Fewer student-run companies, but lots of aspiring entrepreneurs

Students who want to become entrepreneurs are learning that venture-backed startups aren’t their only option, or even their best alternative, according to several attendees of Stanford University’s fourth annual Entrepreneurship Week last week.

The number of startups seeking to recruit students has dropped in the last two years because of the economy, said Theresa Lina Stevens, a San Francisco business consultant who helped organize the event.

At the same time, bigger companies are looking for students with entrepreneurial skills, she said.

“A lot of students are going into other environments [because they have] entrepreneurial leadership skills that you can apply anywhere,” she said. “I was involved with a startup at Accenture, and we had to do a business plan, ask for capital, prove we could deliver, then ask for more money. This happens frequently within companies.”

As a result, this year’s Entrepreneurship event was better attended than ever, with about 5,000 people, including representatives from half a dozen foreign countries, attending panels and seminars on legal tips for startups, leadership skills, entrepreneurship for women, pitching your company, designing your product, and several other topics. Several of the events were run by students.

Among those at the event were Dan Greenberg and Rob Fan. The pair were teaching assistants in a class at Stanford on the psychology of using Facebook. After they saw several of their students developing apps for Facebook and making money, they decided to do it, too.

They created a software platform that automatically distributes video clips of upcoming movies and other hot topics on social networks and blogs, where they can be shared. Their startup, Sharethrough, has raised $1 million from noted angel investors Ron Conway and Mike Maples Jr. and counts Sony among its customers.

There were also larger companies recruiting students. Intuit, which had representatives at the job fair for the first time, is hiring interns and engineers for Mint.com, the two-year-old venture-backed company that it acquired last year for $170 million. That exit is regarded as so successful that Mint.com had its own session last week called “From Shaky to Solid in a Sour Economy,” in which Aaron Forth, Intuit’s vice president of product, promised to share “the secrets of the fledgling company’s success.”

Still, students aren’t as interested in making money as they were during the dot-com boom or even a few years ago, Stevens said. She said that students are generally more interested now in solving world problems. Some of the sessions this year reflected that, such as Relief 2.0 in Haiti and The Power of Social Technology to make a difference and build brands.

“World problems are very top of mind for the students,” Stevens said. “They’re not so focused on how fast I can turn my startup into a few million dollars.”

Stanford Entrepreneurship Week started four years ago with an idea from the Kauffman Foundation, which wanted to do a National Entrepreneurship Week and enlisted Stanford to help in the Bay Area. The University has been known over the years for giving rise to numerous startups. Among the companies that were launched by Stanford computer science grads include Sun Microsystems, BEA Systems, PayPal, Claris Software and NetApp, to name a few.

Since the Entrepreneurship event was launched, it’s become a campus-wide event involving about 20 student groups.

Venture capitalists were also represented last week. More than 30 area VC firms—including Khosla Ventures, Greylock Partners, DN Capital, the Founders Fund and Polaris Venture PartnersDog Patch Labs—were signed up for a speed-dating event in which students gave three-minute pitches to VCs and got three minutes of feedback in return.

The early stage investor Andreessen Horowitz manned a table at the job fair last week to recruit workers for its portfolio companies, some of which—Kakai, Quantifind and RockMelt—are still in stealth mode.

Several of the other companies recruiting were started by students just a year or two ago.

For example, Jonathan Hirsch dropped out of his Ph.D. program at Stanford to start Syapse, which sells subscriptions to software that organizes data on drug development and connects researchers and projects online. He said the company’s investor, Glenn Winokur, managing director of Emerson Street Partners, was an advisor for one of his classes.