Start ups start young

Until two years ago, Juan Calle and Adam Berlin were like many other University of Georgia students: rabid college football fans who sometimes followed their Bulldogs on road trips.

Then they changed. They became entrepreneurs.

With fellow student and partner Andrew Pizitz, the friends turned their fandom into a business, SEC Excursions. The company provides bus transportation, hotel lodging, and tailgate food and entertainment to groups of students traveling to away games in the Southeast.

“There were always these issues of, who’s going to drive to the game? Where are we going to stay?” said Calle, speaking of his own experience and that of many others. “We thought, why not provide a service to students where it’s all taken care of?”

The four trips they have operated so far have done well enough that the seniors plan to continue the business full time after graduation. They envision more trips involving more schools.

Their entrepreneurial venture, while unusual, is not unique. At universities locally and across the U.S., students are starting and running businesses while attending classes.

At Georgia State, a 35-year-old, newly minted MBA is launching a virtual coffee marketplace that matches javaholics with independent roasters and their beans from across the country.

At Emory, two students fed up with school cafeteria food devised a dining-out discount card that can be used at participating local restaurants.

At Morehouse, a student with a flair for visual design is building a graphic design business that’s become his “passion.”

Observers say it’s hard to measure whether there are more student entrepreneurs now, but they suggest that student interest in self-employment seems especially keen, and with good reason.

“There is no better time to be an entrepreneur, and I think students are recognizing that,” said Chris Hanks, director of the Terry College of Business Entrepreneurship Program at Georgia.

“Students get that the economy has changed; they understand,” he said. “A lot of their parents have been laid off, so it’s a very real thing for them. And working in corporate America doesn’t hold the same appeal.”

Because high entry salaries and stock options are less common now, he added, “there is not a huge opportunity cost. It makes a decision to become an entrepreneur easier.”

“I think they see some trends in terms of larger employers downsizing, and they’re seeing the media really build up entrepreneurs,” added Greg Henley, director of the Herman J. Russell International Center for Entrepreneurship at Georgia State’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business.

At least one survey indicates a high level of interest in entrepreneurship among young people. The study of high school students found 70 percent said they want to work for themselves.

Such interest can start early in life.

Pizitz, echoing other college entrepreneurs interviewed, said, “I think we’ve always been business-minded.”

Several students agreed they have an advantage in their pursuit of entrepreneurship.

Berlin noted that, as a student, the risk of starting an entrepreneurial venture is relatively minimal. There often is little money to lose, as the initial investment may be minimal. And the time to recover from a failure, financially or emotionally, is long.

Hanks said it’s easier to become an entrepreneur now because technology has made the cost to launch some businesses, particularly those that are Web-based, relatively small, reducing the demand for hard- to-come-by capital.

These days, he said, students can start a company “over pizza and beer on the weekend.”

Humble beginnings can lead to surprisingly complex businesses. For example, SEC Excursions, which its founders say doubled its business during the 2009 football season, this year operated trips to Louisiana State University, with a stay in New Orleans, and to Jacksonville for the Georgia-Florida game.

The logistics were daunting — for example, 18 buses were needed for about 1,000 people on the Florida trip.

Then there were the negotiations with hoteliers for rooms and rates, the booking of bands to play at the tailgate, the setup of live TV feeds of the game, and food and drink planning and serving.

It offered a real world education for the three business majors.

“In business school,” Berlin said, “you learn by doing the extracurricular activities.”

While SEC Excursions has competitors, its business model also has a differentiating element. For its customers, the company targets campus fraternities, not the general student population, and it uses student representatives on other campuses to handle aspects of the business that they know better.

Not all student entrepreneurs are new to the work world, or all that young.

David Preiss, the coffee broker, is an independent contractor who builds Web sites for a living. He previously worked as an art director for an ad agency. Married, with two children, he has more responsibility than younger, single undergraduates.

Preiss pursued an MBA to “expand my skill set” and because “I was always interested in entrepreneurship.” He came up with his idea as part of a class project.

By March, he hopes to soft launch his company, Curious Provisions, then build the business slowly over the year in time for a big 2010 holiday push.

Preiss will buy coffee wholesale from some of the thousands of independent craft coffee roasters countrywide and sell it through his site.

“The coffee marketplace is moving toward customers who view it more like wine. They care where it comes from, where it’s grown, the quality of the beans,” Preiss said. “This is a venture in part to capitalize on that.”

Preiss said that although he has extensively researched the market, and has a good business plan, “You really don’t know until you try it. That’s part of the spirit of entrepreneurship. You need to get up off the couch and do it.”

Like the founders of SEC Excursions, Emory students Zachary Garber, a senior, and Daniel Waltzer, a junior, targeted their own school’s student market, and leaned on their own personal needs and experiences to develop their Discount Food Card.

They are selling for $20 a card that gets students savings at local restaurants. In a tough economy, they have sold about 500 cards in each of their first two years.

“The biggest trend in food, especially among college students, is ordering food online,” Garber said. “Where we differentiate ourselves is that we have a physical card. We didn’t want to have coupons.”

Morehouse business management major Julian Streete says he’s been entrepreneurial since seventh grade, when his mother would make him two sandwiches for school and he’d sell them.

He turned his visual creative bent into a business, JStreet Apparel & Branding, that now has him working on projects including a book design.

“My business is my passion now,” said Streete, a senior. “I’m preparing for tomorrow and the professional world.”

Educators caution that student entrepreneurs face challenges because of their inexperience.

Still, those who have ventured out see the benefits outweighing the negatives. Noted Berlin, perhaps with an eye on the uncertain job market, “At least we’re in control of our own destiny.”