College isn't just about dorm rooms, sororities, late-night cramming sessions and parties. If you're really on the ball, you can also build a lucrative business while you're earning your degree. Think college isn't the best time to start a business? Think again.
There are tons of benefits to starting a business in college. You have a slew of campus resources to help you out, and it's likely you're not bogged down with lots of responsibilities (children, mortgages, etc.), yet you're chock-full of creativity and passion. "[College] students are extremely creative at how to cultivate market relationships," says Caron St. John, director of the Spiro Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina. "They haven't had any losses yet, so they will take a risk someone else might not take. Their fearlessness, coupled with their creativity, gives them opportunities to do interesting things."
But don't get the idea that it's an easy venture. Experts liken starting a business while in college to starting a business while maintaining a full-time job. Still, with some good planning, a solid idea and a lot of hard work, you can make a successful go at it.
The founders of AllDorm Inc., a college furnishings manufacturer in Santa Clara, California, did. Ryan Garman, 23; Kevon Saber, 23; Chad Arimura, 23; and Ivan Dwyer, 23, met at Santa Clara University. Garman got the idea for the business while hauling his belongings from Las Vegas to Santa Clara during his freshman year. "It was miserable," he says. "I thought, 'There has to be an easier way to get this done.'" What if students could buy all the things they needed and have them shipped directly to their dorms so they would be waiting for them on their first day? He wrote a business plan and, by sophomore year, got his friends into the venture.
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But not just any friends. Garman took the idea to partners he knew would make the business successful, and they've maintained that hiring philosophy to this day. The AllDorm Inc. founders also recruited business experts to serve on their board of directors--a wise move, according to experts. "I often tell students to team with a more experienced businessperson," says St. John. "That person could bring accounting and finance skills or contacts in the marketplace."
Garman and his partners met their board members through various ways--from their high schools, through Garman's father, at Santa Clara University's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and at a business plan competition. The professionals had worked with companies like Nordstrom Inc. and Stuart Anderson's Black Angus, Cattle Company Restaurants and had Ivy League contacts to keep the company in tune with the needs of students from other universities. "Never turn away a possible contact," says Garman. "Give them a reason to be part of your team. [Attracting advisors] usually doesn't have anything to do with money."
The partners had a head start on getting to know the college market because they were still in school when they incorporated in 2000. Still, AllDorm Inc. didn't skimp on market research. They got friends and siblings at other universities across the nation to weigh in on dorm furnishings and amenities. This type of word-of-mouth research was powerful. Although the AllDorm Inc. founders are now out of school, they have at least two college student interns on staff so they can stay in tune to student needs--a practice that has no doubt helped grow annual sales to more than $1 million.
The AllDorm Inc. founders also used resources the campus offered, from the individual phone lines and Internet connections in every dorm room to the meeting rooms on campus that were free to students. Having a separate place to meet clients helps project a professional image, say experts. "It's the same situation if you're a nonstudent operating a business out of your house," says David Gumpert, author of How to Really Start Your Own Business (Lauson Publishing). "Thanks to technology, it's possible to appear professional [without] a lot of money." You can use your cell phone as a business line or get a p.o. box address if you don't want clients to know you're based at a university.