Monday, June 7, 2010

Startups and CMU

Is Carnegie Mellon a good university to go to if you plan on working for or building a startup? That's the question I was recently asked by somebody from the Quora team. I'm frequently asked similar questions because I started a company out of CMU that never moved out of Pittsburgh even after it was acquired by Google. Following another brief conversation about this on Twitter today, I decided it would be good to have an open discussion about startups and CMU. I'll start with my personal opinion, but hope that others pitch in.

Personally, I think CMU is a great place to start a company. Granted, I'm biased because things worked out for me, but here are some objective reasons why I think more people should be starting technology companies out of CMU:

1. Talent Pool. CMU graduate and undergraduate students are truly world class. The computer science PhD program is ranked #1 by USNews, and according to my recruiter friends, CMU is the #1 or #2 school by quantity of hires from companies with uber selective hiring standards such as Facebook or Google.

2. Less Competition for this Talent. I won't claim that CMU students are strictly better than students from e.g. Stanford, but I will claim this: the competition for hiring a top student to join a startup at CMU is much much lower than at comparable schools in California or Boston, since it's not the case that everybody and their mother has a startup in Pittsburgh (last time I went to Silicon Valley, even the guy that served me at Starbucks, who overheard my conversation with a VC friend, started pitching me his company!). At CMU you'll have your pick of top talent to start a company with.

3. Opportunity for Different Ideas. Don't get me wrong, I love Silicon Valley. But it always strikes me when I go there how much everybody thinks exactly the same as each other (most even dress the same as each other). While some herd mentality is ok, I think there is huge benefit to being outside of that bubble.

If I were to start another company, I would do it out of CMU.


  1. Can I join your next company?

  2. It would help if I knew your name :)

  3. I was a grad student and felt a certain risk-averse mentality at CMU. Idea's that don't seem paper-destined are often wished away as 'fancy'. This is not a blanket generalization, just my singular experience. Views?

  4. I have seen that as well, but I think it's changing. Btw, there is a similar attitude among the undergrads, except it's not about papers, but about classes or internships at big companies. Somehow they think taking an extra class is going to help them more in life than starting a company.

  5. How and when did you start up your company? Did you do it in your spare time or was it full-time work? How did you get funding in order to be able to work on your start-up company? How did you convince other people to help you?

  6. That's too many questions :) We never needed any VC funding, but we were offered funding by a lot of VCs (both form Pittsburgh and from other cities).

  7. Is there an "Angel department" inside the CM university, which help "start-upers" by not only investing money in their project, but pairing them with some students from management schools, lend them some ofice space, and offer various "courses" to help with the development of their company (such as, e.g., in Waterloo)?

  8. Yes:

  9. The closest CMU has to that is Project Olympus. Check 'em out. I realized I wanted to do startups after graduating so I never got to try them out. My advice, Von Ahn is right: take advantage of CMU's resources while you can and make time to explore your ideas by easing up on course load.


  10. CMU: An absolute 100% yes.

    BUT having done two startups out of Pittsburgh (both highly successful) and having then moved to the Bay Area after that, I now say that in hindsight I should have left Pittsburgh and moved out to the Valley in 1996 when I started my first company.

    Would be happy to have a more detailed conversation sometime over coffee (if I were in Pittsburgh, I would say over drinks ;) )

  11. Yes, you should totally post this back onto Quora.

  12. Manu -
    I agree with you, the resources in the Valley can't be beat.
    Fortunately there is a way to leverage both - we are trying to pave the way for development in Pittsburgh and business in SV. There are many upsides to this approach - incredible team, dedication, outside the bubble, lower costs, better office space, local recruiting, etc. We are testing this all out at the moment - so far so good!

  13. CMU definitely needs to go a long way in providing a better ecosystem for startups to emerge from within. Project Olympus exists, but only on paper mostly. I'm not entirely saying that they are useless, but compared to MIT or Stanford, it's pretty bad. Not even 10% of the student body knows about Project Olympus and hence participation in their events is pretty abysmal. You get to meet the same students at every event.

    If you're doing a startup with a big research component (building up on some academic research) then yes, CMU might be the place to be. But if its a consumer business like Amazon or something similar, its gonna be a tough ride.

    Another big issue I've noticed in CMU is that each department is like a closed garden. CS students are always on one side of the campus, and Business students on the other. Why isn't there more collaboration and mix?? I know a ton of people are starting up in Tepper, but there simply isn't any way of knowing about their ideas or existence without camping in Tepper for a whole semester and stalking people!

  14. Wow when did Project Olympus start? I was in the class of '06 and never knew this existed. I certainly enjoyed entrepreneurship and had a class with Prof Boni too.


  15. No conocía su blog pero que buena onda. Lo estaremos monitoreando jajaja salu2 desde la arenosa GT.

  16. It would be nice to see some startups listed that are predominantly CMU or all CMU. Some of the top of my head:

    KickApps (I think..)

    and of course, reCAPTCHA. :)

  17. @ jyby

    There is also the Center for Technology Transfer & Enterprise Creation at CMU: