by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Think you’re busy with classes, sports, extracurricular activities, partying? How about adding a business startup to the mix?
The stories of three entrepreneurs who started their businesses while attending the same college illustrate not only that colleges campuses provide great launching pads for entrepreneurial pursuits, but also the variety of paths that young entrepreneurs can take.
In 1982, in his last semester at Stetson University, DeLand, FL, weightlifting enthusiast Daryle Scott started a body-building suit business out of his dorm room. A short stint at IBM and a few years later, Scott morphed the company into a women’s swimwear company and by the new century, Venus Swimwear, with Scott at the helm as CEO, had become the world’s largest marketer of junior swimwear.
Nearly 20 years after Scott launched his business, Albert Yonfa started his enterprise in the exact same Stetson dorm. A student in an entrepreneurial class, Yonfa was assigned to conceptualize and start a business. He and two other classmates came up with Postcard T’s, replica postcards screen-printed onto t-shirts and packaged in specialty postcard-shaped boxes. Though the business was immediately successful, Yonfa knew the labor-intensive production process would make it difficult for supply to keep up with demand. After several more permutations of the business, Yonfa successfully ran a firm called Dreamline, Inc., until he decided to go to law school.
Scooter Cardoza also started a t-shirt company at Stetson, and his, too, resulted from an entrepreneurial class, but in Cardoza’s case, success came indirectly from the class assignment. His professor was sure Cardoza’s idea would never work, so Cardoza launched it just to prove his teacher wrong. After graduation, Cardoza moved the business, Trinity Graphics, to his parents’ garage in St. Petersburg, FL. He has supplemented his earnings from Trinity by working for UPS and now for his dad’s company. While the t-shirt business hasn’t quite reached the point of supporting Cardoza full-time, it has grown annually.
Some well-known entrepreneurs who started their businesses while in college include Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Mark Zuckerberg, a 21-year-old Harvard student whose site, Facebook, has contuinued to grow exponentially since it began in Feb. 2004. See additional well-known businesses started by college students.
Entrepreneurship that begins in college seems to be booming, and Gerry Hills, co-founder of Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization, as quoted by Nichole Torres on Entrepreneur.com, says that even though the dot.com boom went bust, those heady times encouraged many college students to see entrepreneurship as viable. Hills notes that where students used to think they’d start a business some years after graduation, many are now raring to go well before they pick up their diplomas.
Entrepreneurs are, by and large, risk-takers, and college students are especially prone to take risks because they are generally unencumbered by family obligations and mortgages. They have grown up with technology, so their skills lend themselves to many tech-based businesses, such as Web design and e-commerce. Business ideas are often stimulated in the rich intellectual atmosphere of a college campus, where professorial advice is freely available, and even more importantly, a market of eager, young consumers is at the fingertips of the budding college entrepreneur with a “better mousetrap” concept that meets a market need.
Daryle Scott, for example, hit upon the idea with his body-building suits to offer the tops and bottoms as separates so customers who were a different size on the top than they were on the bottom could get suits that fit. He carried the idea through to his swimwear company.
The college campus is also a great incubator for student businesses because of the pool of students hungry to work for relatively low pay. Online databases for researching businesses are freely available to prospective entrepreneurs. And influential people and possible investors are often more open to being approached by college students than they would be to others.
Like Stetson University, where Scott, Yonfa, and Cardoza got started, many colleges have entrepreneurial programs that provide an excellent foundation for launching businesses. Some schools have even allocated parts of residence halls to entrepreneurial students. For those colleges that don’t have programs — and even some that do — students often start entrepreneurial clubs.
For many student entrepreneurs, running a business has a positive effect on grades. Just like students who learn great time-management skills while juggling sports and extra-curricular activities, student CEOs often excel in the classroom. Others barely keep their heads above water. And, hey, professor, you know that student who looks so dedicated taking notes on a laptop while you lecture? He or she could just be taking advantage of the building’s wireless network to run his or her business. More than one student has admitted to doing so while in the classroom.
As for the flip-side question, do you have to be “smart” — as demonstrated by good grades and test scores — to start a business? Not according to the research of Dr. Thomas J. Stanley, author of The Millionaire Mind, who observed that millionaires are well-educated but not necessarily super-achievers in school.
Tips for College Entrepreneurs
The most common piece of advice among experts on collegiate entrepreneurism seems to be — just do it. Don’t wait too long to launch your business. Don’t make excuses for why it won’t work or why you can’t do it. Don’t let fear, lack of money, insufficient time, or other obstacles stand in your way. Even if you fail, you still will have gained a great learning experience.
But what about money? College students who apply to banks for small-business loans usually aren’t taken seriously. Some max out credit cards or hit up parents, family, and friends. Daryle Scott sold his car to finance his body-building suit venture. Experts suggest that if being an entrepreneur is truly important to you, you’ll find the money.
- Be a problem-solver. Find a need or a niche and demonstrate that your idea can fill it. Do your homework so you truly understand the market into which your product or service falls.
- Gain exposure to others who have started successful businesses, especially other college students and recent grads who can inspire and motivate you.
- Be innovative. Hone your idea by sharing knowledge and brainstorming with other college students.
- Network and get a mentor. Every networking connection will help your business idea grow, and a mentor will be an especially helpful contact. Your school may have a mentoring program, but if not, there are plenty of people on campus and off that you can approach for mentoring — professors, local entrepreneurs, alumni, for example. Find someone who can feel invested in your success — someone you can bounce ideas off of and who can provide you with reality checks. Be sure to have business cards for networking.
- Take on extracurricular leadership roles to gain management practice and consider working at an entrepreneurial company to attain practical experience.
- Be prepared to present your idea professionally. Speak with confidence and contagious enthusiasm when you tell others about your business idea — especially when you tell investors — but don’t be too cocky. When pitching your idea to money people, partners, or important advisers, dress professionally and ensure that presentation materials — slides and printed pieces — look polished. Rehearse your pitch in front of confidants who will ask some tough questions.
- Start your business and get class credit, too. Many organizations were started as projects for entrepreneurial and other classes. The most famous example, of course, is Fred Smith, who got a C on his class project — the idea that became FedEx. When American Idol heartthrob Clay Aiken came in second in the talent contest in 2003, he was a semester away from graduating from the University of North Carolina, where he was a special-education major. Since he was busy touring and making his first CD at that time, he arranged to complete a special project to fulfill his final college obligations. The result was the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, which serves to bridge the gap for young people with developmental disabilities between full inclusion and today’s reality.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.