Building a Business
By Lorie Briggs
TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 1, 2010) -- Jon Salem started climbing the walls in 1999 – literally – when he brought Everclimb, a recreational mobile rock-climbing business, to Tampa. Providing climbers with an opportunity to scale a 24-foot mobile rock wall, business has been thriving for a decade and the wall is booked almost every weekend.
A few years after he launched the rock-climbing venture, the father of two school-aged girls was pleased with his small business, but envisioned doing more with the 3,000-pound wall than simply toting it to fairs and corporate events. He set his sights on developing Climbathon, a separate fundraising business using the wall to raise money for PTAs and social services.
“I wanted to turn climbing into a risk-free fundraising program for schools,” says Salem, 49, a 1998 USF anthropology graduate. “I wanted to create a program that could benefit schools without students selling anything.”
Armed with this vision, and hoping to get a better understanding of systems organization and financing, Salem chose to pursue a Master of Science degree in Entrepreneurship and Applied Technologies through the USF Center for Entrepreneurship. He says the graduate degree helped him determine whether or not to launch Climbathon.
“I learned how to assess the viability of a new product or service and what it takes to successfully launch the most feasible ones,” he says. “Studying entrepreneurship gave me the educational and experiential tools to concretize my socially-conscious fundraising vision into a viable, scalable new venture.”
Nearly 50 ventures have been launched by entrepreneurship graduates during the last six years, everything from Web-based personal organization systems to complex diagnostic products for the medical field. Several, like Marsha-Ann Strand, a 2001 graduate, have used the training to launch or strengthen nonprofits.
“I came here specifically to learn from professors who were more than academics, faculty who were entrepreneurs themselves,” Strand says. She found that in Michael Fountain and other faculty who teach in the program.
Strand says she aimed to become an international resource person, desiring to return to Barbados to teach children how to think like an entrepreneur.
“I wanted kids to know that few start-ups earn a million dollars within the first three years,” she recalls. “I wanted to help children understand that if you are going to be a doctor, there’s a business side to that and entrepreneurial thinking can be applied anywhere.”
“I was learning so much in the classroom,” she says, describing courses in venture formation and product development. “And I was learning how to apply that new knowledge through my internship,” she continues, describing how the center’s internship program challenged her to craft a three-year business plan for a nonprofit. Strand completed a needs assessment and wrote grants to strengthen the organization.
Aiming to impact a second and third generation of entrepreneurs, Strand launched a consulting firm in Barbados, training teachers how to teach entrepreneurship in Barbadian schools. When she realized many children who live minutes from USF lack access to technology and need similar training, she founded a nonprofit in Tampa, Youth Empowered to Achieve (YEA), providing donated computers to 100 kids a year who complete afterschool entrepreneurship, computer and software literacy programs. The nonprofit also gives USF Honors College students field exposure and opportunities to lead projects.
“Students set up a computer lab, created our Web site, helped develop curriculum and implemented pilot programs,” says Strand, who has now stepped out of daily operations for the nonprofit, handing over administrative tasks to Wuillene Paul, a USF religious studies student employed by YEA.
Strand says USF taught her how to assess opportunity. According to Fountain, assessing opportunities to grow a business or strengthen performance within a large corporation is as much a part of entrepreneurship as starting a new venture.
“Entrepreneurship is not simply about starting a business,” says Fountain. “It’s also about innovation within an existing business and learning how to become more competitive in a global marketplace.”
One way they learn to recognize opportunities is to look at new products on the market during class. Students gain practical training in all aspects of entrepreneurship, from product and technological assessment to marketing strategy and execution. They evaluate a product’s likelihood of success and brainstorm to identify new applications or markets.
Jonathan Solomon, 23, is a great example of how students can apply such classroom learning. Solomon was in Fountain’s new product development course when he discovered Snap Capp, a plastic top designed to snap onto aluminum cans, essentially turning them into a bottle, preventing spills and keeping sodas fresh.
“The entrepreneurship program teaches you how to separate a good idea from a bad idea and what has value,” says Solomon. Applying this lesson, he evaluated the product and determined it had value (it was perfect for children and the elderly) and saw potential new markets for the handy, re-closable top. “I thought they would be great promo items and also saw untapped markets,” he says. He decided to become a distributor.
“In law enforcement, military and high-mobility careers, on-the-job activity requires no-spill containers,” says Solomon. He went after these markets and has signed contracts with the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy; his sales of Snap Capps are roughly 20,000 per month now.
Solomon earned a finance degree at USF in 2007 and was headed to law school when he decided to pursue an entrepreneurship degree. He discovered his heart lies in start-ups and no longer plans to become a lawyer.
“I see myself being a serial entrepreneur,” he says, describing people who thrive on starting businesses and then selling them or handing off daily operations as they grow.
“I now know what is needed to take a chance, develop a product and bring it to market.”
Mit Patel, 27, says learning how to develop a solid business plan was one of the biggest lessons he learned at the center. A 2002 USF computer engineering grad, he had already opened a business, MIT Computers, when he enrolled in the graduate program. Patel was building and repairing computers as well as selling computer accessories in the Fowler Avenue store. “Dr. Fountain came in as a customer,” he laughs, saying Fountain helped him understand that graduate school isn’t just for those climbing the corporate ladder.
“I had no aspirations to work in the corporate world, but did want to grow my business,” Patel says. “The entrepreneurship program helped me discover my core business, define my business model, and understand how to replicate and grow it.” He opened his fourth Tampa store in 2009 and plans to expand statewide over the next five years.
“I learned how to focus long-term and identify the steps necessary for success,” says Patel, adding that getting a management team in place was critical. Like Strand, he turned back to USF, hiring MBA student Abdel Presume as operations manager.
Fountain says the Center for Entrepreneurship’s multi-disciplinary program allows students to learn from faculty with expertise in diverse areas. Recently, it was ranked the fifth best graduate program in the nation by Entrepreneur magazine and the Princeton Review, the only Florida public university included in the 2008 rankings. The United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship lauded the center for three consecutive years, giving its top national award to USF, honoring the way USF links business, engineering, science and medicine.
Lorie Briggs is the communications officer in USF’s College of Business.
This story originally appeared in USF Magazine, Summer 2009. Since that time, the college has moved forward with plans to offer a minor in entrepreneurship to undergraduate students. The program, which will be available for the Fall 2010 semester, will enable students in any major to learn how to build a business and commercialize products.
Photos by Joseph Gamble.