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Students Dive into Entrepreneurship

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Students collaborate during StartUp Term

By Adriana Colindres

After the daytime buzz of workplace activity had faded into the springtime quiet of night, Sam Hart '15 frequently found himself alone on the sixth floor of the Bondi Building in downtown Galesburg. Odds were good that he'd be sitting in near-darkness, in front of a computer screen, developing some of the programming for a business idea that he and three other Knox students were pursuing. He'd work late into the night, occasionally napping for a few hours on the office couch.

Hart is one of 16 Knox College students who got a taste of the entrepreneurial world by participating in last spring's inaugural StartUp Term, the College's newest immersive learning experience. In teams of four, they worked to shape business ideas into real services and products. By the end of the 10-week academic term, all the teams had taken great strides toward achieving their goals, and one team progressed to the point where it was accepting customers' orders-and cash.

Created and led by three Knox faculty members, John Spittell from business and management and John Dooley and Jaime Spacco from computer science, StartUp Term was designed to be collaborative.

On every team, students combined their talents and expertise in different subject areas. Each team was required to have at least one member who had studied computer science at Knox and at least one member who had studied business and management.

Aside from that, there were no restrictions, and the program attracted students majoring in various academic disciplines, including history, studio art, and environmental studies.

"The idea is to give (students) the experience of being in a startup company," said Dooley, who holds the William and Marilyn Ingersoll Chair in Computer Science. "We think it's a good blending of the liberal arts education that the students get at Knox, plus the practical application that they'll need to go out into the business world and do their own startups or go to work for a company."

"This has been a really remarkable experience to watch," said Spittell, professor of business and management, executive-in-residence, and the Joseph E. and Judith B. Wagner Distinguished Chair in Business. "It's been absolutely an unbelievable run."

"We're very, very excited with the work that the students have done," added Spacco, associate professor of computer science. "It's been amazing."

StartUp students said they gained a new understanding of entrepreneurship.

"I think it's really clicked for me what it takes to make a successful business. It's not just sitting down and cranking out something that's ‘pretty good,'" said Hart. "That's not going to do it. It's about resource management and how to do things at the right time, and also [it's about] valuation of self and idea and company."

Getting Ready, Moving In

Months before StartUp Term launched, preparations were under way. During the 2014 fall term and early in the 2015 winter term, Spittell, Spacco, and Dooley organized a series of mixers for students who were considering StartUp Term. The purpose of the mixers was to encourage students to share their entrepreneurial ideas, talk about their interests and strengths, and join or put together an effective working team.

Six prospective teams applied for admission to StartUp Term. They crafted business plans and made presentations to Spacco, Dooley, and Spittell. Four were accepted: Farmet, iNQUiSi, MDLX, and Tetra Clock.

"Of the four teams that got in, they tended to get it in the fall," Spacco said. "These sorts of projects don't just come together overnight."

Students set up headquarters in the Bondi Building, sharing about 1,000 square feet of office space donated by Galesburg businessman Bob Bondi.

"It's very important to have the four teams all in a common room because the energy that comes off of one team spills into another," Spittell said. "It motivates the entire group to take productivity and involvement to a higher level."

Establishing the teams in a space away from the Knox campus was a key aspect of the StartUp experience.

"You're in a business environment," said Matt Klich '15. "This is an incubator, so we spin ideas off each other."

Students had 24/7 access to the building and their office space, which proved helpful. Just ask Hart, a double major in computer science and mathematics who recently started a job with Epic Systems in Wisconsin.

Getting On Track

To pursue their projects, students had to tackle a wide range of responsibilities, such as creating the computer code needed for each project's website and, in some cases, for the primary product or service. Students also had to evaluate potential markets for each product or service, make connections with potential customers and suppliers, compile financial projections, and take care of administrative tasks like ordering business cards and opening bank accounts.

Most of the time, teams worked independently and set their own work schedules. The faculty members taught StartUp seminars on entrepreneurship, project management, and planning and teamwork, and they were available to help solve problems.

To ensure that all four teams kept making progress, team members and faculty gathered regularly for status updates. Once a week, they conducted a "retrospective" to evaluate what was going well and what still needed improvement. On most weekday mornings, the entire group conducted a "standup" meeting where each team quickly addressed three main questions:

  • What have you done since the last meeting?
  • Did anything get in your way?
  • What will you do between now and the next meeting?

"It's a method of communication, basically," Dooley said.

The structure of those meetings encouraged students to help one another when they could, even if they were on different teams. A week into the term, for instance, one team mentioned it was having trouble getting in touch with an important expert. Members of other teams offered suggestions on the best way to get in touch with that person.

Spittell routinely e-mailed the students what he called "light reading for the day"-generally, an online article about some aspect of business and entrepreneurship. Those articles included "The Coolest College Start-Ups of 2015" from Inc. magazine and "When Entrepreneurs Should Say ‘No' to Investors" from the Unreasonable.is website.

The readings provided "perspective on what's going on out there" in the entrepreneurship world, said Angel Zuaznabal '15.

