Camping out at AOL: Teen entrepreneur lives on AOL's couch for two months

Free food, good showers and comfy couches can be just as attractive to strangers as empoloyees

Appallingly young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs always have to go that one big step further than all the other overachievers out there.

Nationwide, 29 percent of young adults (ages 25 to 34) have come home to live with their parents for at least a short time to take advantage of cheap rent and friendly accommodations during a wickedly tight economy, according to a survey published in March by the National Endowment for Financial Education.

Nineteen-year-old Eric Simons did nothing so pedestrian.

Just two years after graduating from high school in Chicago, the teenage entrepreneur was in Palo Alto Calif. Trying to make his first billion with a startup called ClassConnect, a social networking site designed to let teachers crib from each other's lesson plans the most effective ways to keep adolescents engaged.

Simons claims on his About page that he was inspired by his own boredom, lack of interest in school and the challenge from a teacher that he come up with techniques teachers could use that would keep him engaged.

"Let's get everyone working together on computers!" according to the version of the story he tells online. "I'll even build the software for us to use."

Fast-forward a few months and Simons was in Palo Alto, working full time on ClassConnect at a startup incubator called Imagine K12 and burning through his startup money even sleeping on friends' couches, working 12-16 hours per day and living on Ramen noodles.

By the time the four-month startup program ended, the $20,000 K12 gave ClassConnect had ran out, leaving Simons with nowhere to work and nowhere to sleep.

Rather than go back to college or to his parents' house, Simons moved in with AOL, which sponsors the K12 incubator and gives it office space in AOL's Palo Alto campus.

After the K12 program ran out, Simons found, his key card still worked, there was plenty of unoccupied space he could work in, a gym, shows, free food in the cafeteria and an army of not-quite-colleagues who keep such weird hours themselves no one noticed the now-20-year-old was living in the building, not just working there.

"They'd say, 'Oh, he just works, here, he's working late every night. Wow, what a hard worker,'" Simons told CNET.

He slept on one of three couches that seemed not to be on the patrol routes of night security guards, went to bed late and woke up early so no one caught him napping, showered in the gym, snacked on cereal and Coke in the cafeteria and got back to work.

He kept only a few changes of clothes – in a locker in the gym – which he would wash at night in washers inside the building.

He kept up the scam for two months before a security guard woke him yelling, prompted by a building manager who'd caught on to the scheme and "scoured the entire place to find me. And he ripped me a new one. He was pissed I was treating it like a dorm, which was reasonable," Simons told CNET.

The guard recognized him as an Imagine K12 baby, so he wasn’t arrested. He lost his key card and was booted out of the building, though, and onto the couches of friends he'd warned ahead of time because there was no way he was going to keep squatting at AOL forever.

Either the incubator or the intrigue was good for him.

He made so much progress with ClassConnect he landed a $50,000 grant from venture capitalist Paul Sherer and Ulu Ventures.

The $50K let him rent a house and hire and engineer and some interns, all of whom live with him at the new rental.

He's not wasting the rest of the house as a resource, however. He's renting the extra bedroom with its bunk beds to a rotating crew of hackers and coders, trying to make the absolute most he can of real estate that may not be his, but in which he can at least fall asleep without wondering if he'll wake up in a parking lot with the dream of Silicon Valley billions shattered into pieces on the tarmac around him.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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