AUGUST 28, 2006

Catching the entrepreneurship bug: CMU students go from sketchpads to shelves with new product lines
By Michelle Bova, The Tartan, August 28, 2006

Stephen SpencerIn the bookstore, across from the likes of Dharma Bums and Elementary Differential Equations, new products will be popping onto the shelves. The first-years may have already stumbled upon them while their jubilant parents searched for “Carnegie Mellon Dad” T-shirts and “Tartan Pride” running shorts. Two new products now on shelves are Dorm Slippers and a new design of Carnegie Mellon backpacks; both products were designed by and got to the shelves due to the tenacity of a couple of Carnegie Mellon students. Backpacks designed by Stephen Spencer and slippers developed by Greg Runco are on sale now in the Carnegie Mellon bookstore.

The “entrepreneurial bug,” as it is sometimes called, has not just infected Carnegie Mellon students; starting businesses while in college appears to be more common now than ever before. Entrepreneur, a magazine titled after its target audience, reported in December 2004 that business owners and entrepreneurship education programs were on the rise in colleges. What might a college-aged student provide as a service, or create as a product? “Students launch products and services to meet the needs of their college comrades, from food- or laundry-delivery services to dorm-room furniture retailing,” writes Entrepreneur.

Both Runco and Spencer, struck by the entrepreneurial spirit, developed products to suit the needs of the everyday student. Spencer, a senior BHA student, started early: He funded his high school purchases with sales of his specially made boomerangs rather than shilling capris at the Gap. “I’d been making and selling boomerangs for cash so I didn’t have to work. I sold most of them on eBay and at parks in Rochester,” said Spencer. “It was enough [money] for a high school kid.”

He showed up to Carnegie Mellon not even knowing what industrial design was, but after some time discovered his interest in it and applied to the BHA program. His independent study in design spurred him on in the quest to design a better bag. “I’d thought about making a bag for CMU students for a long time,” Spencer said. “When I got the grants, the money made it worthwhile.” With the money from two SURG (Small Undergraduate Research Grant) awards, Spencer began his own business: Custom Sespence, whose uncommon spelling of “suspense” comes from Spencer’s Andrew ID. Being the proprietor of Custom Sespence, Spencer could then buy items wholesale and charge state tax. On the issue of the difficulty of starting one’s own business, he said, “Once you decide to do it it’s not that hard.... Fill out paperwork, pay a fee, and you’re all set.”

Spencer’s general business idea was to enable companies, or in this case universities, to fully customize a product that would bear their logo. Most companies currently refer to large catalogs of basic products, such as backpacks, and do minor customization (i.e. color or size changes) and then add logos, but Spencer’s idea was to take the customization further. The new customized bags would be designed specifically for the company and would meet its specifications, said Spencer. Custom Sespence would work with the company, enabling it to have a closer connection to the design and to offer something that better embodied the company’s wishes for a product bearing its name.

For the custom-made Carnegie Mellon backpack, Spencer incorporated new designs not commonly seen in bags. He created a round bungee cord that can hold a windbreaker, shirt, or other piece of clothing. He added side access pockets, adapted the straps so that they would not dig into neck or chest, and even added a lime-green liner. “Most of the backpacks I’ve owned have had a dark interior, and you can’t see things in there,” Spencer said, explaining the bright lining. In order to produce a shipment of his bags, however, Spencer had to contact a wholesale merchant and send a prototype. The product went through two or three revisions before Spencer was satisfied, and the bags have been sold in the bookstore since the spring of 2005.

On the other side of the entrepreneurial spectrum, Runco developed his idea for Dorm Slippers in the most logical location: around the residence hall and at his fraternity. “I thought [the slipper line] would meet a demand and be a fun project,” Runco said.

He’d been interested in shoes for some time, but found that it was easier to break into college bookstores than, say, Foot Locker. “At first I wanted to start a straight-up shoe company,” he explained. Runco figured he’d work with an overseas manufacturer to adapt a current design, and market it to lounging college students, forever fond of placing fuzzy slippers on their feet. After getting in touch with a wholesale manufacturer, Runco went through four trial shipments.

But being an entrepreneur is about more than good design and a good idea. As Runco noted, “All along the way you have to think about how you want to market it.” An avid reader of marketing books, Runco decided to do some of the advertising and sales pitching in new ways. Utilizing the ever-popular social-network-turned-marketing-heaven website Facebook, he friended a large number of the first-years and placed pictures of his product in his photo gallery. He also built the display case that the bookstore uses to house his products.

Both Spencer and Runco did much of the work designing or developing a product, working with wholesale retailers, and making sales while taking courses as well. “One thing that’s definite: You can’t be someone that has to get straight As; you won’t have the time,” said Runco. Running a business on top of classes seems like quite a full plate, but as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted in its August 2004 article on local entrepreneurs: “[C]ollege may actually be the ideal time to pursue entrepreneurship. Because students are often free from the ‘real-world’ concerns such as finding a job or buying a house, many say they are able to take greater risks and spend more time developing a business.” If students are distant from the real world, then starting their own business is certainly one way to experience it.

In the future, Spencer has ambitions to turn away from bag making and turn more towards furniture production. Runco plans to develop a new website that will function similar to Facebook, but will allow music students across the country to share their work. Neither Spencer nor Runco has intentions of continuing to produce bags or shoes in the long term, but both have ambitions of entrepreneurial ventures in the future. It seems that once bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, college students continue to see opportunities for new products and services that can better everyday life.