UWM students, even those who aren’t part of formal entrepreneurship programs, are developing their own small businesses. The internet and social media, internships and entrepreneurial clubs, along with advice from faculty members and marketing/business classes, make it possible for students to try out ideas without a huge investment.
Here are a few students who are benefitting from the entrepreneurial environment at UWM.
Making a living as a “sneakerhead”
Nimesh (Nemo) Ruparel loves sneakers. Growing up, he idolized Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but he couldn’t afford Jordan’s shoes. “When I got my first job in 2006, I saved up two paychecks to buy a pair of Jordans. It took me 10 years to get that pair.”
Recognizing that there were other “sneakerheads” around, he started The Milwaukee Swap, a Facebook group. The Facebook page has 2,900 fan “likes,” and became an active Facebook community group/forum that now has 25,000 members. It’s a popular site for buying, selling and swapping limited editions, new releases and other special sneakers.
When he held a sneaker convention in 2015, it attracted 700 people and 50 vendors. He’s already paid his college expenses from his business. His once-doubtful parents are now behind him. “Ever since day one, it’s been profitable.” He’s trademarked “Milwaukee Swap” and his nickname, Nemo – “like the fish or the captain.”
Ruparel just graduated from UWM in December, 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing/finance, with a certificate in entrepreneurship.
He’s worked with a local business incubator, the Commons, but has also received support for his ideas through a UWM class on entrepreneurship with James Hunter III (Bostrom Entrepreneur in Residence) in the Lubar School of Business. “He kind of pushed us to take part in competitions. I entered four and won three.”
He was one of three UWM students who won the 2016 James D. Scheinfeld Entrepreneurial Award Competition, and is now part of the La Macchia Business Venture Competition.
As he’s fine-tuned his business plan, he’s hoping to expand the business with a smartphone app and take it to a wider geographical area. “I want it to be a version of Craigslist or eBay, but specifically for shoes.”
Grab a deal
Have you ever arrived at a restaurant or bar to find that the deal that lured you in had expired?
Ben Bourgeois, a UWM senior in marketing, teamed up with Brian Kopp, a friend and UWM nursing alum, to solve the problem with MealSteals. Their app, available on iTunes and Google Play, alerts potential customers to deals at 120 local restaurants and bars. The businesses can post recurring specials, but what is unique about the app is the real-time postings of “flash deals,” specials that pop up for an hour or so.
Businesses can use the flash deals to draw in customers at slow times, and customers are assured that specials posted through the app are current.
Right now, Bourgeois and Kopp are running it as a pilot project while they work on ways to make it financially successful. In recent months, they’ve added new team members to launch the app in Chicago, planned for sometime in the next few months.
They are also rolling out a new business owners/managers to post ad update deals right from their phone. The will also be selecting a few businesses to test out MealSteals premium features on the new app to drive additional traffic during any given deal period.
“These premium features will ultimately be paid features and will be rolled out to any business shortly after the Chicago launch,” said Bourgeois.
Bourgeois said he benefitted from Hunter’s entrepreneurship course as well as another class on building a lean tech startup.
An internship with BuySeasons came through a Lubar career fair, and provided him with a wealth of internet and social marketing experience. Bourgeois and Kopp also won a Startup competition at UWM last summer.
“Everybody likes deals,” said Bourgeois.
Accessorizing with jewelry
Jenna Terek, a journalism, advertising and media studies (JAMS) major, likes jewelry and is also interested in supporting environmental, educational and other nonprofit groups. She’s doing both at once with her business, As You Wish Co. She buys bracelets at wholesale cost, adds her own tag to them, and re-sells them through her website. In business since September, she paid off her inventory costs in a few weeks, is making a profit and has been able to donate $1831 to seven nonprofits as of Dec. 31, 2016.
She also works 30 hours a week, and is taking 18 credits. She’s excited about the experience of running her own company as well as giving back – 25 percent of sales go to nonprofits nominated by clients. “I’ve always wanted to do something to help nonprofits. That’s been the most exciting part for me.”
One of her biggest challenges is matching available inventory to sales and finding distributors willing to sell to her at cost in small quantities. “I can’t sink one or two grand into stock, so if something sells out, I’m hoping people will understand.”
Like many of the other young entrepreneurs, she uses the internet and social media to help with her marketing and to streamline her processes.
Terek did a great deal of business planning and marketing research on her own, had her website up in a week, and is putting what she’s learned in JAMS marketing classes to use. “If I need help with business questions, I know I can go to the fifth floor of Bolton (JAMS office) to find answers. There are so many resources to help me here.”
Rudi Johnson, a senior in economics, has wanted for a long time to open his own clothing business, specializing in lifestyle and streetwear for the hip urban market.
His entrepreneurial drive came through his own work experiences. “I saw how much effort I was putting in to help other people build their businesses and thought if I could put that much effort into one of my own projects, I could be successful.”
Johnson initially sold his Dolph Collection pieces on consignment through a friend who owned a shop downtown, but in August formed an LLC and launched a website – dolphszn.com — to showcase his pieces.
Right now, he’s starting small, focusing on T-shirts and hats. He and one of his two partners created the designs, and he’s found manufacturers to make them in small quantities. Like others opening a business with inventory, he faces the challenge of matching demand to supply.
His profits so far are in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars, but he views the effort as part of his entrepreneurial learning. He is part of the UWM chapter of the Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization and recently attended the national convention in Tampa, Fla.
“It’s really giving me an understanding of what it takes to come up with ideas, validate those ideas and start a business.” While the fashion world is challenging, he added, “it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
He feels he’s benefited from an entrepreneurial environment at UWM. “UWM is doing a really great job at honing in on those students that show potential and initiative and cultivating that entrepreneurial mentality.”
Connecting students with employers
Unlike some of these other student entrepreneurs, Cody Dobberstein, who graduated from marketing with honors in December, is taking a low-tech, personalized approach to his new business – Business Breacher. His idea is to make it easier for students to get to know about local companies – and for companies to get to meet students.
“The majority of jobs are through small and medium-sized companies, but the problem is that students don’t even know these companies exist,” he said. Another issue is that students may select a major without really understanding what a job in that field involves. “Schoolwork is a lot different from what goes on in the real world. They may graduate with a marketing degree, but they don’t know what the inside of a marketing firm looks like.”
His idea for solving the problem is to arrange regular tours that bring students to local businesses. Many businesses already offer tours to individuals or groups, but in often the tours aren’t done in any systematic way.
His goal is to serve as a middleman, connecting students with local companies through regularly organized tours. The idea is to arrange tours of local businesses to give the students a chance to see what the businesses do, meet the staff and perhaps begin to develop relationships with the companies that may be useful after they graduate.
He’s in the process of setting up his website to list tours, organizing his first tours and figuring out how to make money with his idea. And, he’s been fine-tuning his ideas and business plan with a local business incubator group, the Commons but has also benefited from entrepreneurship classes and the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization (CEO) at UWM, he said.
Making a change
Right now, Wisconsin ranks 50th out of the 50 states in small business startups. The UWM students interviewed for this story want to change that.
“I’m a competitive person,” said Ruparel, “and I don’t like being 50th out of 50. I don’t want to leave this area. I want to give back to the community. If we can get that number to 49 or 48, that’s a win – and a start.”