In a region known for snapping up bright young college graduates to work in high-tech, a small Palo Alto startup is taking that approach one step further — populating its workforce with college interns.
"Students bring unconditioned energy. ... Fresh energy, fresh thoughts — there's no status quo," according to Soujanya Bhumkar, the chief executive officer at CoolIris.
CoolIris creates Web-browsing software with a 3-D-looking, visuals-heavy interface.
Last school year, it employed 40 student interns to join an 11-member staff.
This summer, CoolIris welcomed 24 full-time interns — double the staff.
The vast majority of interns came from neighboring Stanford University, which lies across the street from CoolIris' 1895 El Camino Real office.
Interns handle tasks from marketing to tech support to site design. Bhumkar gives them as much responsibility as full-time staff members and encourages them to ask questions and throw out ideas, he said.
Intern Maria Ignatova, 24, just received a master's degree from Stanford and is helping CoolIris sharpen its image while she searches for her dream job in broadcast journalism.
She patrols the site's content — eliminating offensive or repetitive images — and creates promotional videos for CoolIris. In one, a student skateboards up to the office and describes how interns are given responsibility to do just about anything.
Ignatova paused during an interview and smiled.
"Do you want to meet my 19-year-old boss?"
That boss is sophomore Rob Balian. He's not a boss, he insisted. He just helps coordinate teams of interns as the product manager of Discover, an entirely intern-run feature.
Discover transforms news searches on the CoolIris browser into a stretch of vivid images. Recently, Balian has been trying to streamline the process of moving code from developers to the product, he said.
Above the intern crowd, engineers work in a cluster on the second floor, including Niels van Eck, 28. He thinks the system is pretty cool, he said.
"I used to be the youngest person in [my former company. Now I see all these little copies of me a couple years ago running around."
Tapping youth for talent is nothing new. Facebook, the Web giant a mile or so down the street, has hired plenty of recent Stanford graduates. It also has a college-intern program. Twenty-somethings are seen as ambassadors of the casual, wired generation and a valuable asset.
Accordingly, the thinking goes, their creativity must be encouraged with a light-hearted, dorm-like environment. After all, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — like the founders of Google and Yahoo — was a college student when he started his site.
So many startups emulate a collegiate feel with video games, scooters and snacks. Facebook has faux-rebellious graffiti paintings splashed over the walls of its downtown workspace, and employees have spoken of beer-pong games after hours in their office.
Even Google's colorful spaces and volleyball court and eBay's rooms decorated with toys or collectibles strive to evoke a more playful, freewheeling time.
But CoolIris is different. Perhaps because its interns are students returning to a dorm at the end of the day, there's no need to pretend the office is a dorm.
The startup takes the opposite tack: The office has no toys, bright walls, funny posters or gimmicks. It is an airy, open former loft with a laundry facility and kitchen.
Interns sit mainly downstairs at rows of computers. And they are given massive responsibility, Bhumkar said.
The Discover feature was conceived, executed and is run by interns, the CEO said. Interns also reach out to bloggers, recruit new employees and test the site's user interface. The students can hope to earn at least $20 hourly — and perhaps much more — in what Bhumkar calls a pure meritocracy. Age doesn't matter, only ability. Several interns who graduated are now transitioning to full-time staff.
Bhumkar himself — slight in stature with a warm smile and mop of curly hair — comes off more as a buddy than a boss.
Yet at 43, he's been at the helm of a few startups and knows the intern-heavy culture will only work if mixed with seasoned industry veterans.
Shashi Seth, a former Google employee who headed monetization at YouTube after it was acquired by the tech titan, is now CoolIris' chief revenue officer.
He is leading partnerships with firms including Amazon — the CoolIris browser helps users comparison shop more visually — and directing advertising on the site.
He was initially skeptical of the set-up, he recalled.
"The first time I came here I said, 'This cannot be sustainable. You have 20 employees and 40 interns.'"
Now, he's seen that it is indeed sustainable, he said.
Seth's perspective makes clear that the intern-driven culture is really driven by another player — Stanford University.
When asked whether a 19-year-old can really perform a task as well as a 25-year-old, Seth said it's not just any 19-year-old. It's a bright bulb from a school whose culture attracts, fosters and teaches entrepreneurs.
"We hire people who've been doing entrepreneurial things a long time," he said, calling it a "mature profile." Co-founder Austin Shoemaker interned for Apple at age 14, he said. Shoemaker and fellow co-founder Josh Schwarzapel were students when they started CoolIris. The culture even converts students initially headed down other paths to the technology route.
Being near the school enables a year-round intern culture. Students can sink their teeth into long-term projects and accept more responsibility, according to Seth.
At Google, a summer intern may have eight weeks to complete a certain task and little chance to see how it turns out or tweak it later, he said.
There are drawbacks to relying heavily on college students, Bhumkar acknowledged. One is what he calls "the Cabo effect" — during spring break last year, there wasn't "a single soul" in the office.
But he insisted that the unplanned, organic intern culture is a genuine boon for the company. It puts innovation in CoolIris' DNA, he said.
CoolIris and its legion of interns is funded by venerable venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers to the tune of about $3 million and worked out of its incubator before moving into the current office. CoolIris is already making money through Web partnerships and expects to be profitable by late 2009 or early 2010, Bhumkar said.