An Educator's Thoughts on Student Entrepreneurism

 

Linda Muir is no stranger to the world of start-up business. As the Director of Inst. New Enterprise at Westminster College, she spends every day feeding her passion of helping students and small business owners achieve their dream-to-success in entrepreneurship. We had the opportunity to sit down with Linda and discuss her business development endeavors on campus. While she made many keen observations during the course of conversation, perhaps the most profound is her belief that “students today are innately more entrepreneurial”.

Due to the likely effects of recent economic and technological factors, Linda believes young people now want to control their destiny in a way older generations could not. This desire often conflicts with parents’ natural inclination to push their offspring in “safe” directions like medicine or law, or any other industry with a somewhat defined job trajectory. She explains that the problem with this belief is that the business world is not as “safe” as it once was. “Corporate America is downsizing”, making traditional job security less attainable. In an act of rebellion, survival, preference, or perhaps a combination of the three, students are now actively defying the career route and advice of their parents in pursuit of more self-dependent ventures. This paradigm is further reinforced every time a new CEO position is born before the age of 35, a more common phenomenon that was once more of a pipe dream for older generations spending their entire lives climbing the complete corporate ladder. 

Though she sees student business plans of great variety, most include or have an element of the moment’s big buzz word: social entrepreneurship.  “Our youth want to solve today’s most plaguing social problems” -- a goal that is overwhelmingly compassionate and admirable. However, she has found that somehow, someway, it has been instilled in her students that big corporations are incapable of contributing and accomplishing this end goal. “Students think that their companies have to be a small non-profit to actually do good." She believes this is a mistake. While for-profit businesses do have a more bureaucratic disadvantage, there are many opportunities to be entrepreneurial and solve big problems. Students will be able to use their budding enterprise muscles no matter what business size or capacity is available to them. In this sense, entrepreneurship isn’t just the process of starting a business, it’s a way of life.

HOW TO PREPARE:

While an innate entrepreneurial spirit is a good foundation, extra preparation and education definitely has a place. However, Linda hints that an entrepreneurship or business degree isn’t a cure-all. “Theory is what’s taught in school and it is no good. It doesn’t teach students how to practically do.” For this reason, she believes the best way for students to prepare is to do real projects or competitions for real companies -- “preferably flawed companies.” Students need the field experience because real business problems aren’t as black and white as the problems and case studies in their textbooks. “Businesses just face way more variables than a piece of text could ever adequately explain.“ Linda suggests that what undergraduate programs should really be utilized for is development of soft skills like public speaking, networking, writing, relationship management, and observation.  “Observation is power!” In her position on campus, this is one of her favorite mantras. Students approach her repeatedly about the step after the business plan: investors. “Every time, I send them to a local angel meeting where 5-8 other entrepreneurs are pitching. It’s not until these meetings that my students realize how much more they haven’t thought through yet; they are always so glad they learned what to expect before!”  

Fortunately, there is an infinite amount of material at our disposal. Even television has picked up a slew of entrepreneurial-focused programming including Shark Tank, The Profit, and The Mentor, among others.  Prepare and soak up as much as you can. Then in Linda’s parting words, just “go out and do it”. That after all, is the most valuable thing that makes all the difference.

(Angel groups are organized all across the US, you can find one near you at www.gust.com.)

 

Entrepreneur Spotlight Series: Steve Russell, CityGro

C.S. Lewis once said experience is the “most brutal of teachers”. In the world of aspiring entrepreneurs, experience is all to be gained—making a seemingly painful journey ahead. However, Dr. Seuss also said something quite astute, “The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” In an effort to extract and apply the wisdom from both, we wanted to begin an Entrepreneur Spotlight Series where experience and discovery meet. To kick off we sat down with Steve Russell, Co-founder and COO of CityGro, a Software as a Service (SAAS) company with a suite of tools designed to help businesses build relationships by automating communication with customers.

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What inspired the idea of CityGro?

A few friends and I discovered that there is a real pain point that exists for business owners who don’t have the time or resources to develop relationships and effectively communicate with their customers. It was a problem that appeared time and time again. Jon Parrish (Co-founder and CEO) once asked a grocery store owner why they threw away hundreds of dollars’ worth of food each day. Their response was that they didn’t have a good way to communicate the items’ sharp discount with their customers. 

