Spotlight on Brennan Stark / by Haley Smith

Meet Brennan Stark - Founder of Y Innovations and Partner at Teen Capital. He's currently working to connect college students and high school students to aid in the college admission process.

What was the first entrepreneurial idea you ever had? Any ideas you’re currently incubating?

When I was 10, I decided my $5 weekly allowance wasn't enough to support my lifestyle, so I created a plan to collect as many $.05 returnable bottles as I could. At first, I just collected them from my friends at lunch and stuck them in my backpack, but this seemed inefficient and I wasn't confident enough to go around to all of the tables of the kids I didn't know so I convinced my school to let me process its recycling. Eventually, I was collecting close to a thousand bottles a week, but at that scale I was having trouble finding places that would validate them and pay out the $.05 so I eventually abandoned the idea. 

Recently, I've been thinking about just how much the college search process sucks. Admissions presentations are terribly boring and college tour guides are basically paid salespeople. The incentives are completely misaligned with the student making the best, most informed decision he / she can. Beyond that, colleges spam students with mailers and emails that pile up never to be read. 

I've been thinking for a while that there has to be a better way to do this and recently I started running tests to explore some ideas I have been thinking about. I wondered if high school students would be interested in texting with college students at the colleges they were thinking about applying for. I posted on Reddit and to my surprise, I got over 1,000 signups on a google form. I then posted to see if college students would be interested and got around 600 from 300+ universities to sign up. 

I've been messing around connecting the high school and college students via iMessage and recently started working on the side to build a private mobile messaging platform to facilitate these conversations more efficiently and securely. The goal now is to build a mass adoption platform that all high school students use throughout the college application process. By building something free that lots of high school students use, we'd have access to data about which schools students are interested in, which would allow admissions offices to directly target interested students instead of spamming everyone.

If you could go back in time and give your younger self advice, what would it be?

I wish I had learned earlier in life that everyone else in the world is just as clueless as I am. A couple years ago I came across this Steve Jobs quote,

"Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use." 

I always did well in school as a kid and got good grades. I didn't feel like I learned much and something felt very restrictive about the environment, but I did well and people told me it was the key to success so I assumed that it was true. Over time, I learned to love the competition and obsessed over my grades. 

Ultimately, none of it mattered. That AP bio midterm I spent weeks studying for is now irrelevant. I've learned a lot about biology and evolution on my own and find it fascinating as a subject, but I remember basically nothing from my two years of formal biology. I could have saved myself a lot of time and stress if I had realized that school was not about learning, but I incorrectly assumed that it wasn't possible for everyone around me to be wrong. 

Once I realized that letters on pieces of paper weren't a good feedback mechanism for how well I was progressing towards my goals, it gave me the power to start creating my own measures of success. It was scary at first, but it has led to tremendous personal growth. I just wish I had started sooner.

What was your most life-changing experience?

I got my heart broken when I was 16. It was especially painful because I had wrapped up my entire sense of identity in one person and optimized myself to be the person that I thought she wanted me to be. 

It was devastating, but it was the wake up call I needed to teach me an existential lesson. 

At that point, I had twice unsuccessfully attempted to completely outsource my definition of what makes life meaningful. First, I had done this with school, placing meaning in what everyone told me mattered: grades. Second, I had done this with this girl, placing meaning in whatever she found meaningful. In both cases, I ended up deeply unsatisfied. At this point I realized that as hard as it was, the only way to be satisfied in life is to individually place your own meaning in whatever you find meaningful. 

After I realized this existential truth, my life completely changed. I focused less on school and more on learning, less on trying to fit in and more on trying to understand who I am, less on adapting to the world and more on trying to adapt the world to the way I thought it ought to be.