Want to get in shape? Want to save money? Want to hole up and pound out a business plan for the [hedge fund/private equity firm/boutique investment bank/whathaveyou] you want to get off the ground? Want to impress industry execs and potential investors with your problem solving skills and can-do attitude? What if we told you there was a foolproof way to accomplish all those goals and more, that it wouldn't cost you a thing, that you might even have some fun doing it, and that there'd be free cereal and Coke involved? Would that sound like something you'd be interested in? Then, congratulations, you're already halfway there. Step 1 was getting on board, Step 2 is finding an investment bank or asset management firm that's lax on night security and moving in.
Eric Simons wanted to get straight into the thick of it, so after high school, and a short period crashing on couches with friends at the University of Illinois, Simons accepted a slot in the inaugural class of Imagine K12, a new Silicon Valley incubator focused entirely on education. His plan? Start a company that builds tools allowing teachers to create and discover lesson plans, and share them with students and teachers...But his initial idea wasn't quite working. Imagine K12 was a great place to get mentorship and learn how startups are built, but he and his ClassConnect partners had been given just $20,000 by the incubator, and after the four-month program ended, the money was gone. When his friends left to go back to college, Simons needed another solution. Imagine K12 is hosted at AOL's Palo Alto campus, and everyone involved gets a building badge. As it turns out, Simons told CNET, the badges kept working, even after the program ended, giving him ongoing access, along with a face that had become familiar to others who worked there. "I couldn't afford to live anywhere," Simons recalled. "I started living out of AOL's headquarters."
For someone with neither money nor an aversion to sleeping on others' couches, the AOL building had plenty of allure. "They had a gym there with showers," Simons said. "I'd take a shower after work. I was like, 'I could totally work here...They have food upstairs, they have every drink on tap. This would be a sweet place to live.'"
Note that Simons said he would work there. After his four months in the incubator, he was used to toiling away at ClassConnect inside the building, and with other programs, from the Stanford-focused incubator StartX to AOL's own First Floor Labs also taking up space there, there was no shortage of non-AOL employees shuffling in and out all the time. But Simons was intent on launching his startup, so why not find a desk and pound away for 12 to 16 hours a day? "There were so many people going in and out each day," he said. "They'd say, 'Oh, he just works, here, he's working late every night. Wow, what a hard worker.'" Having spent several months legitimately working in the building, often quite late, Simons had noticed that although there were security guards with nightly rounds, there were at least three couches that seemed outside those patrols. Plus, they looked fairly comfortable. He claimed them. This was his routine: He'd work until midnight or later, and then fall asleep around 2 a.m. on one of the couches. At 7 a.m. -- and no later than 8 a.m. so he'd be safely out of his field bed before anyone else arrived -- he'd wake up, go down to the gym for a workout and a shower, and then go back upstairs and scarf a breakfast of cereal and water or Coke. Then he'd work all day, finally waiting until everyone else in the building had gone home before returning to one of his three favored couches. "I got a really good work ethic," he said, "and I got in shape, since I had to work out every morning."
Simons could probably have crashed elsewhere, but he wanted to see how long he could make the AOL squatting work. Some friends knew what he was doing, and they thought it was funny. But no one helped him, other than a couple buddies who discussed strategies with him on how to evade security. And then came that fateful morning with the 6 a.m. yelling. "One of the guys who manages the building came in at like 5 or 6 in the morning," Simons lamented, "and he scoured the entire place to find me. And he ripped me a new one. He was pissed that I was treating it like a dorm. Which was reasonable."
No one called the police, Simons "continues to go to AOL for meetings to this day," and a venture capitalist, Paul Sherer, threw some seed money Simons' way, based on the fact that the guy lived out of an office building. ("Tenacity and commitment are key attributes of a great entrepreneur," Sherer said. "Eric has these in spades as demonstrated by his willingness to do whatever it takes to get his company off the ground.")
What are you waiting for?