I accepted an invitation to speak to Berkeley College's new Business Club last week, and while I dreaded the drive from Long Island to Brooklyn, knowing it would be snarled with traffic (it didn't disappoint -- 2-1/2 hours to go 50 miles -- one way), I also had a hunch it would be interesting and worth the trip. I was right.
Anthony Gay, the head of the college's new Business Club, produced a crowded roomful of students interested in hearing me and other entrepreneurs talk about our experiences starting businesses. I found myself taking lots of notes from the speakers and the students asking questions.
There was Andrew Lopez, a Berkeley student who runs Young Pharaoh Entertainment, a New York night club promoter. Before launching this business, Andrew ran Andrew's Car Service, which he started because he saw an opportunity to run a service with pristinely clean cars rather than the beat up, dirty vehicles he was accustomed to in the private livery business. That business ran out of operating capital and shut down -- at least for now, though Andrew says "it's coming back." It was difficult to switch to another business -- his family and investors didn't understand the move, and not all of them were supportive. But this isn't stopping him from getting up off the mat and trying again.
There was Daniel Gutzmore and Juan Perez, senior vice president and CEO of Highbrid Media Inc., a company that sells advertising opportunities tied to private mass transit (also know as commuter vans or "dollar vans") that is a common mode of transportation in Brooklyn. Through designing graphic wraps as well as digital signage in the vans, Highbrid offers advertisers access to Asian, Hispanic, African American and Caribbean consumers who can be difficult to reach through traditional media. Highbrid has worked with Western Union, the NYC Department of Corrections, Air Jamaica and the National Institute for Missing and Exploited Children. The company says passengers spend an average of almost an hour on a van ride -- the definition of a captive audience. I like the narrow focus of their business. What they've learned so far: don't hire friends. The two partners had to part with a college friend who was in the business, and haven't talked to him since. Another piece of advice from Daniel and Juan: it helps to "be a little crazy" -- to be able to ignore all the people telling you that you can't, or that what you're doing is wrong, and just focus on doing it instead.
There was Shirley Brown, a Mary Kay senior sales director, who drove from central Connecticut to be there. She was almost an hour late because of horrendous traffic, but she came. A physician assistant by training, she became a Mary Kay rep in 1992, showing the students that you don't always have to come up with the big idea yourself to make it as an entrepreneur -- there are many models, including franchising, multi-level marketing and independent distributorships, and they all count.
The speakers aren't the only entrepreneurs from Berkeley.There's Tamara Laraque with her baking business, Simply Luv Pastries, and Jane Vincent with her accessory business, D'Accessory Place.In my pages of notes made during the seminar, I jotted down these highlights which I offered the students:
- Follow demographics: There was a lot of discussion on how to decide what business to go into. Look at U.S. Census and other demographics. Consider businesses that serve an aging population.
- Partnerships: One student asked about going into business with another person, and what to look out for. My suggestion: when starting a partnership, agree upfront how you can get out.
- Finding time: How can students studying for a degree find the time to start a business? Get up an hour earlier, go to bed an hour later, stop watching TV, and you'll find 20 extra hours a week.
- Personal relationships: One entrepreneur talked about how the pressures of business undid his marriage. Going into business when you're married or in a committed relationship is not only your decision -- I think your partner gets a vote. You may override it, but you should hear it first.
- Longevity is everything: If you hang around in a business long enough, you discover new ideas and better ways of doing things. Most people give up about six months before they would have broken through. Hang in there as long as you possibly can.