Student ventures FTW: Dorm Room Fund-backed Firefly announces Olark partnership

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on July 30, 2013

From The News Desk

As a recent college graduate, I'm always interested in (and secretly jealous of) stories of undergrad entrepreneurs. These days there are not only student-founded startups but student-based venture groups. The idea behind this trend is that young people, who are at the cutting edge of their technologies, may have a better idea what their fellow young people are doing and be able to spot the real winners. While this logic sounds feasible, it's always helpful to see companies evidencing this firsthand.

Well now there's Philadelphia-based Firefly, a company that makes Web co-browsing technology, heralding itself as proof for student upstarts. The company, which received $20,000 in support from First Round Capital-backed Dorm Room Fund, is announcing today a partnership with live chat company Olark.

Firefly started a year ago as a project of three Penn undergrads. The service it offers is kind of like screen-sharing, but happens only within the browser. (The founders are quick to correct you that its "co-browsing" and not "screen-sharing.") It allows people to highlight parts of the browser so those sharing it can see what's being highlighted without requiring any downloads. After receiving its initial $20,000 investment the company has remained completely bootstrapped, touts 5,000 companies using its platform, and six figures in revenue.

The way Firefly primarily uses co-browsing is for online support. Firefly's technology makes it easier for a rep to communicate with a customer and highlight key parts of the shared browser. It functions similarly to Skype screen-sharing, and products such as What Firefly's founders are quick to correct is that their technology only shares what's in the browser, making it more private. There are others in the co-browsing space, such as GoInstant and LiveLook, but Firefly is hoping this partnership along with some new features yet to be announced will stake their claim in the market.

Firefly CEO Dan Shipper believes this news highlights why student initiatives such as his are integral to the startup world. As a CEO he is quite impressive, having a successful company, all the while studying for an undergraduate degree in Philosophy. His other co-founders, Patrick Leahy and Justin Meltzer, are both recent grads from Penn. Shipper uses the company being bootstrapped, and its 5,000 customers as proof that programs like Dorm Room Fund may be onto something.

Of course, Dorm Room Fund isn't the only student venture group. There's the completely student-backed Dakota Venture Group, along with firms such as NEA tapping schools like NYU and Harvard.

As for what's next, Shipper says that, for the time being, Firefly won't seek any additional funding. The emphasis now is "paying customers first, raising money later." But the company may have some tricks up its sleeve, with announcements of new upcoming co-browsing features, one even letting companies monitor how people browse their sites (while making sure any confidential data is not shared through Firefly's platform).

Does this show definitively that Firefly is next big thing and that all student ventures should be backed? Not really. At the same time, it's refreshing to see young entrepreneurs create and market a product and form partnerships without seeking external funding. That is something that does make Firefly an interesting startup -- be it by students or not.