SAN JOSE, Calif. — Fabled for entrepreneurs launching companies in garages, Silicon Valley now 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. He slept on its couches, showered in its gym, sneaked its snacks and labored there all day to develop his dream — the Internet site ClassConnect, which he launched to help teachers create and share lesson plans with students and other educators.
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 startup guys always stayed there really late,” he said, adding that he was merely doing 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 recently by the technology website CNet.
“It shows some tenaciousness on his part,” said David Temkin, senior vice president of AOL’s mail and mobile operations. But, he added, “I’m not running a flop house.”
A self-described “worst nightmare” as a high school student in Chicago, 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 startup from the business incubator Imagine K12, which was using AOL’s Palo Alto office. The money didn’t last long.
No longer able to pay rent, 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 belongings in two lockers in AOL’s gym, where he washed up, he slept on the couches in 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 all day developing his company’s website and software.
“It was pretty hellish,” he said.
During that time, Simons also sometimes slept on a couch in a Palo Alto house rented by David and Brett Kopf, brothers he’d met through Imagine K12, who have started their own education-oriented site, Remind101.
“We really like Eric,” said Brett Kopf. “He just, like, hustles — he finds a way to get stuff done.”
Simons’ saga went viral on Twitter, where one commentator called his story “weird and wonderful.” Simons said investors have expressed interest in helping him raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for his educational venture.
Among those willing to make a bet on Simons is Clink Korver of Palo Alto-based Ulu Ventures. He was so impressed that Ulu and investor Paul Sherer recently pumped $50,000 into ClassConnect, giving some financial breathing room to Simons, who now rents a Palo Alto house and sleeps in a bed.
Korver said: “You’ve got to love somebody who’s willing to put everything out there to make his dream come true.”