We faced this same challenge when we were in Student Government at Utah State University. We were charged with the task of putting on extravagant parties and activities for the student body. It was always frustrating when we would hear students say there was nothing to do on a Friday night.  We didn’t have the tools (outside of littering the campus with flyers the week before) to communicate the invitation to students.

After discovering that we had a pain in the marketplace worth solving, the excitement of entrepreneurship sank in. Businesses needed tools to collect the data necessary to communicate with customers and we were committed to finding the solution. Our flagship product is now the iPad Kiosk, which helps businesses with foot traffic interact with clients and ultimately build marketing networks of up to 35,000 customers. When our clients want and need to market via email or SMS, they now are able to do so.

How did you pursue this project?

Often people have great ideas. Sometimes those great ideas turn into a clear vision, but rarely do those visions turn into action.  I remember sitting in a room with Jon when we decided to put $25,000 of our own money into a bank account.  At that moment we were all in--there was no turning back. We were students in college at the time and knew that there was no better time to take a risk. 

From there, we began hitting the pavement to visit businesses.  We walked in with our laptops in hand (before the days of iPads) to sell businesses on the idea and convince them to sign up.  Once we had enough businesses interested, we released the product.

What lesson resonates most since starting CityGro?

The biggest lesson we learned is that there is no such thing as an overnight success.  There will be mistakes and there will be setbacks. Understanding that before pursuing an idea will give you the motivation to keep on going when times are tough. As you look back at all the great companies, including those that “seem” like overnight successes, you will always find a roller coaster story of hardships, mistakes, and obstacles.  It is those who understand that obstacles are a necessary part of the process that are better equipped to overcome them.  

The entrepreneurship roller coaster can be quite the ride.  One tip that has helped me is to hear the stories of other entrepreneurs.  They have all been on the roller coaster before and eventually figured it out.  I listen to either an audible book or podcast with entrepreneurship as the topic on my commute to and from work each day. 

Is there anything you wish your team had done differently?

That’s a tough question to answer.  It’s easy to look back and say I would change this and that, but ultimately I would hate to give up the knowledge we gained from making our many mistakes.  If I had to choose a lesson I wish we had learned earlier, it would be to establish a company culture. Doing so ensures that employees live and breathe the company’s vision, mission, and core values. When employees understand these things about the company they work for, it empowers them to perform their job better. They no longer feel the pressure to ask if certain decisions (they are in charge of making) fit the vision. Empowerment increases efficiency exponentially.

Today we have a great company culture that reflects our core values.  It affects all the decisions we make from hiring to marketing and product development.  It’s an important piece to the entrepreneurial puzzle.

What academic class or subject do you think is the best preparation for the entrepreneurial world?

This is a question that I think all three founders of CityGro would answer in a different way. Jon graduated in Communications where he learned the skills necessary to be great at sales, public speaking, and persuasion. Ben, an Engineer, could list quite a few Computer Science classes worth taking.  I graduated with an MBA and undergraduate degree in Marketing. Each subject has given us the tools necessary to wear several hats in the company.

What is your advice for young students and/or entrepreneurs pursuing a venture?

Pivot, pivot, and then pivot again.  The greatest advantage that a young entrepreneur has is the ability to adapt quickly.  Bigger businesses fight for the ability to be quick and nimble, but the reality is that it is almost impossible for them to do so.  If your current product isn’t performing as well as you would like, talk to your customers and learn how to adapt. 

CityGro has always had the same mission “to create the best relationships between businesses and their customers”. However, we started off with a completely different product and company name. As BlueCache, we had a website where consumers paid memberships to gain access to hundreds of exclusive offers posted by local companies. We learned quickly that acquiring hundreds of businesses and thousands of consumers in every demographic area would be a tough model to scale.

We have now moved to a B2B model and provide businesses with software to connect with customers.  While I don’t believe we will need to make a major pivot like before, we continue to conduct product experiments with our customers and adjust accordingly.  

 

Want to learn more? Visit CityGro's website here.