Mini-ventures Build Entrepreneurial Muscle (And Can Lead To Big Businesses)



A version of this article previously appeared Forbes.

Entrepreneurs see the world like a cash booth from a 1950’s game show. On such shows, winners were placed in glass booth filled with money. Once the timer was started, a fan blew the money about and the contestant had a few seconds to grab all the cash they could hold onto.

Once you begin seeing the world with the eyes of an entrepreneur, you realize that money-making opportunities are all around you. I encourage my UC Santa Barbara students to launch mini-ventures while in school so they will begin to see the opportunities that surround them. Along the way, they grab some cash while stressing their entrepreneurial muscles.

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Once the Ball Starts Bouncing, You Never Know Where It Will Stop

The best advice in Guy Kawasaki’s The Art Of The Start is on page 9, where he states, “Get Going.” As Guy points out, most ventures morph over time to accommodate market realities. As such, the direction you initially point your venture will likely change over time. However, if you don’t start, you can only be assured of one thing – you’ll never control your own destiny.

A list of clever ventures that can be started by college students is included in this article. Three additional examples of mini-ventures carried out by me and my fellow Wharton classmates are described below.

Note: I am not purporting that these are particularly amazing or unique ideas. They merely serve to illustrate how easily entrepreneurial students can turn pedestrian opportunities into profitable, small ventures.

Fashion Show

Two Wharton students needed new suits for the dreaded MBA interview season. Rather than schlep downtown and pay retail, they went to one of the most expensive tailors in Philadelphia and offered to host a fashion show at Wharton, featuring the tailor’s suits, in exchange for two free suits each.

The fashion show was a huge success. The students were given valuable dress for success tips, the tailor sold a significant number of suits and the entrepreneurial students got free duds.

It’s Called Business 

One Wharton student was too lazy to take notes during lectures. With the first test looming, the entrepreneurial student borrowed notes from three rather scholarly students, consolidated them into a single document and sold copies to other students for $5 each.

The student scholars whose notes were used to create the consolidated document were given a complimentary copy (and thus the benefit of the notes from the other two students). The scholars also enjoyed the prestige of having their notes included in the consolidated document, as it was a clear indication of their intellectual prowess – a status highly valued by the legion of Wharton overachievers.

This mini-venture was so successful that the student continued to sell such consolidated notes for the remainder of the student’s Wharton tenure, earning a number of hefty fistfuls of beer money.

At one point during the second year of this enterprise, the entrepreneurial student was approached by an indignant Wharton Professor who tried to shut down the note selling operation, which was taking place outside of the Professor’s classroom. When the Professor asked, “What do you think you are doing?”, the smartass entrepreneur replied, “It’s called business. Last I checked, this was a business school.” Rather than shutting down shop, the student simply moved his operation down the hall and continued to satisfy the brisk student demand for the consolidated notes.

Nostalgic Graduation Poster

Another Wharton student contracted with an undergraduate art student and paid him a nominal sum to draw a caricaturized map of the Wharton campus, showing the proximity of all the bars, hangouts, etc.

The entrepreneurial student then printed a couple hundred of the maps, framing a few dozen, and set up shop in front of the business school.

All the prints were sold in a matter of hours, at a profit of $30 each. This mini-venture did so well that not only did the student earn enough money to travel to Europe after graduation, the entrepreneur franchised the idea to a lower classman, who then sold the same prints the following year and split the profit with the entrepreneur who originated the idea.

From Small to Tall 

I was once on the Board of such a company that evolved from a mini-venture into substantial company. The mini-venture began when the Founder agreed to remotely manage a server for a friend, as a favor. To make his job easier, he created automated security tools to protect the server against hackers. He then showed his security toolkit to a colleague, who laughed at the user interface, built a better one in his spare time, and unwittingly became the Co-founder of the mini-venture.

The two Founders then posted their security code online as a personal-use, freemium product and it quickly became a popular open-source security tool. Within days of releasing the personal version, the Founders began receiving inquiries regarding the price of a commercial version of their product.

One such inquiry came from the Salt Lake Winter Olympic Committee. With no idea what a reasonable price might be, the company agreed to provide enterprise-wide security to the Salt Lake Winter Games for a few thousand dollars. The Founders were thrilled to get paid for what had previously been a hobby and the Salt Lake committee was happy to pay tens of thousands of dollars less than they had budgeted for online security.

When checks started arriving at their condo (they were running the part-time business from a spare bedroom), the Founders realized that it was time to quit their day jobs and focus on turning this mini-venture into a full-fledged startup. The company thrived, generating millions in revenue and was eventually acquired by one of its rivals.

Smooth Operator

Mini-ventures demonstrate to an investor that you know how to make something from nothing. Generating profits, even in a mini-venture, is a precursor to similar success on a larger scale.

Just like larger enterprises, mini-ventures force you to pull together disparate resources and bring multiple parties together. Such ventures also demonstrate that you can effectively negotiate with multiple parties and craft mutually advantageous deals. In short, small ventures prove that you can effectively sell yourself, your idea, your product and your startup’s overall opportunity.

Follow John’s startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse.

Image: Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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