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Out of School

Targeting customers far from your college halls? Here's how to get them.

You're in college, and you've come up with a brilliant new product or service. The problem? Your target customers aren't your college classmates--rather, they're people located off-campus, who fall into a wider age range and lack the college mind-set. That presents a challenge: How do you target this group?

Very deliberately and with plenty of market research to back it up, says Kathleen Allen, director of the Technology Commercialization Alliance at the University of Southern California's Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. "You have to work harder to find the potential target customer," she says. Use the same market research strategies you would to start any business, such as scouring industry trade publications and talking to community business leaders. Allen also suggests using on-campus resources, from state-of-the-art libraries and computer labs to tips from your professors and advisors, who can provide guidance on marketing outside the university.

Knowing his local community well was key to entrepreneur Ivan Lomeli's success. A 2005 graduate of California State University, Northridge, he started his Glendale, California, company, Allied Mortgage Consultants, while still an undergrad in 2002. Helming a mortgage consulting firm that specializes in mortgage services for the underserved Hispanic community in Southern California, Lomeli, now 25, marketed his services far outside the college realm. Direct mail and word-of-mouth buzz were his primary modes of communicating to his target market, which he knew well thanks to research and his own experience working at a loan company since he was 18.

He focused on detailing how his consultants could simplify the mortgage process for clients. And when Lomeli would meet prospects face to face, they'd sometimes be surprised by his age. "They'd say, 'Wow, you're young,'" he recalls. "I would just say, 'It's about knowledge and education--I'm giving you years of great experience.'" In his marketing materials, he didn't play up the fact that he was in college, or even that he owned the company--he focused instead on the services he and the other eight consultants offered the community. That strategy worked, and Lomeli has grown the company to about $3.6 million in annual sales and 50 employees.

You can promote your college status to customers outside the college market, but it can be tricky. Molly Hughes Wilmer, founder of Vision Strategic Marketing & Communications, a marketing consulting firm in Annapolis, Maryland, notes that trendy or youth-focused businesses could benefit from highlighting the entrepreneur's college status. But if you're selling mortgage advice like Lomeli, or other products where maturity is valued, it pays to play up other aspects of your business.

"It depends on what the student is selling and who they're selling it to," says Wilmer. "It has to start with your value proposition, what you're offering your customers, why you're unique and why you're different from your competitors. There's no universal answer."

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This article was originally published in the November 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Out of School.

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