Alumni Pitch In

Alumni share experiences during StartUp TermKnox alumni provided StartUp students with even more insight into entrepreneurship. Several graduates-including Hannah Basil '13, Bob Gillespie '90, and Knox trustee Carol Bovard Craig '89- dropped by the Bondi Building to offer advice, answer questions, and talk about their own business experiences.

Basil, who recently switched from a career in banking to a career in technology at a Chicago startup, spoke to students during StartUp Term's second week.

The program is "a great idea to give students that real-world experience," she said. "You study coding in class. You study marketing. But you've never gotten a chance to apply it yourself, and that's what I see StartUp Term really being-this immersive period where students can apply what they've learned and try it out. That's a valuable experience."

Gillespie, who has been working with startups in Turkey, warned students they'd probably hear the word "no" a lot when they talk with friends, family, or anyone else about a business idea.

His advice: Don't get discouraged, and concentrate on the people who "are going to think it's cool and say, ‘Hey, I know somebody I should introduce you to.'"

"Entrepreneurship is not a lightning bolt. It's coming in and moving the ball by half an inch every day," Gillespie added. "This is the coolest job you'll ever have, and it's the hardest job you'll ever have. Ever."

Hitting The Home Stretch

Knox alumni and friends also played an essential role toward the end of StartUp Term, with several serving as judges at the teams' final presentations, which took place over two days. In addition to the three StartUp Term faculty members, judges included Eric Miller '02, Kevin Lillie '12, Bob Bondi, and Knox trustees Mark Kleine and Jerry Vovis '65.

The final presentations didn't position teams against one another in a competitive way. Rather, every team's proposal was evaluated on its own merits, and students' StartUp Term grades depended in part on the quality of the presentations.

In each of the four presentations, team members described their projects in detail-business models, potential markets, expected competitors, and projected financial figures. They fielded judges' questions and listened to suggestions for improvement. Judges advised one team, for instance, to consider targeting a larger customer demographic.

Students found the process exhilarating-and sometimes a little scary. "Going in, I was very nervous. I thought the judges might say, ‘You guys don't know what you're doing,'" Zuaznabal said minutes after his team, Farmet, finished presenting.

One of his colleagues, Inez Peña '15, said she wasn't worried at all about the presentation. "I had complete trust in my team," she said. Peña's instincts were right. As it turned out, judges liked Farmet's plan for providing customers with healthy, locally grown produce, and team members had little trouble responding to judges' questions.

"It was cool to see they actually liked the idea and saw the potential with it," said Matt Timmerberg '15. "It's also important to see that there is a lot more work that needs to be done."

By the time Knox's spring academic term ended, Farmet had begun accepting orders-and customer payments-and made its first round
of deliveries of fruits and vegetables on June 3. That day, team members distributed 40 boxes of fresh, local produce-strawberries, snap peas, radishes, and other items. Customers picked up their boxes at the Knox campus and at OSF St. Mary Medical Center in Galesburg. Farmet sold and distributed food for nine weeks, closing up shop on July 29 and donating 10 percent of profits to Knox Prairie Community Kitchen, a Galesburg not-for-profit organization.

With the success of this year's StartUp Term, the 2017 version is in the planning stages. The 2015 StartUp students agree that's a smart move, because it will greatly benefit future Knox students.

Laura Lueninghoener '16 said she appreciates her StartUp experience, and she's recommending it to others.

"If you have a general interest in entrepreneurship or learning how the world works, put in a bid for StartUp Term 2017," she advised. "It's going to be a ride."


KickStart: StartUp Term 2015

StartUp Term made its first appearance at Knox this year, receiving support from the College, the Mellon Foundation, the Bondi Corporation, State Farm Insurance, and the Donald R. Stroben Entrepreneur Fund. Here’s a rundown on the four StartUp Term teams. Each team kept a blog, which can be viewed at cs.knox.edu/startup-term.

Farmet logo

Team: Farmet

Members: Inez Peña '15, Marc Spehlmann '15, Matthew Timmerberg '15, Angel Zuaznabal '15
Project description: Create a network between small farmers and businesses to increase awareness and availability of high-quality, organically produced food.

Inquisi logo

Team: iNQUiSi

Members: Mike Gerten '16, Matt Klich '15, Nate Moore '16, Cody Sehl '15
Project description: Create a better way for instructors and students to interact in class through an application that enables students to answer instructors' questions from a smartphone or any other device while providing instructors with real-time data on student performance.

MDLX logo

Team: MDLX

Members: Jinglun Ding '17, Laura Lueninghoener '16, Joe Miao '15, Anda Xu '15
Project description: Create a web interface that connects college students who have unwanted furniture, books, and other items with students on the same campus who might want those items.

Tera Clock logo

Team: Tetra Clock

Members: Austin Finley '15, Michael Graf '15, Sam Hart '15, Gayoung Moon '15
Project description: Create plug-ins designed to help novice video game creators by shortening their learning curve and enabling them to more quickly get to the "fun" part of building a game.

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