Taking Care of Business
University of Virginia student Matt Chiste joins a growing number of students using computers to start their own businesses before graduation. Traditional education may never be the same.
By Sarah Heenan
It seemed like the obvious thing to do. Mom always said to turn off appliances when you weren’t using them, so when five-year-old Matt Chiste walked into an empty room to find a computer left on, he did what he had been taught: he turned it off. “Lights were blinking, the computer started making strange noises-I thought I had hit the self-destruct button,” recalls Chiste sixteen years later. “I definitely sensed the severity of the situation; I sat there crying, thinking I had destroyed all of my father’s business documents.”
No permanent damage was done, but an impression was left on the Houston boy. “I wanted to know what I had done,” says Chiste. Soon after, an injury forced him to miss the first day of kindergarten and he began explorations on the new machine. “That,” says Chiste, with a self-assured grin, “was when I decided never to let school get in the way of my education.”
Matt Chiste is 21 now, and he still stands by that philosophy. As a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Chiste finds that education can come from a classroom, an active social life, or, as it turns out, a business. A computer science major, Chiste is one of a growing number of students who have launched a business before graduating college. Computers are an especially fertile field for such entrepreneurs because, says Chiste, “cost for entry is so low-you just need a computer and programming software to get started.” He should know: the software company that he began from his dorm room is now worth over $300,000.
To meet Chiste on Friday night you would never suspect his secret life as an entrepreneur. He’s most likely out at the local hot spot, drinking a beer or three with his twelve closest friends, and making plans for the next day’s football game. He looks like any other t-shirt-and-jeans-wearing college student, though his dark Italian features will distinguish him in a crowd. He’s not a computer geek, toting a laptop around the University grounds and making jokes about megabytes over dinner. Nor does he fit the mold of a business major, wearing a suit to class and flaunting a carefully constructed resume. If Chiste doesn’t seem like a typical young entrepreneur, it’s because he never set out to be one. His company started two years ago as a simple challenge from a professor teaching a class in computer invention and design.
Chiste recalls his business’ modest beginnings as he tends the barbecue outside the house he shares with ten other students. His professor posted each day’s homework on the class web site, but instead of being a convenient source of information, the site became a running joke. “No one could ever find the homework because most of the links didn’t work. The site was horribly designed and I told my professor that.”
The instructor offered extra credit if Chiste could tell him where all the broken links were. In a move typical of those in the computer science field, Chiste decided to write a program to perform the task, and a ball was set in motion. The resulting program, SiteSentry, drew rave reviews from fellow students for its uniqueness and design, and before his third year began, Chiste had started a business in computer program development. As for the professor who inspired this project… “He never gave me the extra credit, but that’s okay,” says Chiste, clear on whose loss it really is. “I just took him off the list of people I credit on the program.”
Chiste entered his third year of college balancing the demands of a fledgling business and a full course load. He and his father, an investor in the company, had begun negotiations with Forefront, a small Houston company specializing in web site program development, marketing, and distribution. A deal would benefit both parties: Chiste would get the marketing and distribution for which he did not have the resources and Forefront would get a ready-made program, saving them months in product development-a vital advantage in the fast-paced world of computer technology. As it turned out, the deal did not go through right away. Though Forefront was interested, the program needed some work. Chiste took on the challenge, hiring a fellow student as his first employee.
The stakes changed dramatically in January of 1997 when Microsoft bought a competitor of SiteSentry for $20 million. Chiste knew that software giants Netscape and Lotus would soon be shopping for their own versions of the program. Instead of being marketed to individuals, SiteSentry could be sold to a major software company for major dollars. “That was when we said, ‘All right, now there are bigger fish to go after,'” Chiste recalls.
As Chiste was reworking his program, Forefront downsized, firing most of its programmers and marketers. Two of Forefront’s former employees that had been impressed with SiteSentry contacted Chiste wanting to join forces. With SiteSentry as the anchor product and another $200,000 from investors, the three set out as the developers of a new software company: TriActive.
The doors opened on the first TriActive office in Houston in September, containing among other things an office for each of its three developers. Chiste, now straddling the worlds of school and business more than ever, reflects on his project’s latest achievement: “It will be great to go home for Thanksgiving…I’ll get to see what my office looks like.”
Despite owning his own software company, Chiste is not as sure about his future as it would seem. Ideally he would like to see SiteSentry bought by Netscape, thus creating a solid base for TriActive’s finances and reputation. But Chiste’s not counting on anything. He participates in the job search and resume drops along with his engineering peers, and more often than not gets invited back for an interview. ” I get asked a lot by recruiters why I’m interviewing with them when I already have my own company,” says Chiste. “The proper answer is that by the time I graduate the company will be self-sustaining, but the truth is I’m just keeping my options open.”
Regardless of the future, Chiste sees the last two years as well spent. He has learned how to advertise, market, gain venture capital, and budget time-skills not usually learned in the classroom. In fact, in his thesis he proposes to share his knowledge with like-minded students in a book titled So You’ve Got a Great Software Idea and You’re Still in College…Now What?
Success beyond his years is not a new concept for Chiste; he had job offers from computer companies before he even graduated high school. What purpose has college served for someone with such a background? Chiste says that his engineering classes have taught him many important concepts such as how computers work and how to optimize his programs. But he does not see such factual knowledge as the ultimate benefit of college. In fact the language in which SiteSentry is written is not even taught in most schools-Chiste taught himself as he went along. “You don’t come to college to learn languages,” theorizes Chiste as he tends to his cookout. “You come to learn how to learn. You’re never going to use most of what they teach you-am I ever going to use Calculus III? No, but I developed problem solving skills which I will use.”
Chiste says college has also helped develop his people skills. Whether working on a group project or living in a dorm with 150 other first-year students, the ability to understand and work with other people is invaluable.
Chiste’s life is made up of many areas-school, business, friends-and education can come from any one of them at any time. It is fitting that Chiste attends the University of Virginia where freshmen are referred to as first-years, sophomores are second-years, and so on. This tradition began with the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who believed that a person is never in his final year of learning.
Just as the five-year-old thought: life’s best lessons extend far beyond the classroom.
For more information on SiteSentry, visit the TriActive web site at http://www.comet.net/sentech/