Engineering innovative business
In spite of recession fears throughout the U.S., several student businesses established through the Kettering Entrepreneur Society show that intelligent entrepreneurship development can be profitable in lean times.
Some call it insane. Others naïve. Who in their right mind would start a business given these historic economic times, particularly in Michigan?
The data: the U.S. is poised to show the highest unemployment rate in the last several decades. Home foreclosures abound and the financial markets are a nightmare. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Michigan alone lost almost 200,000 manufacturing jobs from 2000-2007, one of the largest drops throughout the U.S. in that time span. In recent days, GM stock dropped to $3.04 a share, representing a historic plunge for one of the Big Three automakers.
But for Kettering University in Flint, student entrepreneurs look at this moment in U.S. history as one ripe with opportunity. And the Kettering Entrepreneur Society (KES, www.kesociety.com) helps them cultivate their entrepreneurial leanings through a number of resources made available through grants from the Kern Family Foundation.
The KES is a student-lead organization that sponsors business plan competitions, provides support services and seed funding for start-up businesses in an effort at promoting an entrepreneurial culture at Ketteringbased on innovation. Developed through the efforts of Dr. Massoud Tavakoli, professor of Mechanical Engineering, Dr. Andy Borchers, interim head of the Dept. of Business, with assistance from Dr. William Riffe, professor of Manufacturing Engineering, entrepreneurial studies and the KES have shown tremendous success in attracting students interested in exploring their business ideas and launching a number of viable companies in Michigan.
One of those companies is Prime Studios LLC (http://www.primestudiosllc.com), founded by Kettering Seniors Matthew Gaidica and Brad Birdsall, both of Northville, Mich. This creative design organization has used its network at Kettering to help promote their services by working with Engineers Without Borders (EWB), the Kettering University Bulldog Hockey Team, Youth of Tomorrow and through services as the primary sponsor of Green Week 2008 earlier this year.
Although web and graphic design functions represent a significant portion of their work portfolio, Prime Studios has won grants and sponsorship for various research activities. The organization’s most recent project is “e.M.A.P.,” which stands for “Emulate, Model, Analyze and Predict.” This project is an electronic ballistics mapping system. According to Gaidica, Prime Studios will launch a new website by the end of 2008 that focuses on project portfolio and services.
Gaidica, who majors in Electrical Engineering and will graduate in 2010, said he became involved in KES a year ago and currently serves as B-Section president.
Participation in the KES provides him and his partners networking opportunities and access to seed money, which helped support efforts to launch Prime Studios.
“I think starting a business is the easy part. Maintaining and growing it is how we measure success. Most importantly, surrounding yourself with like-minded people who can offer advice from their experiences is priceless and Kettering is home to some of the most determined people I have ever met,” Gaidica said.
And although Prime Studios LLC is a firm unaffected by the Michigan economy since much of the company’s work is conducted electronically and via the internet, other student businesses are taking advantage of the economic challenges.
For Marc Alexander, a senior Business Management student from Pontiac, Mich., helping youth from Michigan develop their educational and professional skills is crucial in supporting the state economy. Youth of Tomorrow (YOT, http://www.yoft.org/), which he started in 2005, provides youth with career-related programs through area specialization, personal development and enhanced communication skills. Some of their specific programs include Engineers of Tomorrow, Special Security Agency, Business Builders, Future All-Star League and Attorneys of Tomorrow.
Alexander became involved in the KES because of the opportunity “to not only grow as a person but as a business owner,” he said.
Although the seed money from the KES is helpful, he pointed out that for him and his organization, the most beneficial aspect of the society is the information. “To receive seed money, one needs to develop a proposal and presentation, and then present it to the society. After doing this, I am now able to use this same process and present our organization to investors and partners,” he said.
Today, the growing organization enjoys more than 14 important relationships with Michigan organizations and companies, including the Boy Scouts of America Clinton Valley Council and Michigan State University’s Extension Program. In addition, he’s proud to offer services in Michigan.
“I see Youth of Tomorrow as the solution to our economic challenges,” Alexander said, adding that “we invest in one of the most important resources that will help our state—the future of our youth.”
Other businesses established with help from KES include RateMyStudentRental.com developed by Kristen Winter of Alpena, Mich., who graduated with a Business Management degree in June, Blake Gowing of Colton, N.Y., who earned his degree in Industrial Engineering, also in June 2008, and Steve Schwartz of Ann Arbor, Mich., who graduated with a dual degree in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering in June as well.
Schwartz, like his partners, was interested in starting businesses and meeting people who shared the same idea, and found that through the KES, he was able to share experiences and resources, which became invaluable. The result of their collaboration is www.RateMyStudentRental.com, a site that provides information to student renters and connects them to reputable housing and landlords.
“I considered starting a business when I was a sophomore and started one that sold used car parts online,” Schwartz said. “At the time, I didn’t have the financing to design and build a website, so I taught myself. Within six months, more people asked me to design and construct their sites more so than those who needed to buy car parts, so I took the opportunity and incorporated a web design and development company called NO BS Web Design,” he added.
Since March of this year, the organization has been selling services to landlords and several universities around Michigan, with the hope of expanding the offering to schools outside of Michigan. Recently, the organization launched a School Partnership Program and began discussions with several major universities to implement their platform as the official on and off campus housing portal.
Schwartz believes that the challenging economic conditions currently experienced by Michigan represent the “absolute best environment for starting a business,” he said, “because it weeds out a lot of competition and makes a genuinely useful and creative business model not just a marketable advantage, but a necessity for survival.”
As a result of this approach, Schwartz and Winter, along with Kettering Computer Engineering major Benjamin Talavera of Nashville, Tenn., also created Alfa Jango LLC Software and Marketing (www.alfajango.com), a consulting firm with a nationwide customer base. Some of the firm’s clients include engineering companies ranging from start-ups such as btb Party Bus of Ann Arbor, to well established organizations such as PROCON Products of Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Underground Printing of Ann Arbor.
Scott Skelton, a ME major from Bellville, Mich., who will graduate June 2009, started his first company as a senior in high school but it wasn’t until he became a member of the KES that things really took off. The organization, High Performance Outlet (www.HighPerformanceOutlet.com), offers customers the highest quality high performance auto parts and services at the lowest price available.
Thanks to seed money, resources and networking through the KES, he also launched www.BookDealFinder.com, which offers college students a free service to compare prices on college textbooks. This service saves students a great amount of time and money when locating texts for class. Currently, Skelton has forged partnerships with 20-25 textbook and ebook vendors that support his business model.
Over the past few years, High Performance Outlet has grown “at an exponential rate,” Skelton said. “BookDealFinder.com has also shown considerable growth, but the website hasn’t caught traction yet since we just launched it less than a year ago,” he added.
Nonetheless, both businesses benefit tremendously from Skelton’s participation with the KES and Michigan’s economy withstanding, he feels both will succeed during challenging economic conditions.
“I chose to start a business in the state because I was born and raised here. And although Michigan’s economic conditions aren’t that great right now, it doesn’t mean that businesses can’t prosper. Business owners just need to be smart with the way they do business. The KES experience opens new doors, teaches necessary skills and sharpens one’s ability to work and communicate with a broad range of people,” he concluded.
The KES fulfils a long-standing need and desire on the part of students to tap into their entrepreneurial spirit, according to Dr. Massoud Tavakoli.
“As the leading cooperative education institution in the country, providing entrepreneurship studies and opportunities that can help our local and state economies while driving innovative ideas are critical to how well our state develops economically,” he said.
Written by Gary J. Erwin