Finding a Spirit in Buffalo
Published: Monday, April 30, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
Every day after middle school Alex Levine went straight to his computer, as did most teenage boys. But Levine wasn’t playing video games or surfing the web – he was checking on his business.
Some UB students and faculty strive to turn Buffalo into a city of budding young entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurial clubs were created with hopes of connecting students who share a desire to start their own companies or share their ideas with like-minded people.
Levine is the founder and CEO of OldVersion.com, a website that gives its visitors the option to downgrade various programs – like AOL Instant Messenger, Microsoft Office, Windows Media Player, and many more – if the newer versions cause problems for their computers. The website acts as a “museum of software,” Levine said, and if someone likes a program the way it is, they aren’t forced to make the change.
This wasn’t Levine’s first shot at starting a business. Levine immersed himself in the world of technology after the purchase of the first family computer. An older friend had already set up his own website that reviewed Internet service providers, and after Levine saw that his friend was making money from it, the light bulb went off in Levine’s head.
“Being 10 at the time, I was like: ‘I’ll just copy his idea and it’ll be the exact same thing.’ I created a website – it looked horrible – for free Internet service providers,” Levine said. “He was really pissed, we got into a fist fight at one point, [he was] beating me up for doing this.”
Eventually the two friends made up and went into business together. They took over another website that also dealt with free Internet service providers, but one that received much more traffic than their own.
This website did not last long either. Part of the reason, Levine believed, was because he kept imitating his friend’s ideas. He was told he needed to do something that had never been done before, but Levine wasn’t sure that was possible.
The idea for OldVersion came to him unexpectedly. Levine and his father were using Napster to download music, but the newest version at the time caused their computer to crash. He scoured the Internet for almost 40 minutes before he found the older version, which functioned much better, he said.
That’s when his business began. He paid someone to register a domain name – as he didn’t have a credit card – and the website was set up within a month with the help of Levine’s virtual tech community.
Within three months, Levine’s website was featured in The New York Times. He was still in middle school.
Now, Levine is a fifth-year UB student. He created his own major called Theatre Anthropology: The Russian Experience. Theatre, because it helps him with storytelling and marketing, anthropology because it is the study of technological culture, and the Russian Experience because Levine moved to the U.S. from Russia at the age of 5.
When he came to UB, Levine didn’t even know that there was a community of entrepreneurs. But after his business was featured in The Buffalo News, someone reached out to him.
UB lacks a vibrant atmosphere for entrepreneurs, according to Levine. Although he believes that many students are being inspired to become entrepreneurs, he said the school lacks the resources and mentorship that allows them to pursue their dreams.
To Levine, UB is in a great position to make a culture of entrepreneurship happen in the Buffalo community.
Mark Greenfield, director of web services at UB, agrees.
“I think it’s a combination of doing things both inside the classroom and outside of the classroom,” Greenfield said. “I believe UB is starting to do things – even with the undergrad academies – to be able to provide these kinds of opportunities.”
Greenfield recently spoke at the #140cuse conference at Syracuse University, which focused on how social media and technology is changing society. Greenfield discussed the concept of higher education getting flattened, meaning how technology impacts college.
The world is a much different place from what it was during previous generations, Greenfield said. College graduates do not leave school and wait to work for a big company until retirement anymore.
The 21st century is changing, and Greenfield believes that higher education must change with it. Entrepreneurial skills are necessary to survive and an important skill set to have, according to Greenfield.
“Part of it is a lot of the work UB is doing in terms of building programs around that idea,” Greenfield said. “But I also think there needs to be, at the core of almost all the instruction we do, the recognition that the work force is different now and really trying to build that entrepreneurial understanding into all the ways we teach students.”
While UB does offer classes that relate to entrepreneurship, Levine thinks that there can be more. He also believes that including a class in the general education requirement would inspire students.
“Why would I want to spend my time reading 50 pages out of this [World Civilizations] textbook that doesn’t give you the history of the world?” Levine said. “F*** that. My time is worth more than that.”
Instead of just creating a hypothetical business plan, Levine wants to help connect UB students with an entrepreneurial drive with members of the Buffalo community. Levine isn’t the only one in Buffalo working on establishing an entrepreneurial spirit at UB.
Tom Flynn, a co-founder of UB’s Entrepreneur Club, created the club this semester in hopes of giving students a place where they could share ideas.
In addition to connecting students with similar interests, the club also reaches out to businesses within the Buffalo community. The members choose a featured business of the week and come up with ideas on how to improve it within a few weeks.