Student STARTUPS

Undergraduates Balance School Work With Managing Their Own Companies

Having a hard time dealing with academics? Classes can be pretty demanding, and often consume lots of time. However, Harvard students seem to always manage to fit a little more into their schedules. They participate in extracurriculars, perform community service and sometimes even run their own businesses.

Although many students plan to one day enter the business world, some students have gotten a head start by founding their own companies.

Starting a business may seem like a nearly impossible venture for a college student. However, according to the student owners, it is not that difficult.

"It's not as hard as everyone thought it was," says Joshua D. Kanter '98, who ran his own house painting franchise for two years that employed 15 workers. "Most people are scared of failing. I've never let other people's doubts stand in my way."

Kanter began his business by applying to a national franchising corporation which recruits college students. Originally, Kanter almost threw away the offer the company sent him in the mail.

"People told me it was a scam, but it's legit," he says. The company trained him and helped him with the logistical work.

Amar K. Goel '97, who started his own online golf store, agrees that it is not very hard to start a business.

"You just kind of jump in," says Goel, a Crimson editor. "A lot of the stuff is common sense. You know that you need to get something so you go buy it and you pay your bills."

Part of Goel's task in starting his business was creating an interactive Web-site that would serve his customer's needs.

"We sell all kinds of golf stuff, like clubs, balls and shoes from all the name-brand major retailers," he says. "We have a shopping cart system. You can move around the system and say 'I want these clubs. I want these shoes,' and send your order to us."

Why Start a Business?

Student entrepreneurs have different reasons for starting their own businesses. For one student, running her company is just a step towards a much larger goal.

"My vision is to have a significant impact on global education," says Lana Israel '97.

At the age of 14, Israel, who is a Crimson editor, started a company called Brain Power For Kids.

"It's devoted to researching, teaching and producing materials related to learning," she says. "It's aimed at anybody learning. Even adults use a lot of the materials."

For her business, Israel has written and self-published two books and has even created a video package. Israel also teaches overseas.

Other students have started companies to gain valuable work experience.

"I definitely will own another business in the next five years or so," says Kanter.

But Kanter's work experience also had a very practical side.

"My family is not that well-off. I got into it for the money, not for the painting. It was a means to an end," Kanter says.

Organizational Obstacles

However, like businesses run by older professionals, student-run businesses are not immune to problems. Kanter says he didn't do very well during his first year. He grossed only $40,000.

He says he was much more successful during his second year when he grossed $100,000 and was named manager of the year.

"I learned the hard way," he says.

Kanter says he became more successful when he learned to do less work.

"I worked half as much my second year. I didn't know how to delegate the work to other people," he says. "I used to get up at 5:30 [a.m.] to watch the Weather Channel to make sure it wasn't going to rain." Kanter explains that during his second year, he discovered he could get his employees to monitor the weather and call him if there were problems.

Goel says he had some difficulties advertising his business.

"It can be frustrating. We don't have a large marketing budget. We have a good product and a good service. It's a matter of getting people to know about it," he says.

Student entrepreneurs have other obstacles besides learning how to most efficiently run their businesses. Because students are young, they may have trouble earning the trust of clients.

Carl P. Sjogreen '00, who owns a computer consulting company called Shadow Software, says that some companies were originally wary about his age, but soon learned to trust his expertise.

"Once they realize I know what I am doing, they don't care much," he says.

However, Sjogreen managed to benefit from his young age as well.

"Professional consultants charge $120 an hour. I'd charge half that much for the same thing. It was a lot of money for me and a good deal for the company," he says.

Mixing College and Business

Running a business is very time-consuming. Yet somehow these undergraduates manage to be entrepreneurs and students at the same time.

"The amount of work I put in was two times as much as schoolwork," says Kanter, who adds he took a year off from college so he could focus more on his business.

Goel also says that schoolwork sometimes interferes with his business. Because of a problem set that he had been working on for the past few days, Goel's company experienced some unusual customer service.

"I didn't have time to contact people to fill their orders," he says.

Although these student entrepreneurs do most of the work on their own, many say that they have several others to thank for their success.

"My dad's an entrepreneur, and he encouraged me to do it," Sjogreen says.

Israel says she gets lots of help from the man who invented the learning technique she works with.

"He's responsible for a lot of the connections I've made and the things I've been able to do," she says.

Regardless of the particular field they work in, student entrepreneurs have several attributes in common.

"I love being my own boss. I know that I'm an effective man. I can get things done," Kanter says.

Sjogreen echoes Kanter's beliefs.

"If you make an agreement to do something, you do it," he says.

Most of all, these students enjoy what they are doing.

"I've just got that kind of entrepreneurial spirit. This is not the first business I've started and I'm sure it won't be the last," says Goel