The Class That Built Apps, and Fortunes

By 

STANFORD, Calif.

ALL right, class, here’s your homework assignment: Devise an app. Get people to use it. Repeat.

That was the task for some Stanford students in the fall of 2007, in what became known here as the “Facebook Class.”

No one expected what happened next.

The students ended up getting millions of users for free apps that they designed to run on Facebook. And, as advertising rolled in, some of those students started making far more money than their professors.

Almost overnight, the Facebook Class fired up the careers and fortunes of more than two dozen students and teachers here. It also helped to pioneer a new model of entrepreneurship that has upturned the tech establishment: the lean start-up.

“Everything was happening so fast,” recalls Joachim De Lombaert, now 23. His team’s app netted $3,000 a day and morphed into a company that later sold for a six-figure sum.

“I almost didn’t realize what it all meant,” he says.

Neither did many of his classmates. Back then, Facebook apps were a novelty. The iPhone had just arrived, and the first Android phone was a year off.

But by teaching students to build no-frills apps, distribute them quickly and worry about perfecting them later, the Facebook Class stumbled upon what has become standard operating procedure for a new generation of entrepreneurs and investors in Silicon Valley and beyond. For many, the long trek from idea to product to company has turned into a sprint.

Start-ups once required a lot of money, time and people. But over the past decade, free, open-source software and “cloud” services have brought costs down, while ad networks help bring in revenue quickly.

The app phenomenon has accentuated the trend and helped unleash what some call a new wave of technology innovation — and what others call a bubble.

Early on, the Facebook Class became a microcosm of Silicon Valley. Working in teams of three, the 75 students created apps that collectively had 16 million users in just 10 weeks. Many of those apps were sort of silly: Mr. De Lombaert’s, for example, allowed users to send “hotness” points to Facebook friends. Yet during the term, the apps, free for users, generated roughly $1 million in advertising revenue.

Such successes helped inspire entrepreneurs to ditch business plans and work on apps. Not all succeeded, but those that did helped to fuel the expansion of Facebook, which now has nearly 700 million users.

Venture capitalists also began rethinking their approach. Some created investment funds tailored to the new, bare-bones start-ups.

“A lot of the concepts and ideas that came out of the class influenced the structure of the fund that I am working on now,” says Dave McClure, one of the class instructors and founder of 500 Startups, which invests in lean start-ups. “The class was the realization that this stuff really works.”

Nearly four years later, many of the students have learned that building a business is a lot harder than creating an app — even an app worthy of an A+.

“Starting a company is definitely more work,” says Edward Baker, who was Mr. De Lombaert’s partner in the class and later in business. The two have founded Friend.ly, a social networking start-up.

Still, many students were richly rewarded. Some turned their homework into companies. A few have since sold those businesses to the likes of Zynga. Others joined hot start-ups like RockYou, a gaming site that at the time was among the most successful Facebook apps.

The Facebook Class changed Mr. De Lombaert’s life. His team’s app, Send Hotness, brought in more users and more money faster than any other in the class. And its success attracted the attention of venture capitalists.

“The class, more than anything, set the tone for us to try to start something big,” says Mr. Baker, 32, Friend.ly’s C.E.O.

When the Send Hotness app began to take off, Mr. Baker encouraged Mr. De Lombaert to treat himself to a new car. Mr. De Lombaert settled for a laptop. (He also put some money aside to help to pay his Stanford tuition.) They eventually sold the app to a dating Web site.

Facebook did not actively participate in the Stanford class. But some of its engineers attended sessions, and it benefited from the success of the students’ apps. “It really felt like an incubator,” says David Fetterman, a Facebook engineer who helped develop the applications platform.

The startling success of some of the class’s projects got Silicon Valley buzzing. The final session, held in an auditorium in December 2007, was attended by more than 500 people, including many investors.

“The Facebook platform was taking off, and there was this feeling of a gold rush,” said Mike Maples Jr., an investor who attended some of the classes and ended up backing one of the start-ups.

