Eric Simons, 20, works in the living room of his rental cottage in Palo Alto, Calif., which he now can afford after earning the admiration of investors. He secretly camped out in AOL's offices for two months while starting his own company, ClassConnect.
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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Fabled for entrepreneurs launching companies in garages, Silicon Valley may have a new legend: the phantom of AOL.
To save money for two months, 20-year-old Eric Simons surreptitiously lived inside AOL's Palo Alto, Calif., office, sleeping on its couches, showering in its gym, sneaking its snacks, and laboring there all day to develop his dream -- the Internet site ClassConnect.com, which he launched to help teachers create and share lessons plans with students and other educators.
Mr. Simons said he managed to avoid detection because AOL regularly lets budding innovators not affiliated with the company use its building to work on their projects.
"The start-up guys always stayed there really late," he said, adding that he merely did what was necessary to get his business going. "To put the odds in your favor, you've got to use all of the resources you can. You have to figure out ways of staying alive."
He was busted in December by a manager in the building. Still, AOL expressed reluctant admiration for his saga, first reported last week by the technology Web site CNet.
"It shows some tenaciousness on his part," David Temkin, senior vice president of AOL's mail and mobile operations, said in an interview. But, he added, "I'm not running a flop house."
A self-described "worst nightmare" as a high school student in Chicago, Mr. Simons said he became intrigued with assisting educators when a chemistry teacher pulled him aside one day and asked him, "What would make you interested in learning what I'm teaching?"
After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area last year, he got a $20,000 grant to develop his start-up from the business incubator, Imagine K12, which was using AOL's Palo Alto office. The money didn't last long, however. No longer able to pay rent, Mr. Simons said he figured his best option was to move into the building until he could get ClassConnect on its feet. His badge to the building from Imagine K12 still worked.
Sticking a few clothes and other belongings in two lockers in AOL's gym, where he washed up, he slept on the couches in several out-of-the-way rooms and took advantage of snacks AOL set out for everyone in the morning.
"I'd grab two cups of Ramen noodles and trail mix for lunch and dinner, and cereal for breakfast," he said. Then he'd work in the building 15 hours a day or more developing his company's Web site and software. "It was pretty hellish," he said. "In some respects, it totally sucked. But if I didn't put in that much time, the product wouldn't have launched."
During that time, Mr. Simons sometimes slept on a couch in a Palo Alto house rented by David and Brett Kopf, brothers he'd met through Imagine K12, who've started their own education-oriented site, Remind101.
"We really like Eric," Brett Kopf said. "He's incredibly passionate about his company and making a change in education. He just, like, hustles -- he finds a way to get stuff done."
Mr. Simon's saga went viral on Twitter. One commentator called his story "weird and wonderful." Another: "This guy is my hero."
The tale has drawn notice from other investors, some expressing interest in helping Mr. Simons raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for his venture, he said.
Among those willing to make a bet on Mr. Simons is Clink Korver of Palo Alto-based Ulu Ventures. Ulu and investor Paul Sherer recently pumped $50,000 into ClassConnect, giving financial breathing room to Mr. Simons, who now rents a Palo Alto house and sleeps in a bed.
"Eric was just a really compelling individual," Mr. Korver said. "You've got to love somebody who's willing to put everything out there to make his dream come true."