Undergraduate entrepreneurs learn about business on the job

More and more college students are starting their own businesses. Juggling classes and balance sheets can be challenging, they say, but the hands-on experience is fun, rewarding -- and educational. Here, six student entrepreneurs talk about running a business, and how they handle the dual challenges of studies and work. After classes, Joe Saad heads back to the dorm for a quick lunch and then drives 10 miles across Dallas to the showroom of a ``pre-owned'' computer trading firm. A junior at Southern Methodist University, he spends his afternoons answering the phone, talking with individuals wanting to buy or sell personal computers, and handling the bookkeeping at P. O. C. Exchange.

Does he mind working more than 40 hours a week? Not at all. After all, he's founder and owner of this young company -- which, he says, will probably turn over $100,000 in sales in its first year.

Mr. Saad is one of a growing number of college students who have started their own businesses. These young businesspeople say they can earn more, learn more, and have more fun working for themselves than they can in such typical undergraduate jobs as slinging hamburgers or delivering pizzas.

``You have half-a-million-dollar companies being run out of a dorm room,'' says Verne Harnish, national director of the Association of College Entrepreneurs (ACE). Headquartered at Wichita State University in Kansas, ACE recently held its third conference, which included representatives from 200 campuses in the United States and from 20 other countries. According to Mr. Harnish, more than 260 colleges and universities now offer courses or majors in entrepreneurship.

Although most student companies are fairly small, many entrepreneurs put themselves through school with the profits from their businesses. But for most students, money is only part of the lure. The real benefit, they say, is the experience and satisfaction of making their own business decisions.

``It's a whole lot of fun,'' says Baylor University senior Chris Branson. ``If the business does well, it is because I did it.'' As one of three partners of Skylight Productions, a Waco, Texas-based video company which tapes events such as weddings and fashion shows, Branson says he enjoys the challenge of handling the firm's finances.

``If it's something you enjoy, you'll do well,'' says Michelle Sullivan of Colorado College. She adds, however, that ``if you're just in it to make money, you won't get very far.'' She spent most of last year planning, drawing, and then hand-coloring limited-edition 1986 calendars. She sold all 125 copies without any advertising for $20 each.

Although these entrepreneurs have a common interest in business, they come from all backgrounds -- and from academic majors as varied as the products and services they offer. And while business majors are plentiful in this group, it's not uncommon to find liberal arts students poring over income statements or analyzing market characteristics.

Robert Cunningham, the ``House Doctor'' of Nacogdoches and Angelina counties in northeast Texas, can attest to that. Since launching his home and business renovation firm three years ago, he has developed a string of projects behind him -- including the complete exterior renovation of the oldest house in Nacogdoches County, a large, two-story frame house with a wrap-around porch.

But Cunningham, a senior at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, is majoring not in business but in history and political science. His business sense, he says, comes in large part from his family. Cunningham was exposed to the world of loans, collateral, and interest at age 15 when his father had him take out a $200 loan -- just to get the experience of being responsible with money. The young Cunningham paid the loan plus $7 interest back in three months. The loan amounts increased over the years, and now he says he's comfortable discussing financing for his business.

For some students, a taste of entrepreneurship can lead to a wholesale change in career plans. Jeff Andrick, a senior at Oberlin College in Ohio, who is known locally as the ``Bagel Boy,'' delivers fresh ``New York-style'' bagels to the offices of faculty and staff customers each week. This math and physical education major -- who still finds time to quarterback the college's football team -- says his bagel service has gotten him thinking.

``I was considering engineering, but ever since I've gotten involved in this, I've been leaning toward business,'' he says.

But doesn't all this extracurricular activity draw students away from their studies? Not necessarily, they argue.

``It's made me more aggressive in getting better grades,'' explains Riva Tolbert, a junior at Wichita State University who puts 20 to 30 hours a week into her household and business service company which does everything from bookkeeping to long-term babysitting. ``Now I want to do well.''

Branson says he sees his courses and work with Skylight Productions as complementary. ``The courses have helped immensely,'' the entrepreneurship and marketing major says. ``It's a way of thinking about and applying the information I'm learning.''

But some find that temptations to leave school, or to put in less than full effort, can be strong. Cunningham admits he is easily distracted from his studies. On a big job, he will sometimes start working after his morning classes and keep going until 10 or 11 at night. And if his plans to purchase a car wash hold up, he says, he will probably have to drop two courses to devote time to the new venture.

Harnish confirms that some young businessmen, flushed with their success, find college no longer holds their attention. ``After about $150,000 in gross sales, it starts drawing [them] away from school,'' he says.

Lois Adams, a staff member at Southern Methodist Caruth Institute of Owner-Managed Businesses, notes that it often takes a while for students to learn how to balance business and studies. ``They get so turned on by their business, that they just forget about school,'' Mrs. Adams says. She adds, however, that after an initial adjustment period, most are able to handle both responsibilities.

One way to avoid conflicts with classes is to run a summer-only business. Each June an army of students returning home offers services that range from house painting to ice cream vending and driveway sealing.

Whether year-round or seasonal, however, students who have explored working on their own agree on one thing: Don't jump in cold. ``Make sure you know what you're doing before you get into it,'' Branson warns.

One way to get advice is through campus entrepreneur clubs. ACE director Harnish says there are 280 local groups associated with his organization at colleges across the country. These groups often host speakers, or let students who have successfully run their own business give a few pointers to those who want to try it.

Cunningham and Saad are presidents of their local chapters. Both say their groups are among the most popular on campus. Why?

``I guess that's everybody's dream in America -- to be financially independent,'' Cunningham says.

Saad, using himself as an example, offers a more philosophical explanation. ``I started a business because it's kind of an entrepreneur's way of being an artist,'' he explains. ``It's my kind of art.''

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