A US entrepreneur who became known as the “AOL squatter” says the publicity he attracted has helped him build a team of talented staff and secure funding from high-profile investors.
Eric Simons was just 20 when he spent two months “squatting” at AOL’s offices in California before he was uncovered by security.
After graduating from high school, Simons was selected as part of the inaugural class of Imagine K12, a Silicon Valley incubator focused on education.
Simons received $20,000 to work on his education-based start-up ClassConnect, which creates tools to help teachers build lesson plans, and share them with students and other teachers.
ImagineK12 is hosted by AOL, so Simons received a security badge as part of his involvement in the four-month program.
At the end of the program, the entire $20,000 had been spent. Desperate to continue his work but unable to afford rent, Simons decided to start living at the AOL building.
AOL failed to deactivate Simons’ security badge after it expired, so Simons had full access to the company’s food, gym and couches, enabling him to live there on an ongoing basis.
In his first month living at AOL, Simons spent a total of $30. He lived at the AOL offices for two months until he was finally detected by security.
After moving out, Simons secured $50,000 in venture capital funding from Ulu Ventures and Paul Sherer. He used the money to rent a house, where he continues to work on ClassConnect.
Less than five months on, ClassConnect – now known as Claco – consists of a team of five full-time staff.
Simons told StartupSmart the publicity he attracted as a result of his squatting stint has worked wonders for his business.
“It helped with hiring insanely smart people… It has also helped validate our brand with users,” he says.
“We’re trying to bring the best educational materials in the world to every teacher and student…
We have the world’s best teachers creating content together and sharing it on our site.”
“This past year, teachers using Claco saw, on average, an 8% increase in their class grade average.”
The Claco team works out of a house in Palo Alto, and is looking to grow further in the next few months.
It is backed by the likes of Geoff Ralston, Tim Brady, Alan Louie, Alex Moore, Miriam Riviera, Clint Korver and Paul Sherer, although Simons couldn’t confirm how much they have invested.
“We haven’t announced our entire round yet, so I can’t share the total amount invested yet,” he says.
In addition to drawing attention to himself and his cause, Simons says his squatting experience taught him a valuable lesson about being an entrepreneur.
“I think the most important thing I learned while ‘squatting’ at AOL is to be unbelievably scrappy and hungry,” he says.
“As a start-up, there are so many hurdles facing you that if you don’t use every resource you can, your chances of succeeding are diminished.”
“At Claco, we are scrappy in every aspect of what we do. A great example of this was when we ‘crashed’ the world’s largest ed-tech conference (International Society for Technology in Education) in June.”
“Instead of paying $US10,000-plus to get a booth where we wouldn’t get a lot of exposure, we spent less than $US3,000 to throw a fake protest outside of the conference and met every educator that attended.”