Student Entrepreneurs Jumpstart Careers

Andrea Johnson                                        September 27, 2016.

Before entering the real world of self-reliance, full-time jobs, family responsibilities and true adulting problems, three UA college students chose to act on an idea and create new businesses from scratch. The result: a calligraphy hobby turned profitable, an app reaching students and businesses across Northwest Arkansas and a nationally sold clothing brand representing a local vibe.

Sophomore Haley Kendall embraced her “weird obsession” with handwriting in the third grade when she worked to emulate the admired penmanship of a friend, she said. Eventually, changing her handwriting and doodling in the margins led to an interest in calligraphy.

Kendall developed a recognizable talent as she took requests for custom-made items such as wall canvases and name tags, and though she didn’t plan to start a business, one inevitably developed.

“It was a long time coming since I had done art for people before, yet I had never thought about an actual business for it,” Kendall said. “At the end of my senior year I realized that not everyone can do this, and maybe I could make money doing it. That’s how it got started.”

Senior Nicole Nark likes to think she, like Kendall, was “bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.” The vision formed in February: release a coupon app catered to the Northwest Arkansas area.

“I saw a need to develop a cool way to have coupons for local businesses other than coupon books and paper advertisements,” Nark said.

Nark, a communications major, had never designed an app nor taken a business course. She learned how to legally establish a business with help from Darren Gibbs, a local attorney and UA graduate, and the Small Business & Technology Development Center.

Engineering friends coded the app while Nark designed the user interface, or “what you see,” she said.  She created a logo, trademarked the name Promo Plug and produced a website. After months of preparation and waiting, Promo Plug hit the app stores June 14, and a newer and improved version followed June 27.

Gaining confidence in the technology aspect of her art form, Kendall learned to digitalize calligraphy and sell printables, or copies of her original designs available for online purchase.  She decided Etsy suited her need for an online platform and began selling her art in January under the business name Kendall Paper Designs.

Through her Etsy shop, Kendall makes approximately $35 every two weeks and $50 from custom orders. As a finance major, she learned to price her work according to the cost of materials and time spent.

“I still like to make things as gifts for friends, but now people I don’t even know buy my stuff on the internet and that’s awesome,” Kendall said.

Balancing coursework and her business requires prioritizing, Kendall said.

“I’m still getting in the groove of how the business stuff works, but it’s a fun thing for me to get extra money here and there,” Kendall said.

Kendall’s ultimate goal is to open up a shop after graduation, but until then, she hopes to develop a business plan that will fulfill her honors thesis requirement, she said.

A student by morning and business owner by afternoon, Nark faces a similar challenge. With graduation in the near future, she said she anticipates dedicating more time to the development of her business.

“It felt like it took forever (to develop the app). There was a lot of time and money going into it without any return,” Nark said.

She said the time is right, however, to take a risk on a new business, “before getting hit with work, debt and family life.”

After the app’s release, she immediately began communicating with local businesses, marketing in the community and gaining profit from the monthly fee each business pays. Within the first month, Promo Plug received 500 local users.

“In the beginning, when I didn’t have a ton of users, it was harder to convince them to take a chance on the app,” Nark said. “We’ve been getting more positive feedback lately and businesses that initially said ‘no’ have started reaching out, wanting to be a part of it.”

Promo Plug stands out among coupon apps by its service to Northwest Arkansas, Nark said. After adopting a shelter dog over the summer, Nark decided that for every business that joins and for every 100 users the app gains, Promo Plug will donate dog food to local shelters.  Since the initiative’s Sept. 1 launch, Promo Plug has donated 16 pounds of dog food.

“There’s so many shelter pets out there that need help. It’s easy to get frustrated when I’ve had a long day of classes and then get told ‘no’ by a business, but having that goal in the back of my mind keeps me going,” Nark said.

Nark considers the experience of building a business a learning experience, no matter its success or failure, she said.

“There’s not many first business attempts that succeed in the long run,” Nark said. “Obviously I’m going to push and push to make sure I do my best, and I want this to succeed. But if for some reason it doesn’t succeed, I’m OK with that, because I’ve learned so much and bettered myself for the future.”

Cynthia Sides, associate director for the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, said gaining knowledge at the university level prior to entering the business world is imperative to success.

“Many people want to do everything for everyone,” Sides said, “but you need to find a specific market and look to expand later. Startups need to be good stewards of their time and money. A lot fail, so it’s good to have the knowledge beforehand.”

The Office of Entrepreneurship and the Sam M. Walton College of Business offer courses and programs aiding young entrepreneurs anxious to enter the market. For undergraduate students, Sides recommends the three-hour course, Entrepreneurship and New Venture Development.

The business college offers more programs for undergraduate students, such as majors in retail or marketing, as well as minors for business and nonbusiness students.

Aspiring to own a business, Fayettechill founder Mo Elliott pursued a business major and graduated from the UofA in 2011 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in Entrepreneurship and Small Business Management.  His career, however, began two years before graduation.

Intrigued by the outdoor opportunities in Northwest Arkansas, Elliott considered Fayetteville “a getaway from the city, from Dallas,” where he grew up. In outdoor-oriented stores he noticed a lack of representation for the Ozark and Ouachita mountains, finding only big name brands representing far-off locations such as Patagonia and Columbia.

Elliott sought to create a brand representing Fayetteville, and so Fayettechill was born.

He went to work the summer before his junior year to establish his brand and the business behind it. He produced T-shirts and hats with the Fayettechill logo, prioritizing quality and local appeal.

“On campus, it was immediately received very well,” Elliott said. “As a non-native, I really focused on being involved with the community and being a company that people of Fayetteville can be proud of.

Sold in about 140 stores, Fayettechill merchandise moved from boxes in Elliott’s garage to clothing racks across the U.S. But he’s not just in it for the money. When asked to verify his sales total of $100,000 reported after only two years in business, Elliott said, “Who’s counting? Maybe we did.”

“Put passions first if you’re starting a business,” Elliott said. “If you’re in it for the money alone, those long hours will get old. Put the passions first and I think everything else will follow.”


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