Camp AOL

Silicon Valley is a hot place to be right now, with startups bringing a certain sexiness to the economy and a series I haven’t gotten to watch yet to HBO. (Please don’t ruin it for me.) There are all sorts of weird little companies sprouting up, some successful, others not so much. A lot of this is driven by a mythic belief that all you need is an idea and a laptop and you’re off to the races — in that world, everyone’s an entrepreneur trying to become the next Google, Facebook, or, in a former time, AOL.

If you play your cards right, you may even get to live there. And no, “there” is not Silicon Valley. It’s AOL’s offices. Just ask Eric Simons, who at age 19, did exactly that. For two months in late 2011, Simons ran his now-defunct startup, ClassConnect, out of AOL’s Palo Alto, California headquarters. And, being the young co-founder of a startup, Simons didn’t have a lot of money for things like rent or food. AOL’s offices could provide all of those things — couches to sleep on, a gym to shower at, and free food in various places throughout the day. It worked out really well for him, except for one little detail.

AOL didn’t know about it — and they certainly didn’t give him permission to take up residency there.

Simons’ career as a tech office squatter started four months prior to move-in. He and some friends were accepted into what startup folks call an “incubator” — a relatively short program where fledgling companies are given mentorship, advice, a work space, and a small amount of startup capital. Specifically, Simons and team were part of an AOL-hosted incubator called Imagine K12, which focused on building solutions for the education space. ClassConnect, Simons’ company, received $20,000 to in hopes that they could create “a company that builds tools allowing teachers to create and discover lesson plans, and share them with students and teachers,” according to CNET.

To take advantage of Imagine K12’s offerings, though, Simons had to move from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay area. And when the incubator program ended after four months, ClassConnect had used up its $20,000 (likely on rent and the like for its founders) and needed to raise more cash to stay alive. Doing so in San Francisco is much more likely than in Chicago, so Simons needed to figure out a way to stay in town. He realized that his AOL access badge still worked, so he kept using it to take advantage of the wifi and other amenities the office offered. Shortly thereafter, he realized that he could also eat, sleep, and bathe at AOL HQ — as long as security didn’t notice. His routine was designed to help him avoid detection, as CNET further explained:

He’d work until midnight or later, and then fall asleep around 2 a.m. on one of the couches. At 7 a.m. — and no later than 8 a.m. so he’d be safely out of his field bed before anyone else arrived — he’d wake up, go down to the gym for a workout and a shower, and then go back upstairs and scarf a breakfast of cereal and water or Coke. Then he’d work all day, finally waiting until everyone else in the building had gone home before returning to one of his three favored couches.

It all came to an end one morning when a building supervisor, who was probably aware of Simons’ activities and was hoping to catch him red-handed, found the interloper asleep on a couch at 6 a.m. and was less than pleased. Simons didn’t try and attempt another sleepover (and AOL didn’t press charges), but he also didn’t give up on ClassConnect — he didn’t have to, at least not immediately. The extra time he bought himself helped him raise an additional $50,000 in venture capital, keeping the dream alive for a few more months. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough; ClassConnect rebranded as in September of 2012 but, as of this writing, is gone.

Bonus Fact: AOL’s original business was a dial-up Internet-like service from 1983 called “GameLine.” Users paid $65 for a modem and a one-time setup fee and, after that, could download video games (very slowly, given modem speeds at the time) for the Atari 2600. You couldn’t keep the games, but at the price ($1/game), even a rental was reasonable.

From the ArchivesDisc Jockeys: The story behind the seemingly ubiquitous AOL CDs from yesteryear.

Related: Speaking of those AOL CDs, you can get one on Amazon… for about $7. (???)