The last time most people attempted to start a business was probably when they set up a lemonade stand in third grade. But fast-forward a dozen years, add some marketable skills or a niche to fill, and there is no reason anyone can’t make a little cash on the side and venture into the world of business again.
Take School of Nursing sophomore Kate Pittel, for example. She creates unique handbags and sells them online at www.umich.edu/~kpittel and at three stores around Michigan, including Primitive Vintage in Ann Arbor. Here is her advice:
“Start with something you like. Don’t make anything you wouldn’t enjoy.”
Pittel has sewn since she was eight and said she has always had a flair for fashion, but it was not until high school that the two interests came together. Pittel said she started making purses because of the unimpressive selection she encountered. “I could never justify shelling out big bucks for stuff I thought I could make myself.” Because of her self-described insomnia, Pittel had plenty of time to refine her bagmaking skills in college. “Instead of watching crappy infomercials and bad reruns all night, I started sewing,” she said. Her habit of making the bags during the night spurred her to name her products “Insomnia Handbags.”
“Don’t get discouraged; if you think what you sell is special, chances are someone else will, too.”
Encouraged by compliments from friends, she went to several stores to see if they would sell her bags on consignment, where she and the store would split the revenue from the sales. She was turned down by many owners before finally finding one who took her bags and agreed to sell it for 50 percent consignment. Starting a business “is a lot of hard work,” Pittel said, “but it’s also an amazing accomplishment.”
“Just go for it.”
Two years later, Pittel still basically runs the business herself, with the exception of her website. “I am not tech-savvy, so a friend from high school created and maintains my website. He is fantastic and works in exchange for homemade cookies and care packages,” she said. With the help of a photographer friend, she is planning to release a catalog this summer.
Her final tip for aspiring business people is to “have fun with it. If your business stops being fun, you will be less motivated to do it.”
Kinesiology senior Brian Balfour and LSA senior Erik Schielke, also started a business in September 2003. But instead of marketing a specific product, they target a specific demographic — college students. Their company is called Celestine Inc., and, according to Balfour, it “is a web-company that specializes in development, marketing and consulting for those that are trying to reach the college demographic.”
“There’s a point where you have to stop planning and start acting.”
The project that spurred the creation of the company was www.PartyCampus.com, an organization similar to The Facebook but with a focus on creating a social network and a directory for local nightlife events. When Balfour and Schielke were roommates, they lamented the lack of a social network to coordinate parties on campus and began to toss around ideas about creating a network. Later that summer, Balfour brought the idea up to some entrepreneurs, and was surprised when one of the people offered to become an investor for the company. “Getting yourself out there is the only way you are going to learn the true potential of your product or service,” he said.
“The toughest thing about starting a business is keeping a positive frame of mind and working through the tough times.”
Balfour found that many people do not respect college students who dabble in business. “It was hard to convince someone to invest in two young people still in college, with no degree, in a sector of business that was just bouncing back from one of the biggest crashes of all time,” Balfour said. He also found that running a business took up a great deal of time and, in the process, has had to sacrifice being on the men’s varsity rowing team. Also, The Facebook has soared ahead of PartyCampus.com in popularity as an online social organization, and Balfour and Schielke had to figure out how to find another niche for Partycampus.com.
“You need to keep believing in your concept”
Nevertheless, Balfour and Schielke have not given up on PartyCampus.com by any means. They plan to relaunch it in February as an online college social magazine featuring articles written by college students from all over the United States. They also have a new project that they declined to reveal details about. As they have learned from their competition with The Facebook, their company has expanded from just Balfour and Schielke to include four programmers, about 12 writers and two prospective editors. Most of all, they have gained experience in what they want to do in life and, as Balfour said, “I was amazingly lucky to be able to do it at such a young age.”
Balfour’s advice to aspiring business people is straightforward and concise. “Do your research, have a bias towards action and stop making excuses,” he said. As he explained, someone who wants to start their own business should be taking every available opportunity to learn about their respective field and business in general.
Like Pittel, he also recommends that someone who wants to start a business needs to risk failure to try and market their product. “So many great concepts are developed but never put into action because people are afraid and kill their idea with being too conservative,” he said, “Entrepreneurship is not something for those that have to know what all the results of a certain action will be.” Finally, he adds that the most effective method of solving every problem is to spend your time looking for the answer instead of complaining about the problem.
And so as Pittel, Balfour and Schielke reveal, when it comes to starting a business, the hardest step is stepping out.