1. Go To Class: This sounds like a no-brainer, but you’ll quickly learn that some…
Class transforms business students to business owners
For years, the NIU College of Business has billed itself as the place “Where the Classroom Meets the Business World.” This semester, Professor Christine Mooney decided to live up to that motto to the fullest extent.
Those who enrolled in her class on business models were transformed from business students into business owners. “I wanted them to see firsthand how all the components of a business model interact, and I wanted them to get their hands dirty,” says Mooney, who is the Bill and Paula LeRoy Professor of Social Entrepreneurship.
In the ultimate test of learning by doing, she tasked them with creating and operating a business for eight weeks. Not surprisingly, some students were a bit nervous about the project – especially when they learned that it comprised 70 percent of their grade for the class. However, they quickly embraced the undertaking when Mooney explained that their final grade was not tied to their bottom line.
“This exercise is not about making money,” explains Moody. In fact, failing can be great, if you do it early in your career and not too spectacularly – this fits both of those criteria.”
The process kicked off with a networking event where every student in the class had to pitch an idea, and from there they formed teams around the more popular concepts. Teams developed their products, found financing (usually by attracting investors, paying out of pocket or crowdfunding) and created social media advertising campaigns. A launch event was held in early October.
Since then, the companies (two t-shirt companies, two food companies and one game maker) have each traveled different path. Some experienced instant success, while others encountered great frustration. Regardless, all seemed to walk away with valuable lessons and a desire to someday apply those lessons in the real world.
Huskie Spirit Squad
Senior marketing major Mackenzie Roddy learned a lot playing club volleyball in her hometown of San Bernardino, Calif. Those lessons have been on display as she helped lead NIU’s women’s volleyball team to a conference championship, and in the classroom where she and her business partners are making and selling customized t-shirts.
“My mom and I used to make them when I played on club teams, and some people in the class jumped on the idea,” Mackenzie explains. While many of their basic model shirts come with the word “Huskies” emblazoned on them, the team quickly learned a lesson in copyright law when the discovered they could not use any official university logos.
The shirts have proven popular with Mackenzie’s teammates and with classmates looking for a unique and not-too-expensive gift for family members. The team (which financed the project out of their own pockets) broke even in early November and is looking for ways to grow their customer base. Currently they are trying to land orders from intramural sports teams.
There are no plans to maintain the business beyond the end of the semester, but it has given Mackenzie thoughts of launching her own venture someday. “I would definitely consider it,” she says. “We have learned how hard it is, but at the same time have learned how rewarding it can be.”
Monday Lunch Bunch
Lindsay Barnaba and her teammates won’t get much sympathy when they talk about the challenges their business has faced. First, they had to figure out how to keep up with demand, and then they had to dust off their accounting skills to keep track of their profits.
That’s what happens when you know your customer base and give them what they want. In this case, the customers are hungry college students and the product is fresh, hot sandwiches, chips and pop, all for $5.
How does a group of students pull off that feat? Well, they struck up a partnership with the DeKalb-based soup kitchen, Feed ‘Em Soup, which provides the product. That business model struck a chord with the Management Student Advisory Board, which was so impressed it provided a $200 loan to help launch the venture.
As of early November, the group has already recouped that loan, plus an additional $200, and they are planning to donate a portion of their profits to Feed ‘Em Soup. That success has fostered some talk of approaching MSAB about taking over the operation next semester as an ongoing fundraiser to support their activities.
It also has Barnaba thinking about a future as a restaurant owner. “I really enjoy when people come back and say that the food is great and that they will come back the next week. It’s great that we can provide that service while helping a good cause. It’s a win-win.”
For as long as there has been beer and college students, there have been drinking games. To capitalize on that phenomenon, one group of students in Mooney’s class created The Ultimate Pregame.
It seemed like a natural fit with the team’s target audience. The idea seemed so good that it even attracted a $100 loan from Marketing Student Advisory Board. However, things got a little complicated when the team learned that the nature of their product created a few unique challenges: it could not, in any way, be endorsed by the university, nor could they sell it on campus.
“We didn’t expect it to be this difficult,” admits Jenna Roadman, 22, of Bartlett. “We thought being on campus would be our greatest resource, but that fell through immediately.”
Instead, the team turned its attention off campus, taking advantage of invitations to bring the game to fraternity house parties, where it has been a hit. As of early November, the team was $35 in the black.
The experience has been filled with valuable lessons.
“It’s definitely not as easy to run a business as you would think,” says Roadman, who dreams of someday opening a doggie-daycare facility. “We learned a lot about the importance of marketing. I hate selling, and I’ve never taken any of the sales courses. After doing this project I believe that should be a required course for everyone.”
King Louis Crepes
Jovan Zeljkovic’s idea for a student run business helped him answer the long-standing question: Where does a guy have to go to find a decent crepe in this town?
“In Europe there are crepe stands everywhere, and people line up to get them, but you just don’t see them in America,” says Zeljkovic who grew up in Serbia.
Now Zeljkovic and his teammates provide that experience each Wednesday morning in Barsema Hall. He operates the crepe pans while teammates fill the pastries with combinations of Nutella, bananas, strawberries, whipped cream and other tasty treats. As tempting as it sounds, the crepes were not an instant hit.
“It’s hard to get people to try something new, so we have had to work hard at marketing,” Zeljkovic says. They loaded their Facebook page with pictures of happy customers, and members of the team decked out in a crown coerce students passing by to try a crepe. They have even offered a 100 percent money back guarantee.
The efforts have paid off. Sales have increased steadily and the team has consistently turned a profit.
Not that it has been all smooth sailing. A miscommunication with Barsema Hall officials almost cost them the ability to sell at the business school, and they had to scrap plans for sales at the Holmes Student Center.
“That really taught us the importance of communication throughout the team and with others, said Zeljkovic.
In the end those troubles proved to be only a bump in the road and a few of the team members are giving thought to actually opening a small crepe stand on or near campus, or partnering with a local restaurant to offer the European treat.
The only thing that seemed in infinite supply for the Infinity Apparel team was the roadblocks, detours and conflicts they encountered.
Their original plan seemed to have promise: create and sell themed t-shirts to students before each home football game. However, moving from concept to reality proved difficult. Just getting the team together was challenging due to scheduling conflicts that included marching band practices and third shift jobs. Getting shirts designed in a timely manner and finding a maker that could turnaround product quickly and inexpensively also proved difficult.
Along the way, there were new ideas that withered on the vine due to miscommunication, opportunities that lost because of the inability to react quickly and many meetings where frustrations bubbled over. By week six, when other teams were working out how to drive profits higher, Infinity had yet to create a product. However, they did learn many lessons.
“I think that if we had it to do over again we develop a game plan sooner and stick to it,” says team member Ashley Johnson. “We kept going off on tangents. We had a lot of great ideas but we didn’t follow through the way we needed.”
None of those setbacks, however, dampened Johnson’s desire to launch a business of her own someday.
“I know that I face planted so many times this semester, but hopefully it will save me from doing that when I get out and try to do this for real,” she says. “I wish things had gone better. It would be great to tell someone in an interview how I kicked butt on this; instead, when I get in that situation I am going to tell them how much I learned from the experience.”