THE Facebook Class was the brainchild of B. J. Fogg, who runs the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford. An energetic academic and an innovation guru, he focuses on how to harness technology and human psychology to influence people’s behavior.

Mr. Fogg thought that the Facebook platform would be a good way to test some of his theories. Creating a new model of entrepreneurship was far from his mind.

At first, university administrators pushed back. “Facebook was not taken so seriously in academic circles back then,” Mr. Fogg recalls.

But there was no hesitation among students — from undergraduates in computer science to M.B.A. candidates — who were spending much of their lives immersed in Facebook.

From the start, many approached the class from a business angle. Mr. Baker, for instance, was a graduate business student but lacked technical skills, so he spent his first week interviewing engineers. “I wanted a technical co-founder,” he says.

He settled on Mr. De Lombaert, and the two, along with a third student, Alex Onsager, created Send Hotness. It let users send points to friends they considered “hot” and to compare “hotness” rankings.

Soon they found themselves in a proverbial “the dog ate my homework” situation. Three days before a presentation was due, Mr. De Lombaert accidentally deleted the computer code he was tinkering with. “We kind of freaked out,” he recalls.

Rebuilding the app would take too long. So, working around the clock over a weekend, they built another version, with a more rudimentary algorithm.

The stripped-down app took off. In five weeks, five million people signed up. When the team began placing ads on the app, the money poured in.

They had stumbled upon one of the themes of the class: make things simple, and perfect them later.

“The students did an amazing job of getting stuff into the market very quickly,” says Michael Dearing, a consulting associate professor at theInstitute of Design at Stanford, who now teaches a class based on similar, rapid prototyping ideas. “It was a huge success.”

DAN GREENBERG was sitting at the kitchen table one night when he and another teaching assistant decided to get into the app game. Mr. Greenberg, a graduate student who had done research for Mr. Fogg, hadn’t planned to get app-happy. But the students’ success whetted his appetite.

Four weeks into the quarter, he and his colleague, Rob Fan, set out to create an app that would let Facebook users send “hugs” to one another.

It took them all of five hours.

The app took off. So they moved on to apps for “kisses,” “pillow fights” and other digital interactions — 70 in all.

Their apps caught on with millions of people and were soon bringing in nearly $100,000 a month in ads. After the class ended, the two started a company, 750 Industries, named after the 750 Pub at Stanford where Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Fan where drinking when they decided to become business partners.

But juggling the business and schoolwork was too much for Mr. Greenberg, then 22. So he called his father.

“I said, ‘Dad, it is 10 p.m., and I’ve got so much stuff to do,’ ” Mr. Greenberg recalls. “ ‘We’re running this business, and I’ve got customers, and we are earning money, and we got financing and we have people to hire. But I have to write a paper tonight, and I just don’t have time for it.’ ”

His father advised him to pull a Mark Zuckerberg and drop out. The next day, Mr. Greenberg did just that.

Now 25, he works out of a glass-walled corner office in San Francisco. He is C.E.O. of his company, now called Sharethrough, which uses social media to distribute videos across the Web for companies. It employs 30 people and has raised about $6 million in venture capital. “It feels like a fairy tale when you look back on it,” he says of the class.

He has upgraded his lifestyle somewhat, but still doesn’t own a car. “I have a Vespa and skateboard,” he says.

“LOVE CHILD.” It sounds like an unlikely name for an app. But Johnny Hwin and his Stanford class team set out to build an app of that name, one that would let two users create and raise a virtual child. It never took off.

“We were overly ambitious,” Mr. Hwin says.

Seeing his classmates strike gold with simpler ideas proved to be a valuable lesson. In 2009, he began working on Damntheradio.com, a Facebook marketing tool that helped bands and musicians connect with fans online.

It opened last June and was acquired in January by FanBridge, where Mr. Hwin is now a vice president, for a few million dollars, he says.

Mr. Hwin, who is 26 and also a musician, now lives in a loft space in the Mission neighborhood in San Francisco. He uses his place as a kind of salon for late-night art shows and concerts.

“With Love Child, we wanted it to be perfect,” he says. With Damntheradio, he found his first clients by showing mockups of the product. “We were able to launch within weeks,” he says.

