Head, Heart, & HTML: Students Become Entrepreneurs

For Lick students Alex Sahai ’16 and Alex Fine ’17, a tenet of entrepreneurship is that businesses should be founded with a social component to help others. In September of 2014, the duo founded the Social Entrepreneurship Club at LWHS with Kevin Hou ’16.

They soon realized that entrepreneurship has the ability to improve the community, and their goal as high school students was to show other high school students that entrepreneurship can, and should, be a fun and engaging experience accessible to all. They built upon this vision by establishing their company, Bay Area Student Entrepreneurs, or BASE.

“The vision of BASE is to develop really cool and phenomenal products,” said founder Fine. “It is mostly business- and product- oriented.”

Fine was originally the only member of the group who was able to code, which immediately became an issue. To solve this problem, Sahai recruited three students from Menlo High School to join the coding team.

One of BASE’s main objectives is to teach high school students how to develop and launch a product. BASE projects are created in 10 week cycles. At the beginning of a cycle, the group assembles at Fine’s house, where they bounce ideas off of one another for their next project. The ideas are then narrowed down and voted on by the team. They discuss what purpose they want the product to serve and how they can best achieve this objective.

Although each branch of BASE has a different role in the development process, they work in conjunction with each other over the course of the design process to create the final product. The business team focuses on marketing, making the product adaptable to different platforms, scaling the product, and integrating

The BASE team, from left: Trent Hommeyer, Alex Sahai, Troy Mock, Jackson Vachal, Alex Fine, Ryan Kearns, Ryan Stewart, John Craig, and David Ludeke photo by Anna Young

the product with existing products that have similar or complementary functions.

The coding team begins by creating an outline of what the back end, the mix of algorithms that makes the site operate the way it needs to, will look like and how it will work. Once that is functional, they begin building the front end of the site. There is constant communication between the two teams, and they work closely on everything from what algorithms are being used to color schemes and front-end design.

The first product to come out of this design process was HTML Makr, an app designed to teach aspiring programmers HTML, one of the most popular languages among programmers to design websites. At 10,000 lines of code, the app is simple but effective. It allows users to modify the appearance or functionality of a website from their phone, giving them a hands-on learning experience.

The BASE website poses the question, “Which do you think is more fun, watching a boring, dry video on coding, or changing the front page of Techcrunch to say ‘I am God’”

With the successful launch of its first product, the group decided to

take part in its first ever “hackathon.” A hackathon is a contest in which teams of developers partake in an intensive coding session and are allotted a certain amount of time to build a product completely from scratch.

The BASE group decided

Entrepreneurship has the ability to improve the community…and

should be a fun and engaging experience

to attend the Developer Week Hackathon, hosted by AccelerateSF. The Hackathon was just one small part of Developer Week 2015, an extravaganza of coding and entrepreneurship during the first week of February in downtown San Francisco.

The members of BASE decided to attend the Hackathon “on a whim,” but that is not to say that they were unprepared. For months, the team had been developing the idea for a new project called “Dragonfly,” a research engine designed for students.

On Saturday February 7, seven of the BASE members arrived at The Village in San Francisco. They were greeted by some 550 other developers from approximately one hundred other teams. After a brief introductory speech, the contest was on: each team had thirty hours to completely design, program, and pitch a new startup to the judges.

Unlike other competitive coding events, the atmosphere at the Accelerate SF Hackathon was not cutthroat, but rather casual and almost relaxed. Some team members served as developers, sitting in open tables and building the new product. Others would serve as liaisons to other teams, traveling from table to table, discussing their ideas and facilitating relations. Sponsors also circumnavigated the booths, offering prizes to groups who

integrated the sponsor’s technology into the their products.

The BASE members faced several obstacles throughout their lucubration of coding. “On Sunday, Alex [Sahai] was sick, and the Menlo developers couldn’t come,” recalled Fine. “And near the end, the Wifi wouldn’t work, so I had to learn a new language in four hours to get the program uploaded.”

Despite the challenges, BASE was recognized for their hard work and creative ideas. Dragonfly was named a top ten semifinalist for the hackathon’s overall voting award, meaning that BASE would get to pitch their idea in front of all 550 attendees and a panel of esteemed judges.

BASE and the newly developed Dragonfly finished second in overall voting, an extremely impressive feat for a half- complete group of teenagers in a professional hackathon.

“We were kids; we didn’t expect it,” recounted Fine.

Since the February hackathon, BASE has taken the rudimentary idea of Dragonfly and deeply expanded it. The code team has tweaked, overhauled, and updated the algorithm which Dragonfly uses to gather information. The product team has made fundamental changes to the user interface of the program, conducting extensive interviews and focus groups to try to make the program as functional as possible. Dragonfly is expected to launch in mid-April, but a beta version of the product can be found at dragonflysearch.com.

Despite their success at the Developer Week Hackathon and the launch of their first two products, Fine makes it clear that BASE’s goal is not to win hackathons or to create a multi-million dollar company. In fact, whenever stock options are brought up, none of the students are interested. “It’s really about the educational experience,” Sahai asserts.“I’mmotivatedbymakinga cool product,” Fine adds.

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About Cole Crawford

Cole Crawford is a senior in his third year with The Paper Tiger; he currently serves as the Tiger's Managing Editor and Centerspread Editor. Crawford primarily writes about the Lick community, sports, and politics. He is 6' 4".

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