Applying Inspiration

Having survived the rigors of a Johns Hopkins education, Rajiv Shenoy felt ready for anything. The best part of his education, he decided, was that he had learned “how to pragmatically think through problems, come up with a solution, and then test it to make sure it actually works.”

With that in mind—and a mechanical engineering degree in hand—Shenoy wanted to test an idea he had hatched during his freshman year. Instead, following his parents’ advice to get a job, he took a detour to Wall Street, only to find investment banking a bad fit for his interests. He had an entrepreneurial spirit and wanted the challenge of creating something new.

“Both of my parents were entrepreneurs,” he says. “I grew up watching them build a business and saw how hard it is…but also how exciting it is to make your own decisions and see the fruit of your hard work.”

Today, he and Plan B are thriving. Shenoy leads a promising new company built on an innovative business model that generates income up front, without the usual startup’s reliance on debt. He believes his concept of “improving the quality of campus life” has merit, and he has investors and contracts to prove it.

Rewind to the freshman class project. Shenoy and his roommate proposed renovating the student lounge, which involved setting up new flat-screen televisions. “LCD screens were pretty new back then—which is kind of sad—we’re getting old,” the 25-year-old laughs. The new televisions attracted student viewers, so Shenoy connected his laptop and announced a Super Bowl party with free buffalo wings. “That day,” he says, “we had 400 or 450 people show up to the lounge to eat free wings.”

In the first semester of his sophomore year, he linked three LCD screens in the library and encouraged students to announce their events. “It actually failed horribly in the first two months,” he recalls. “Then, second semester, something really cool happened.” The hockey team had made it to the championship game but had sold no tickets. To promote the game, they created a video for Shenoy’s network that went viral. “Everyone was talking about it,” he says. “Twitter didn’t exist, but people started Facebook messaging each other—and they sold out.”

Soon, messages poured in from the baseball team, a cappella singers, the Hindu Student Council, the Student Government. Professors started posting opportunities for summer internships. Shenoy kept adding televisions, and it became clear that his linked-campus-media concept had legs. It would take further innovation, however, to shape the idea into a business.

Shenoy started his “pilot” in January 2010. Called Orca TV (for Organization for Responsive Campus Advertising), the business manages contracts with colleges and universities, providing open-source programming for linked, campuswide messaging. Organizations engage students and promote events by uploading videos, PowerPoint slides, and animations. Administrators can send widespread, instantaneous emergency alerts. Orca keeps the system running smoothly, vets content to filter out inappropriate postings, and tracks student engagement to demonstrate its effectiveness. Third-party advertising revenue is shared with the institutions. Management fees are embedded in each contract, sustaining Orca and saving money for the universities, which would pay more for employees to provide the same services.

By July 2011, Shenoy had won a contract with the state of Virginia. Orca has since expanded into New York City, Georgia, Maryland—including a contract with Johns Hopkins—and elsewhere. It may be just beginning to realize its potential. Employers could recruit graduating seniors. Coupon offers could vary depending on time of day. A classified section could picture items for sale on a peer-to-peer network. The “captive audience” on military bases could be an advertiser’s dream and a natural extension of Orca’s university programming.

Meanwhile, Shenoy is gaining critical experience. “One of the hardest things to do is to surround yourself with really good people,” he says. With no background in computer science, he needed to find technical talent, and he currently has a staff of five full-timers. While he focuses on “the business development and sales and innovation side of things,” his mother serves as the company’s president, managing contracts and client relationships.

Shenoy emphasizes the importance of taking a calculated risk. “Without taking that chance, there is no such thing as innovation or entrepreneurship,” he says. “We have to be willing to fail…That’s where chance comes into play and how success really happens.”

He credits Hopkins and his exposure to “senior people who are very smart and caring” with building his confidence. He says they taught him that three things can happen: “The first thing, that’s awesome, is you do really well and you succeed….The second thing, which surprised me, is you fail, you fail early, and you get out. Sometimes, hearing ‘no’ is the best thing that can happen….The worst thing, and what I’m trying to prevent now, is where you’re treading water, where you’re not being innovative anymore.”

With each Hopkins class, he felt he was moving forward, always progressing, and he wants to maintain that momentum. “Hopkins taught me how to build something that’s sustainable, that’s worthwhile, that is valuable to people,” he says. “You can be very creative and do a lot of creative things, but it’s how you apply that inspiration and that creativity that really generates value.”

—Ann Lano