Another class member, Robert Cezar Matei, says he had only modest success with his projects. One, he said, allowed users to send “cheesy pickup lines” to friends; another encouraged people to reveal something about themselves. After graduating from Stanford, he wanted to earn some money to go traveling, but instead of getting a job, he decided to write Facebook apps. “I’d seen my peers being so successful with apps,” he says. “If they could do it, I could do it.”

After a few false starts, he created an app that let people send points and “kisses” to friends. It struggled until Mr. Matei, who speaks several languages, translated the app. The next day, traffic jumped fivefold. He added games, and employees, and the app became one of the most popular Facebook programs in Europe. In late 2009, he sold to Zynga for an undisclosed sum.

Also in the class was Joshua Reeves, who built an app that created animations that Facebook members would send to one another as birthday greetings or other messages. It made enough money for him to quit his job in 2008 to start Buzzeo, a content management system for Facebook. A year ago, Buzzeo was acquired by Context Optional, where Mr. Reeves, 28, is now a vice president. Last week, Efficient Frontier, a digital marketing company, acquired Context Optional for an undisclosed sum.

ONE recent afternoon at the headquarters of Friend.ly in Mountain View, Calif., 10 engineers worked away as two employees turned their attention to a companywide project: a 24,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

For much of the past year, Friend.ly has worked on developing its service, a social network for meeting new people, without much success. A few weeks ago, the work appeared to pay off: traffic took off, growing to nearly five million monthly users.

Mr. Baker says the Facebook platform is a magnet for young developers, even though the kind of simple apps that were the focus of his Stanford class now face bigger hurdles. Facebook has made it harder to develop big-hit apps by controlling how apps spread virally.

But Mr. Fogg, says that for those who were at the right place at the right time — in late 2007 — things were different. “There was a period of time when you could walk in and collect gold,” he says. “It was landscape that was ready to be harvested.”

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61 responses to “The Class That Built Apps, and Fortunes

  1. I love this idea because it shows how to make a profit off of the new devolping technology. I have to give credit fro any college that does something likethis because it’s truely remarkable.the students are tipping the iceberg and many of them are going to use what they learned in the future.

  2. This article was mostly about how one small little app can change someones live all because of one homework assignment. I think it was amazing to see that they were making $3,000 a day off of a homework assignment! If i could do that that would be great. This whole idea is trying to show that you don’t need do make something incredible to make an incredible amount of money.

  3. This article is about the consistant change with technology and that anyone could become a part of it. This to me is just remarkable that college students could do this together. This article just shows how much we rely on technology and how much technology helps us. But this shows that we can do whatever we want with the help with some technology.

  4. This article is about college students who designed apps. I think this is a very cool article because it shows that school is very helpful. It also shows that anything is possible. I think it is very cool that these college students made money from a class assignment. This article shows how technology is so great in todays time because you can make a ton of money by just creating apps on phones and online.

  5. This article is mainly about college students who create apps for phones, computers, etc. The article explains that creating a simple app. that seams easy can make them a profit of $3,000 per day! I think that it is great that kids who are in college and know how to use technology are able to make a great living off of it! Most kids in our generation are good with technology so as we get older more jobs involving technology will start to come up and hopefully we will be a ble to make a living off it if we want to as well.

    • I agree with you! Almost all kids in our generation are very good with technology! It is so great people are making a living off of doing something fun. Great job!

  6. This article is about a group of high school students who made a very successful Facebook application that made such a large profit people were able to quit their jobs. Students made tremendous amounts of money off of apps that took the less than a year to make. most of the people who make these apps aren’t even out of their twenties. “Nearly four years later, many of the students have learned that building a business is a lot harder than creating an app — even an app worthy of an A+.” These students have a a great education in electronics and will get into a great college.

  7. This article was mainly about how college students can make such complicated apps that seems so simple to us and make so much money off of it. I think it’s really interesting how much work it takes to create such apps that we find so simple with nothing complex about them. I was really surprised to see the profit these students made on a free app. $3,000 PER DAY! It’s even more surprising that they make even more than their professors. I feel that these types of classes are good because it can really benefit students in the future to make a good fortune and have a lot off people satisfied with their creations.

