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Rule The School

Membership-based college student discount program

Picture the scenario: You've been mulling over a superb business plan for the past several months, when you read an article profiling someone who's already left the gate with the very same concept. "%&$*!" is right. So you retreat, defeated, back to your gloomy day job, or you go through with it anyway--the latter of which only truly zealous entrepreneurs, like Ray Sozzi, 31, choose to tackle.

Nearing graduation from the University of Massachusetts at North Dartmouth, Sozzi had almost fleshed out his idea for a membership-based college student discount program dubbed Student Advantage, but he took a cushy job at a management consulting firm anyway. He then discovered that The Princeton Review, one of the nation's largest test-prep companies, had launched an exact replica of his student discount idea, eerily named Student Access. "The only difference was the second word!" Sozzi remembers.

Realizing it was now or never, Sozzi quit his job in 1992, depleted his bank account, ran up $25,000 in credit card debt, and sold his car and condo to get Student Advantage Inc. established in time for the upcoming "back to school" season. With $100,000 and a staff that didn't receive regular salaries for more than two years, Sozzi refined his business model while researching the college population's spending power.

By arranging partnerships with universities and leveraging every business contact imaginable, Student Advantage has grown into not just the nation's largest collegiate discount network, but also a full-fledged student lifestyle resource. For a $20 membership fee, its more than 1 million members get discounts of 10 to 50 percent at some 20,000 sponsor locations, including Foot Locker and Tower Records. Students also receive a quarterly student lifestyle magazine and access to www.studentadvantage.com, which offers online shopping discounts, student-focused content, and services such as e-mail and file storage. Sales for the first three quarters of 1999 were nearly $20 million.

The smartest part of success? Student Advantage has acquired all four of its competitors--including former nemesis Student Access.

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