UK: How a university scuppered next Facebook

Universities are providing more advice to entrepreneurial students but when the student start-up FitFinder was shut down, despite attracting five million users, critics saw it as a case study on how not to nurture student entrepreneurs.

'Enterprise suites' are increasing among universities. Some institutions act as incubators for student start-ups and others help students take their ideas to the market for funding.

But in at least one British high-profile case, a promising student start-up was ham-fistedly shut down, showing that universities have some way to go in understanding how to nurture enterprise.

In late April, Rich Martell, a final-year student at University College London, or UCL, set up FitFinder. This was a local website that allowed students to post comments about 'fitties' - attractive individuals they saw around them in the university library.

First set up as a "joke between friends", Martell found that 2,000 students were following FitFinder within the first 24 hours alone.

It did not just go viral, it went pandemic within six weeks with five millions hits and 50 universities logging on to their local university versions as other universities clamoured for their own sites.

"When I went to the library I would see 20 computers logged on to FitFinder," Martell told University World News.

Rather than celebrating a future Facebook in its midst, UCL took action that appeared incomprehensible to many. It shut FitFinder down, in part, it said, because it was distracting students during the crucial May examination period.

Martell now admits FitFinder, with its focus on physical attractiveness, usually of female students, was "a bit risqué".

"It was not the website that was the problem for the university; it was because I was a UCL student and the website was called UCLFitFinder as part of the domain name. It was a technicality."

It was also the social media equivalent of shooting the messenger. Users, rather than the site itself, dictated the nature of the posts.

"If a UCL student posted something offensive on Facebook, would they hold [the founder] Mark Zuckerberg responsible?" Martell asked rhetorically.

He said he agreed to take the site down, for fear of not receiving his degree as a sanction. He was also fined £300 (US$450) for 'bringing the university into disrepute'.

"The university put themselves into more disrepute by fining me. They did not have to do it but they were being asked by other universities to stop it."

Martell said the London School of Economics, the second institution to have a FitFinder site, sent out an email to students to desist from logging on to FitFinder while in the library.

"That was the best form of marketing FitFinder could have got. So many people went on it at the LSE we could not keep up with the traffic. It increased the load of the servers," he said.

A week after the launch of Britain's education and research network JANET, the Joint Academic Network, blocked FitFinder from university networks "over issues with the perceived level of distraction offered by the site".

But the ban was lifted within 24 hours following floods of complaints from students across the company", Martell said.

"It was the LSE, not UCL, that contacted JANET and asked them to block the site. I am not aware of any other website being blocked by JANET."

Thom Ruhe is Director of Entrepreneurship for the Kauffman Foundation that funds many entrepreneurship activities in universities, not just in the US where it is common but also in countries in Africa and Asia, including most recently in Bangladesh.

Ruhe was scathing about UCL's heavy-handed approach: "I fear this would have a chilling effect on the entrepreneurial reputation of the university. If a student has to go to a university bureaucracy for approval, it is going to limit spontaneous entrepreneurial activity at that university," he said.

"It is a dicey place for a university to be. If the content were really that bad, then the market would speak and students and others would soon move away from the site of their own accord."

Ruhe said the university should have provided advice on how to remedy matters of privacy or any other issues.

"There is not a university here [in the US] that would have tried to stop something like this [FitFinder] in any way. In so many universities in the US entrepreneurship is celebrated, there would have been a huge backlash of complaints and blogs."

The Kauffman Foundation is a keen supporter of student entrepreneurship. "University students are more open to opportunities and risks," Ruhe said.

In addition they have a peer support network at university to try things out. "No one can predict where the inspiration for a world-changing idea will come from."

Martell's experience also contrasts with that of another celebrated student entrepreneur Kulveer Taggar who co-founded boso.com, Britain's first online student marketplace when he was a final year undergraduate at Oxford University.

Boso (Buy Or Sell Online) spread to 60 universities and was later renamed Auctomatic before being sold in 2008 for £2.5 million. The site allowed students to trade items they needed at university but did not require once they graduated.

Speaking from his home in Vancouver, 26-year-old Taggar described the FitFinder debacle as "ridiculous".

"I would have tried as much as possible to keep it up and running. I would have tried my absolute darndest not to shut it down. My advice [to Martell] would have been: if you think you can make a business out of it, screw the degree. I would have taken a sabbatical to develop it.

"Many students in America have given up their studies to set up companies. Of course it is easier said than done and it is difficult to do that in England compared to America.

"In London, graduates are more likely to become consultants, bankers or lawyers and they wear these jobs as badges of honour rather than take the risk of becoming an entrepreneur and doing something different from their peer group."

Taggar said he was encouraged to start up his own company with his cousin Harjeet Taggar, who was also a student at Oxford, after they helped set up Oxford Entrepreneurs as a student society.

This is now the largest student entrepreneur group in the country, with many of its members running their own companies. Oxford Entrepreneurs encouraged enterprising students by providing inspiration, business skills and networking opportunities.

"At OE we were always trying to punch above our own weight," said Taggar, with major British entrepreneurs such as EasyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou and industrial entrepreneur James Dyson visiting to talk.

"We were student run and independent [of the university]. That turned out to be a good thing because we were more driven."

The university and particularly the business school provided much support including networking and mentoring.

UCL is now eager to say it is trying to assist Martell - a little late since he is now about to graduate and leave the university for a job in banking.

Tim Barnes is Executive Director of UCL Advances, the university's centre for entrepreneurship. Some 20 student companies are supported each year, sometimes with small loans and grants, and it is hoping to develop into a mini-incubator for business ideas designed by students.

"We have seen a series of students open businesses. We have a belief that some of these will turn out to be the big companies of tomorrow," said Barnes. "We are interested in supporting companies of any kind that come out of here. There is a clear trend towards people being more entrepreneurial; it is a trend across society and students mirror that.

He said Martell's project did not start as a business but as a project over one weekend and he realised there was money to be made. Most of the student body thought he had made a good job of getting it up and running.

"It had a lot of traffic and that's great but it was not a sustainable business. To do that takes dedication and effort and planning to see how it is going to generate income after the initial hype. You have to figure out how you keep people coming back," Barnes said.

Martell is cautious about UCL's belated helping hand. He welcomed the break as he started a new job. "It provides the opportunity to consider what we can get right the next time."

He has held talks with a number of Silicon Valley investors but it is clear the project is in abeyance for the time being although he expects to resurrect FitFinder in some form after he graduates.

"I've learnt the need for speed and to be the first to market. But in general I would not change much, because it worked."

Ironically it has inspired other student entrepreneurs at the university, such as the slightly tongue-in-cheek UCL Distraction billed as the 'go-to site for uni-work avoidance'.


The problem with Fitfinder was that some students were being victimised before a vast audience made up of their university peers and did not feel comfortable working in the library anymore. So no, the market is not going to solve that problem because the market for sites like Fitfinder consists largely of the callous idiots who like to ridicule others.