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KEARNEY — Before they’ve even graduated, UNK students have made thriving businesses.
From DJ-ing to selling memorial T-shirts, groups of these young entrepreneurs have made thousands of dollars selling products, and gaining valuable life experiences along the way.
Two years ago, a student wrote on the evaluation for UNK’s entrepreneurship class that, “I have no idea how to actually start a business.”
“I thought, ‘I just have to create a situation where the only way kids can get out of the situation is to actually start a small business,’” Assistant Professor Daniel Chaffin said he decided.
Now, no student passes the class without actually having been an entrepreneur themselves.
Of course, the students aren’t thrown out into the business world right away. Chaffin spends the first few weeks of the semester teaching students how to start a business, and how to leverage resources already available to them.
One of the keys he shares is an emerging business theory called effectuation.
“The entrepreneur says, ‘What do I uniquely own or what do I uniquely have access to or what am I uniquely qualified to understand or do?” Chaffin explained. “Then, taking the resources available to the entrepreneur and assembling those into something that can be useful to somebody.”
For Garrett Poppen’s group, this meant starting a vinyl business.
Poppen, a senior from Giltner studying business administration, worked with four other students to create Loper Vinyl, which created vinyl cutouts of Louie the Loper and other sporty, sticker-type products.
“Leveraging our assets was the main thing,” Poppen said.
Poppen’s mother cut vinyl for her own business, and Poppen realized he could use that connection as an asset. Through that connection, the group easily could access materials and knowledge of the materials.
Poppen teamed up with Alyssa Frauendorfer, Nate Immel, Glen Harrington and Brendan Wentling to create their business. Many of the students are athletes, and that connection to the UNK Athletics Department was an asset they also decided to leverage.
But before the group could start pushing their product, they, like the rest of the groups in the entrepreneurship class, had to get funding from the school.
Each group in the class presents a “Shark Tank-style” pitch to leaders at the university. This gives the school the ability to approve the business’s existence on campus and it gives the students some capital to invest.
The university then gives up to $500 to these groups, depending on the group’s pitch and what their start-up costs may be. The groups then use the money to purchase materials for the business.
At the end of the semester, each business liquidates its assets and the money is returned to the university. Any profits the group has made are donated somewhere within the university, such as a scholarship fund or directly to a certain department. Poppen’s group, for example, donated their profits to the athletics department.
Even though the students have not invested their own money in the companies, the pressure is real.
Their grades depend on the success of the business, and Poppen said it’s unlike any other group project he’s done.
“It’s kind of like a group project, but then when you’re trying to make actual money, it’s a little different. You actually get a little bit of pressure,” Poppen said. “Usually in a group project, you’ll be kind of silent, and you’ll be upset about something or another group member, but in this one you actually have to push each other.”
In the end, Poppen said, they were the most successful group, making the largest profit. Since a group’s grade in the class is tied to how successful they are, this also meant they walked away with a good grade.
Many of Loper Vinyl’s clients came from selling merchandise at football games, and the athletics department even bought several cut-outs that are now hanging in UNK’s Health and Sports Center.
However, as the students discover, running a business is more complicated than just buying and selling.
For Poppen’s team, one complication came with getting logo rights, a critical element of their product. Another group whose business was selling customized T-shirts for student organizations thought they had reached a deal with their screen printer to customize shirts for free, but they didn’t get the agreement in writing and ended up having to pay for the printing.
When groups hit snags like these, Chaffin says it’s all part of the learning process.
“I fix very little for them,” he said. “But I always give them resources, so that’s usually my general approach.”
When a group comes up to him “freaking out” after hitting a roadblock, Chaffin says he’ll let them know who they can possibly talk to and how to try to figure it out. Then, they work it out.
“They’re really resourceful,” he said.
In the end, students walk away with valuable knowledge and experience from what they’ve done.
“In classes, we usually learn, OK, here’s the marketing, and here’s operations, and here’s finance, and they’re in these silos. In this situation, they’re interwoven,” Chaffin explained.
Poppen echoed this sentiment, saying he used what he had learned in other classes, like human resources class, throughout the project.
One of the lessons that stuck out the most to him, though, was something a guest speaker had said about thinking things through.
“He said, ‘I always like to say I jump off a cliff and build my plane on the way down,’ and that’s pretty much how I’ve always kind of done things,” Poppen said. “Chaffin tries to prevent you from doing that, (and make sure) before you just jump or do it that you actually take a step back and think of, like, what are the legal things going to be, what am I going to do for warranties and stuff?”
Though Poppen said he isn’t planning to do it right away, he’d like to open his own business someday. And more than just having the knowledge to do that, he says he now has confidence.
“You learn that you actually can just go and start one,” Poppen said. “(And you’re) getting the confidence to do it.”
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