Kelly Nyman spent the last semester of her senior year at Washington University in St. Louis cooking up good grades, cheesecakes, blondies, and zucchini bread in her off-campus apartment. But the desserts were not meant to satisfy her sweet tooth — they were for Kelly’s Creations, the baking business she created to “make a hobby into something profitable,” she says.
While the income wasn’t always steady, she made hundreds of dollars around holidays such as Valentine’s Day. “After seeing real companies sell stuff that I could make, I got inspired.” She obtained a list of addresses of her sorority sisters’ parents and started sending out flyers explaining her services. Her signature gift baskets, which included a variety of sweets wrapped in cellophane with a bow and personalized tag, were a big hit. “It wasn’t big money but it did give me some extra spending cash,” she says.
Many students are catching the entrepreneurial bug. Just look at Mark Zuckerberg. He’s the 21-year-old Harvard student who created
The Facebook, an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges. The site has attracted more than two million registered users at about 800 campuses since its launch in February 2004. While Zuckerberg will not disclose the company’s earnings, he says it is profitable. It must be successful, otherwise Jim Breyer, one of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalists, wouldn’t have invested $13 million in the company.
Of course, there are some very well-known businesses that were started from student dorm rooms, such as Microsoft, Dell, Napster, Netscape, FedEx, and Apple. While it is hard to determine how many student entrepreneurs actually exist, “several surveys indicate that 50 to 70 percent of students hope to one day own their own business,” says Gerald Hills, founder of The Collegiate Entrepreneurial Organization (CEO), an entrepreneurship network serving more than 500 colleges and universities that hosts an annual conference for student entrepreneurs.
He says many factors are driving this explosion of interest in entrepreneurship. One reason is that students today don’t feel the same sense of job security as they did even a decade ago, he says. “They’d rather chart their own destinies despite the risks involved.”
And the risks are often plentiful. Starting a business can be expensive. “A student must ask, ‘Is this a viable enterprise?'” says Deborah Chereck, director of career services at University of Oregon. “‘Is it going to be more expensive to start it up than sustain it?'”
Hills says it’s important to make a habit of saving money. “Save as much as you can early on because the majority of businesses require an investment of the entrepreneur before others are willing to commit to funding,” he says.
Fortunately for students, they often have much less to lose than adult entrepreneurs. “In some ways they are better off because they haven’t yet accumulated assets like a house or have a family to feed,” Hills says. Besides, taking risks is an important part of any business. “Successful entrepreneurs take calculated risks — the key is to have unique knowledge about the customer you are targeting and the industry you are going into,” he says.
Another advantage students have is proximity to what Hills calls “a perfect breeding ground for opportunity.” He says the campus is where rapid changes take place and new needs are always developing. “The campus is a great place to test out your idea and see if you are really adept to all the skills necessary for the job,” Chereck says. “It’s not just about the idea. There’s a marketing and accounting component, too, that some people forget about.”
Of course, there’s no road map to finding success as an entrepreneur. “Most people find opportunities by the simple act of keeping their ears and eyes open,” says Donna Ettenson, vice president of operations at the Virginia-based Association of Small Business Development Centers. “They just stumble upon an opportunity.”
In addition, many colleges offer entrepreneurial programs or clubs on campus that can provide a great foundation for launching businesses. Students should also take advantage of all the free professional advice available to them. Student advisors, counselors, professors and even potential investors are often more than happy to evaluate a student’s business plan or idea and give their feedback.
There are also companies like
Dorm Works, which offers an online training program to help students eliminate debt by starting their own companies. Their mission is to teach students everything they need to know from the concept stage to design and selling.
Ettenson says that developing an online business is the way to go. “This doesn’t require a lot of office space — a student can set up shop with a telephone and an Internet connection,” she says.
Geoffrey Cox and three of his peers from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, did just that. They felt textbook prices were too high and set out to make them affordable. During their senior year, they created the Web site
www.urshelf.com, which allows students to buy and sell textbooks from each other at reduced prices. “If you try to sell your books back to the college, you get practically nothing back,” Cox says. “This way, students can set their own fixed price or list it auction-style.” Cox says the site, which went live in August 2004, will start generating money by fall 2005. Sources of income include banner advertising, referral commissions and fees from bookstore vendors.
Garrett Bean, a senior at Duke University in North Carolina, is also dabbling in an online venture. He will launch a dining system that will allow students with university dining cards to order meals in real time via the Internet and have those meals delivered from local restaurants. “I saw how much students were ordering food from local restaurants and saw the inefficiencies of doing everything through the phone — busy lines were a problem,” Bean says. “I just knew the system would be better if it was online.”
After reading a slew of “how-to” entrepreneurial-focused books, he hired a Web developer and four other students and developed partnerships with seven local restaurants to help form the company,
Gourmet Dining & Bakery. Bean is confident that when classes resume full time in the fall, “I will make more money doing this than I would from any offer I could potentially receive after graduation,” he says. “This is how I will make my living.”
Alana Klein is a freelance writer in New York City