October 17, 1999, Sunday
Money and Business/Financial Desk

CALLINGS; Partnership, From Cradle To Campus


ON college campuses, there are now "nonsmoking" dorms and "quiet study" dorms. But with fresh-faced undergraduates increasingly armed with laptops, cell phones, Palm Pilots and -- most important -- ideas, it won't be long before there are "entrepreneurs only" halls, too.

And with all the software and Internet companies being spawned by intrepid undergrads, you may soon be reading of sizable alumni contributions from chief executives with the ink barely dry on their diplomas.

Ben Nobel and Adam Menzel, 20-year-old college juniors who go back even further than Bill Gates and Paul Allen, are among the new entrepreneurs. They have built a financial Web site called Javaticker.com, which they run from their respective campuses, Middlebury College, in Vermont, and Brandeis University, outside Boston.

Indeed, colleges may be the perfect hothouses for seeding start-ups, said Lester C. Thurow, the M.I.T. economist and most recently the author of "Building Wealth" (HarperCollins). "Many schools are wired with fiber optics, broadband communications systems and provide access to instant downloading," he said in an interview. "You can do things from your dorm room that you won't be able to do from your home for another 10 years."

MR. NOBEL and Mr. Menzel met when they were barely out of the cradle. At 18 months, they toddled over to each other at a "Mommies and Me" play group in Port Washington, N.Y., and began networking.

It was the start of an extraordinary partnership. While Javaticker.com may be their most ambitious venture to date, it's hardly their first. As 12-year-olds, they hawked pears by the roadside. (Adam's family had a pear tree.)

Pears soon gave way to more practical products. On one wintry day, Ben's father was unable to unlock his car. All the local stores but one were sold out of de-icer. The boys bought the entire inventory, hurried to the train station and sold the canisters for double what they had just paid. Alas, they just "broke even," Mr. Menzel recalled, still with a twinge of regret. "We overstocked and we got frostbite."

In high school, the boys had bigger brainstorms. As comic book connoisseurs, they combed trade shows for comics that they could resell to a local dealer. And when they built shelves for their collections, they reasoned that everyone would want similar cabinetry. Off they went to the lumberyard, but the idea, as Mr. Nobel put it, "failed to get the national recognition we'd hoped for."

But recognition is finally knocking on their dorm-room doors. Two summers ago, Mr. Nobel, a computer science major, and Mr. Menzel, who is studying economics, were watching the financial news while riding side-by-side exercise bicycles at a local gym (apparently the 90's version of the garage). Their conversation turned to the user-unfriendliness of financial Web sites.

The next day they pitched their idea -- for a free, well-organized financial site -- to Greg Leib, a former Bear Stearns broker and now an Internet entrepreneur, who was a member of Mr. Nobel's local Unitarian Church. Mr. Leib signed on as sole investor, taking the chief executive's title.

Sixteen months later, after many all-nighters, no salaries and "tons of Chinese food," they have a solid financial site that offers updated headlines, scrolling stock tickers (which can be customized by the user) research, message boards, charts and weather, all in a colorful, easy-to-use format. Though the goal is to have advertising cover costs, the site has yet to break even. Mr. Menzel estimates that it has eaten $200,000 of Mr. Leib's money so far.

"Not much at all for an Internet company," Mr. Menzel said. And if the company has a future, each student has an 8 percent stake, with Mr. Leib holding the rest..

What is it like to be a chief technology officer while still in college? "I have to remember to turn off my cell phone in class," Mr. Nobel said. "My professors would probably throw me out if it went off."

MR. MENZEL, the chief operating officer, said he was lucky to have a girlfriend who understands his four-hour Friday night disappearances to attend to server problems or respond to user E-mail. His parents have been supportive, too. (And why not? They have a lifetime supply of lock de-icer in their basement.)

Friends on campus ask to work for them, as do some outsiders. "Yesterday this guy from Microsoft asked me for a job," Mr. Nobel recounted, still reeling. "He said our site sounded like a more fun place to work." To meet a growing user base -- the site has an average of 12,000 hits a day -- three employees have been added. The three, also college students, grew up with the founders.

Future plans include, well, graduation. Then the dot.comsters may move the business to Vermont -- and perhaps eventually to Wall Street, in the form of a stock offering.

The management at Sun Microsystems, owner of the Java trademark, doesn't seem to mind that these cheeky upstarts are using the name. In fact, the company has invited the founders to display their stock in trade -- or trade in stock, as the case may be -- at the big Sun trade show in New York next spring.

"We'd love to go but, well, it's finals week," Mr. Nobel said with a sigh. "Yeah, finals," Mr. Menzel added, regretfully.

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