel investors.
"No one asked how we were going to make money," Levy said. "They will during the next round."
Dressed in an orange T-shirt, gray hoodie and striped shorts, Levy described his Silicon Valley experience to a business administration class on campus, then to a larger audience at the Siebel Center for Computer Science.
Levy also dropped a suggestion for entrepreneurs looking for investments.
"When you ask for money, you usually get advice," he said. "Walk in and ask for advice, and you will get money."
That's what happened for him and Callahan, and for some of their friends, he said.
Their own venture, called One, plans to make available an iPhone app that will link users with those around them who share similar interests.
People who like tennis and John Mayer music, for example, will get a "ping" on their iPhone if someone sharing those and other preferences are nearby, he said.
Levy said he expects the app to be available in about a month, with the UI likely to be among the first places it's touted.
Stores and restaurants can make use of the app too, using customer preferences to influence — among other things — the kind of music played in their business, he said.
One expects to get revenue from companies whose products are aligned with users' interests. For example, Nike or Adidas could supply product images for portions of the app dedicated to soccer fans, Levy said.
Winning favor with the Silicon Valley crowd has given Levy the opportunity to meet entertainers Ashton Kutcher and MC Hammer, whom Levy described as a "secret super-tech geek."
Levy, who hails from Houston, said he went to soccer and tennis camp as a young teenager and vowed he would start a company the following summer.
As "one of the first Facebook spammers," he sought advice from business and entrepreneurial types. That tactic got him temporarily kicked off Facebook, but he also attracted replies from several entrepreneurs.
He later served summer internships with venture capital funds while still in high school.
Through ShareThis founder Tim Schigel, Levy came to meet UI Professor David Goldberg and was asked to speak to the UI's engineering education project, iFoundry, about his experiences.
That's when he met Callahan, a graduate student who had won acclaim for developing the Audeo, a device to help those unable to speak by turning their neurological signals into synthesized speech.
According to Levy, Callahan was killing time in San Francisco between meetings with potential investors when he came up with the idea for One.
Callahan, who likes skateboarding, saw people there with a skateboard and the kind of clothes he likes — and wished there were a better way to meet up with them. His answer was One.
Levy was subsequently recruited to attend the UI. But he cut back his second-semester course load after One began attracting attention.
When asked what he gained from his year of college, Levy said the biggest help was the people he met.
Levy said he plans to get a degree eventually but was noncommittal about whether he'll return to the UI for his studies.