  8. I think that the idea for a class like this is genius by the teachers of the “Facebook Class” I think that it would be really fun to be in a class like this because you get to make games, get advertisers, and make money. I was amazed to see how the simplest apps took so long to make and some never took off while others did making large profits as much as $3,000 a day!

  9. This article is about how technology is changing very fast and anyone can become an entrepreneur in the tech world. I think that is has become increasingly easy for someone to succeed in the tech world as time passes. All you need now is a laptop and a knowledge of programming to make a lot of money. I can’t wait to see what the future holds. Mental computers?

  10. This article is about how apps are a rising new trend, that produces tons of revenue. I was shocked to see that students were making apps for homework, and making money off of them. One app was bringing in $3000 a day! The article also said that the whole class made roughly 1 million dollars off advertisements. I think that all of this is great. Apps are a really big thing now, and people are making a lot of money. Maybe one day I will make an app, that will hopefully make millions!

  11. This article is about how technology has changed the working world and how a good idea can change a persons life. I think this class is a good idea because creating apps isn’t difficult and it can generate a lot of revenue, as some of the students found out first hand.

  12. This article is basically about how a simple and creative assignment can take flight into something amazing, even an app for facebook. I was astonished to see that some of the apps make a huge profit, up to $3,000 a day. I think that that is a pretty good daily wage! It is very cool to have such an amazing money return on something that didn’t take much to produce. With that said I don’t think that the creators should stop their life there living off the millions they made from an app. They should continue to pursue their education and make a real living, not just relaxing all the time. Plus with all that money they could easily donate to lots to charity and use something like a facebook app to help the world, while still having plenty of the money for themselves.

    • I completely agree! Making apps can really benefit students in their future by making good money. With the economy the way it is, it could be a great way to make a living!

  13. This article is about how a simple idea like creating an app can take off and change peoples lives. It was incredible to see how some apps never caught flight while others did. Some of the creators of these apps were making profits as much as $3,000 a day. Also, as I was reading this article it made me think about the programing and design cycle class we have in Eisenhower. Right now, I am trying to make a simple maze game, and it is very difficult to even make that. when I read what some of the collage students are making it made me have a better understanding of why it could take someone so long to make one app. After reading this article it made me think of the movie, The Social Network. This movie was about Students making a Facebook app just like the students in the article are making apps. This app brought in tons of money and now the maker of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is set for life. I think it is great how students imaginations can be put to work, and make money for having great ideas for something as simple as an app.

  14. This article is about how a simple idea like creating an app can take off and change peoples lives. It was incredible to see how some apps never took off while others did. Some of the creators of these apps were making profits as much as $3,000 a day. Also, as I was reading this article it made me think about the programing and design cycle class we have in Eisenhower. Right now, I am trying to make a simple maze game, and it is very difficult to even make that. when I read what some of the collage students are making it made me have a better understanding of why it could take someone so long to make one app. After reading this article it made me think of the movie, The Social Network. This movie was about Students making a Facebook app just like the students in the article are making apps. This app brought in tons of money and now the maker of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is set for life. I think it is great how students imaginations can be put to work, and make money for having great ideas for something as simple as an app.

  15. I agree with you about how fortunate this class was

  16. This article is about a class that was asked to complete an assignment and they did much more than was expected. I thought it was really amazing how these students transformed this project into something that is known my tons of people. Also, how much money these students are making and what they are doing to earn it. I also thought it was very interesting how easy it is to make money off of simple apps. These students definitely have a bright future ahead of them and will most likely be very successful in years to come.

    • This was an article about a class of kids that profited from a class assignment. I think this is cool idea for an assignment. Apps are very fun and I think it would be a good idea to have a class include modern marvels.

    • I completely agree with you, I also think that it is pretty cool how these people can make money off of a simple app. Those kids do have a bright future ahead of them.

