不一样的成功：学生时代在宿舍创业，坚守17年终见曙光 | Student Brands 董事长布莱恩·维斯专访
布莱恩·维斯就是一例。1999年，在伊利诺斯州北部中心学院的学生宿舍里，他建立了Student Brands，目的是让学生们在学习上互相帮助。网络热潮如火如荼时，他请家人的一位朋友给Student Brands投资，以便他聘请一位开发人员。但这位朋友只给了维斯一条重要建议——学习编程并且自己建立网站。很快，维斯的网站Oppapers.com每个月就能通过广告赚400美元，这对上世纪90年代的一位大学生来说俨然是一座小宝库。
到2011年，维斯的这项大学生事业已经足够成功，从而终于让他决定将其“专业化”——租一间办公室，建立25个人的团队，落实各项工作。在这个过程中，Student Brands吸纳了一系列教育技术服务业务，包括同为Web 1.0产物的Monografias.com和Bartelby.com。现在，这家公司经营着20多个网站。
但维斯仍念念不忘以前白手起家的日子，因此在2015年他聘请Savings.com前首席运营官托马斯·斯瓦拉到Student Brands担任总裁，自己任董事长。去年Student Brands实现收入2000万美元。今年，当Barnes & Noble Education怀揣做大数字业务的意愿找上门来时，维斯抓住了这个机会。Barnes & Noble Education以5850万美元现金的代价收购了Student Brands。维斯说，他相信Student Brands“找到了一个绝对完美的未来合作伙伴。”
Student Brands没有外部投资者，维斯持有逾八成股权，他通过这次转让至少获利4700万美元（斯瓦拉和另外两位创始人克里斯·尼尔森和托德·克莱门斯持有剩余少数股份）。和某些风投支持的收购相比，虽然前者的标价是Student Brands的两倍，但维斯的个人收益超过了那些创业者。他还避开了实现硅谷式高增长带来的压力，而这种高增长通常是“不成功则成仁”的结果。在那样的模式下，初创企业很快就会知道自己是燎原野火，还是稍纵即逝的一道亮光。维斯选择的则是持续17年的缓慢燃烧。
Y Combinator让维斯从新的角度了解到了如何发展一家公司。他计划从“战略天使投资人”或者能提供具体行业经验的人那里筹集一些外部资金。进入Y Combinator前Solve一直可以做到资金自给，而且今年2月成立后就一直有收入。维斯还不打算完全采用增长高于一切的硅谷思维模式。
The business world's obsession with tales of tech startups and entrepreneurship is typically focused on very specific kind of success story: The kind where startup founders raise giant piles of venture capital to fuel hypergrowth, and then ride said hypergrowth to an IPO or sale. But there are plenty of other paths to success. Not all of them involve venture capital, and some end up earning more money for their founders in the end.
Blaine Vess is one example. He founded Student Brands in 1999 out of his dorm room at North Central College in Illinois as a way to allow students to help each other study. At the height of the dotcom boom, he asked a family friend to invest in the company so he could hire a developer. The friend instead gave Vess an important piece of advice: Learn to program and build out the site yourself. Soon his site, Oppapers.com, was earning around $400 a month on ads, which felt like a small fortune for a college student in the 90’s.
Vess kept the site going through the dotcom crash and college because it had few expenses. (Students would email in Word documents of study guides and Vess and his co-founder would manually upload them; they eventually built tools to automate that.) In 2005, the company switched to a paid subscription model and earned $60,000 in its first year. By 2007, Student Brands was making more than $1 million in subscriptions, operating out of a house in L.A. (After college, Vess moved there to take a marketing consulting job with New Line Cinema.)
By 2011, Vess’s college side hustle was successful enough that he decided to finally “professionalize” it by renting an office, hiring a 25-person team, and putting processes into place. Along the way, Student Brands snapped up a number of educational tech services, including fellow Web 1.0 products Monografias.com and Bartelby.com. The company now operates more than 20 sites.
But Vess missed the early days of building things from scratch, so in 2015, he hired Thomas Swalla, a formerly COO of Savings.com, to be the company’s president and he became chairman. Last year the company made $20 million in revenue. When Barnes & Noble Education approached the company this year with a desire to expand its digital presence, Vess took the opportunity. The company acquired Student Brands for $58.5 million in cash. Vess says he believes the company “has landed with an absolute perfect partner going forward.”
With no outside investors, Vess owned more than 80% of the company, earning at least $47 million on the sale. (Swalla and his co-founders, Chris Nelson and Todd Clemens, owned minority stakes.) He achieved a better personal payday than the founders of some venture-backed buyouts with price tags that were twice as high. He also avoided the pressure to achieve Silicon Valley-style hypergrowth, which is designed to produce all-or-nothing results. Under that model, startups find out very quickly if they are a wildfire or a bright flame that burns out quickly. Vess opted for a 17-year slow burn.
Now, he’s getting a taste of Silicon Valley-style priorities as part of the country’s most famous accelerator program, Y Combinator, with his new travel tech startup, Solve. The company provides airport services like expedited immigration and customs, transportation, and baggage assistance to international travelers in 500 airports. Costing $100 for two people in cities like Bangkok and $225 at London Heathrow, Solve’s service has appealed to business travelers and older travelers using travel agents, Vess says.
Y Combinator has given him a new perspective on how to grow a company. He plans to raise some outside capital from “strategic angels,” or people that can offer specific industry expertise. Solve, which was self-funded until it joined YC, has been earning revenue since it launched in February. Vess is not quite ready to adopt the Valley’s mentality of growth above all else.
“I think I’m probably more cautious about raising money than some other people because we don’t necessarily need it, and it’s just not the metric I’m looking at, as in ‘We raised $X million, okay, we’re successful now,’” he says. “It’s really just the beginning.” After 17 years, Vess says he has developed a healthy understanding of the ups and downs of running a business. “It definitely keeps me grounded.”
This article first appeared in Term Sheet, Fortune’s newsletter on deals and dealmakers.