The Oberlin Stories Project

On the genesis of a company

George Saines ’08

“[My roommate] had a crazy idea: working for yourself and starting a company is way more creative and fulfilling than working at a preexisting company, and here we are six months after graduation [with] our fledgling educational software business.”

Arches of balloons in front of the Mudd building

My two best friends and I started a business after graduation making a web-based tool to help students of the Chinese language better learn and remember their characters. But as with so many Oberlin ideas, the genesis of the project wasn’t conventional. In fact, the whole venture really has its roots in street art and hash browns. Let me explain.

During my freshman year I lived in South dormitory, and I decided to stay on campus for Winter Term. Since we didn’t have meal plans for the month - and I didn’t feel like paying to eat in the dining halls - I was left to fend for my own dietary requirements. An acquaintance of mine, one Scott Erickson, approached me and asked if I would like to cook with him. It seemed like a good idea, so we started shopping, baking, and planning meals together. On one trip to the grocery store, we decided to buy food in bulk, and made the mistake of buying 20 odd pounds of potatoes (which we consequently lugged back to the dorm through a blizzard). As you might have guessed, the rest of winter term we ate hash browns with every meal and became very adept at preparing and seasoning the dish. Scott and I still joke about our potato-dicing culinary expertise.

The next year, my roommate Nick Winter decided that studying should not define a college experience. (Keep in mind, he had a 4.15 GPA for that semester.) He thought that as roommates we needed to concentrate our efforts on doing awesome stuff that we’d remember, rather than putting 100% our time into academic work, much of which we’d likely forget pretty quickly anyway. At first I was suspicious - after all, I was struggling to keep up my meager 3.3 GPA, and I wasn’t sure doing non-academic work would really help that much.

Later that year, we were on our computers and found a website showcasing a fantastic street art project. Someone had made real-life versions of the question mark blocks in the old Mario Bros Nintendo games out of boxes and paint. Upon seeing it, I jokingly said “We are going to do that.” To my surprise, Nick agreed.

We spent hours of time stolen from our studies instead making boxes, and woke up at 5:00a.m. on the first day of exams to install nine pieces of a video game world around campus. (My devotion to street art is great - my sleep was seriously compromised the day of my Macroeconomics exam.) Students loved living in a real-life video game, and over the next two years, we made an official organization, received funding from the Student Finance Committee, and anonymously created about a dozen more unexpected, fanciful art installations.

Another favorite art installation was a balloon arch speckled with original artwork that stretched all the way across Wilder Bowl one spring day. We again woke up in the middle of the night (this time, 4:30 a.m.) and drove the two helium tanks to Wilder Bowl along with the rest of the supplies. It only took until 7:00 a.m. to lay more than 400 feet of nylon line, attach about 60 piece of art, and tie on 200 helium balloons. (We had to stand watch over the art all day, because facilities only agreed to the installation if we were there to prevent anyone on bikes from getting clothes-lined by deflating art.) We deflected awe-filled questions about who put the balloons up by saying it was the art department, and got to hang around Wilder Bowl watching our fellow students smile and look around at the bright spectacle.

Fast forward to our senior year. Nick, Scott and I were all lucky enough to get off-campus housing status. Nick again had a crazy idea: working for yourself and starting a company is way more creative and fulfilling than working at a preexisting company. The next logical step was that the three of us should start a company. I was initially hesitant, since I had plans to become a consultant, but Nick came up with an awesome idea, Scott liked it, and the three of us decided to take the plunge.

Here we are six months after graduation, and we’ve raised $30,000 from Oberlin and $25,000 from Lorain County Community College to fund our fledgling educational software business. We haven’t given up any equity, we’re equal owners, we work out of our apartment, and we take breaks in the evenings to play Super Smash Brothers Melee together. And Nick and I still surprise hapless Oberlin students with our art missions.

So how do three students majoring in Computer Science, East Asian Studies, Mathematics, Economics, and Cinema Studies come together to not only create seasoned spuds and street art, but also a for-profit business right out of college? The answer is Oberlin.