  17. This article is about how a Stanford class, the “Facebook Class”, was assigned a project to devise an app and get people to use it. This assignment became highly profitable when tons of people started to use them and they are extremely cheap to make. I think this is a great way to make money from a small, easy idea.

    • I agree! I think it is great that students were able to make a lot of money off a small idea and especially make money off of something they enjoy.

  18. I think that a class like this would be very useful and interesting for kids living in a world where we are becoming more and more dependent on technology. I think that making facebook apps could be useful, since it could help kids make good money, and they could make a source of constant income instead of something like a car wash, where you only earn money for one day.

  19. This article is mainly about how one small college class idea, can lead to making fortunes just on apps. Apps have become very popular in today’s world. Almost everyone who owns an iPhone or an android has at least 1 app. Also, most apps aren’t free and cost about 99 cents. By making an app that has a cost, you will be able to retire and not have to work as hard. This is because many people use apps for many reasons, so there always wanted and even if you make a small profit at first, the profit will soon grow. Even with games that are free, the creators will make a large profit. I’ve experienced this. I’ll buy the free version of the game, realize the better features if you buy the game, and then end up buying the more expensive version. The app store is a very well visited store, so I think it would be a good idea to use it to make a living.

  20. gingerjames12

    I think that the idea for a class like this was a stroke of genius by the teachers of the “Facebook Class” I think that it would be really fun to be in a class like this because you get to make games, get advertisers, and make money. It’s a win win situation. Personally, I think that designing a game would be fun so what’s wrong with doing something fun and making money. I think that the people who went through this class were really fortunate to have their games advertised because with advertisers, there comes money and there is NOTHING wrong with money. I think that more schools should begin to offer this class because it not only teaches kids how to program and design games, but how to deal with possible advertisers and how to be in charge of something worth a lot of money.

  21. This article really shows how we are living in a changing world. Before schools made money by selling cookies or washing cars. Now students are making far more money by selling facebook apps. I think this is a step in the right direction in terms of ways to make money. Now schools can make money by offering what they are making too everyone who has access to the internet, before they could only sell to a few people.

    • I agree with you that this article shows how times are changing. I also agree how selling apps make more money, and it is a better idea than selling cookies. Cookies are delicious, but they don’t last as long as apps will. Apps you have forever, so you will get more people interested in your campaign. Good job!

  22. This article is about how much technology has changed. I think it’s amazing how creating an app for facebook can earn you $3000 a day! I’m sure that if you were an eighth grad student 15 years ago, and said “Today in class, I made an app for facebook that will earn me bucket-loads of money,” people would think you were crazy. It’s crazy how times have changed, and how much society depends on todays technology.

    • I agree completely, the times have changed. People are making lots of money off apps, instead of cookies.

  23. I think this article is about a class of high school students that were assigned a project that turned into something completely unexpected. Apps are becoming highly profitable because tons of people use them and they are extremely cheap to make. A family member of mine made an app. Even though it wasn’t very popular, her made 2o cents off each purchase and now I think he has made around 100 bucks. Imagine if he had made a game like Angry Birds or Tiny Wings, he could retire after he got out of college.

    • You make a good point saying that they are extremely cheap to make. Also, your family member must be rich after all those apps that he sold, I should look into the app business.

  24. The article is about how students made money and a new career from a class assignment. To me, this just shows how school can help you in life. Although it is very rare that people make this much success off a simple project but, this shows it is possible. If these students hadn’t gone to school, they wouldn’t have received the assignment or made the money. It proves that assignments are actually useful. Many people complain about assignments or about how unnecessary school seems for your future. The example in this article can really inspire people to understand how useful school can be.

  25. This article is about a group of high school students who made a very successful Facebook application that made such a large profit people were able to quit their jobs. I personally think it is unbelievable how a group of college students were able to have a six digit pay check, from making a simple Facebook app. Every Facebook user has used these apps and I think that very few of us had any idea about how much money can be made from them. This group must really be astounded by the profit, I know I would be. I think I’m going to go make an app too.

    • I also agree that it is very hard to believe how lucky these people and many other people are. This article also has inspired me to have the idea of creating something simple and useful.

    • I totally agree with you, I wish I could be bring home a six digit pay check for making one app. Also, I think that I am going to make an app and see how it does. If it takes off hopefully I will be set for life!

  26. This article is about how people can make a lot of money from simple ideas. It’s amazing how in this generation, we could have a homework assignment to create a Facebook app and within a week, we could be a millionaire, C.E.O. or V.P. of a company based off an app we created. One very simple app could earn you $3,000 a day. It sounds unreal, but with all the technology we have available to us today, it could happen to anyone, anytime.

  27. Andrew, I can’t agree more. It is incredible.

  28. In summary, this article is about modern times and how a mere app can turn into six figure sums. It seems so unlikely that a homework assignment can be your career in a week, but it is reality. It is unbelievable what happened to Mr. De Lombaert, but the fact that a little free app can turn into an insane amount of money is beyond me.

    • I completely agree with your post. I cant get over how well this group of students succeeded. I agree with you a little free app can make an “insane amount of money”.

    • I agree completely with you. How could something so simple create such a huge profit? If this is how easy it has become to make money, then how come our economy is in shambles? Something like this can change someone’s life completely, so maybe we could use apps as a way to helps people less fortunate than us. Perhaps Mrs. White’s class could make our own app.

  29. This article is about how people can make lots of money off such simple ideas. I think that it is very cool concept of having a class like that. Now that i think of the apps i have played they are really simple and fun games to play. The games are off such basic ideas and gets these college kids millions of dollars to come up with a great fun app. It also talks about the creativity the kids have to come up with the games. I think it is really cool because some kids make as much as 3,000 dollars a day. Also some get to become CEO’s of company’s.

  30. This article was about how a simple assignments to create Facebook apps took off making college kids C.E.Os and VPs of companies based on their apps. I was amazed to see how the simplest apps took so long to make and some never took off while others did making large profits as much as $3,000 a day! In the beginning of this article it states “Start-ups once required a lot of money, time and people. ” I agree with this statement becasue today it costs so little to produce an app but the rewards are great making you a C.E.O or millionaire overnight. If everyone created a Facebook app the world would be made up of billionaires. I think it’s sad how doing something so simple and non-educational can provide you with enough money where you don’t have to do anything or work the rest of your life.

    • I agree with what you said about how the most uneducational thing, facebook apps, could make enough money to live off of for a long time. They should use their extra dollars to help charity or to do something to benefit the world.

  31. Andy, I kinda disagree. I know you probably don’t want to do this and you think this article is shallow and only about today’s technology, but it is about a lot more than that. If you look deep enough you can clearly see that the article expresses that you don’t need knowledge to become successful. All you really need is a little imagination.

  32. This article is about how a simple creative idea can generate a lot of wealth. It shows that ingenuity, creativity and imagination is what forms our world not knowledge. As Albert Einstein said ” Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” It think this quote expresses that imagination is key in being successful.

    • You make a good point. People need to be creative to get somewhere in life, but I also think knowledge helps too because knowledge is used to actually put together the app and turn an idea into something.

    • I agree that it’s good to be creative, but I also agree with Olivia that knowledge is also important because you need to know what you are doing in order to create the app.

    • i agree with you alex and I like the quote

  33. This article is about how quickly things can change. Students made tremendous amounts of money off of apps that took the less than a year to make. most of the people who make these apps aren’t even out of their twenties. “Nearly four years later, many of the students have learned that building a business is a lot harder than creating an app — even an app worthy of an A+.” This is really an example of how times have changed. To become as successful as these students are, people would have used to have had to take the venture of spending a lot of money and opening a business that they weren’t sure if they would thrive of fail. Now all that has to be done is spending c couple of months on a computer and writing a script for a game. Many have even dropped out of school because they didn’t have time to write papers and run a company.

  34. This article was very interesting to read how easy it is to make money off of such simple apps. I must say ive played some really good apps and some really really bad apps that i remembered after reading this app. For new students out of colledge and kids in these computer camps these apps seem like huge money generators for such a low cost to develop and design.

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