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ISSUE 120 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 3/23/2007

Finstad finances ambitions

By Emelie Heltsley
News Editor


Friday, March 23, 2007

What do DVDs, vintage clothing, laser tag and marketing have in common? All are business ideas proposed by St. Olaf students and recipients of Finstad grants. According to Sian Muir, associate director of entrepreneurial studies and instructor in economics, the Finstead Program of Entrepreneurial Services, established in 1992, has given out over $500,000 to date to aid 180 students in starting their own business ventures. “It’s a competitive process and students compete against each other and present their idea to a committee panel and complete a business plan,” Muir said.

For the 2006-07 school year, seven grants were awarded to 10 students, totaling $15,900. From DVDs, to vintage clothes, to laser tag, to a marketing and advertising company, the crop of 2006-2007 Finstad Grant winners are putting their plans into action. Here is an insight into the minds and projects of four of this year’s winners.

Will Voorhees ’08 – Dorm DVDs.com

At some point in our college careers, we’ve all sat dejectedly in front of our DVD collections, trying to decide which movie we would not mind seeing again. What if there was some way to search through all St. Olaf students’ DVD collections with one easy search engine? What if you could browse through hundreds of titles that you do not have but want to watch? Thanks to www.DormDVDs.com, this dream is now a reality.

When Voorhees turned in his Finstad Grant application, he had no idea that his project would be chosen as a recipient of funds, or that he would find such a supportive atmosphere. “[The Finstad Grant program] helps connect you with lots of resources,” he said. His business, DormDVDs.com, helps to connect students through their personal DVD collections using his website, www.DormDVDs.com.

“It lets students find out who has what movies,” he explained, likening the service to a St. Olaf-based Netflix. “It’s not quite at that point, but I’d like to get there,” he said.

Students can go to the website and browse through movies that other students have in their personal collections. No personal information is given until that student creates an account with the site, a luxury that only Oles have. “We’re dealing well with privacy,” Voorhees said. “Your phone number and personal information won’t just be out there.”

Once a student creates an account, he or she can access the name, phone number and e-mail address of the person who owns the desired movie. Currently, individual students are in charge of contacting those whose movies they would like to borrow and setting up their own lending rules – the site simply shows who has what films available.

Voorhees already has 155 users signed up with an account, and almost 1,000 different titles available to choose from. “People really seem to like it,” Voorhees said about the student response, adding that he gets requests for additional features on the site all the time.

As the son of an entrepreneur, Voorhees hopes to eventually become an entrepreneur in a technological field. “It’s something I see myself doing,” he said. Any students interested in DormDVDs.com are asked to visit www.DormDVDs.com or contact Voorhees at voorhees@stolaf.edu.

Paul Bromen ’07 (CEO), Sean Johnson ’07 (Chief Design Officer) and Aaron Pompeian ‘07 (CFO) – Thrift Ninja

When Bromen, Johnson and Pompeian found a pair of Gucci loafers in a thrift store for $5.99, little did they know they would be able to sell them on eBay for $165. The company Thrift Ninja, another recipient of the Finstad grant, finds unique, designer and vintage clothing in thrift stores, then sells the merchandise on eBay. They purchase most items for between $1 and $5, and sell them for between $10 and $15.

“I’ve always been into entrepreneurship,” Pompeian, Thrift Ninja’s CFO, said. “I’ve always wanted to own my own business.” Both he and Johnson have fond childhood memories of selling things, whether rocks (yes, rocks) and lemonade to neighbors, or wheeling a wheelbarrow around a garage sale so customers would not have to move to see their purchases.

Gucci loafers are a far cry from cups of lemonade, and the business has been a learning experience for the three founders. “It all happened so quickly,” Johnson, Thrift Ninja’s Chief Design Officer (CDO) said. “I had no idea I’d get a Finstad grant.”

Do not think that Thrift Ninja simply walks into thrift stores and finds clothing that sells without any effort. “We do research beforehand to find prominent items,” Johnson said. “We have to ask ourselves if anyone would buy it or if it would sell.” They also have to watch out for fake designer merchandise.

“It’s a great business,” Pompeian said about Thrift Ninja, explaining how the company will also start to sell T-shirts that are “unique to St. Olaf” after spring break. Students are urged to browse through Thrift Ninja’s merchandise on eBay regularly, as new items are posted every week. If the company’s motto – Are You A Thrift Ninja? – resonates strongly, all are invited to purchase Thrift Ninja T-shirts on eBay.

Thrift Ninja is incredibly grateful for the Finstad program, the grant money and the opportunity to make contacts. “It’s been a great experience and has worked out very nicely,” Johnson said. Students interested in Thrift Ninja are asked to visit eBay and search “Thrift Ninja,” or contact thriftninja@stolaf.edu.

Bringing Oles Laser Tag (BOLT) – Lindsey Myers ’08

When Myers and other Larson Hall resident assistants looked for a laser tag arena for a bonding activity, they discovered that the closest one was an hour away and cost around $20 per person. Myers and some friends started looking into purchasing their own equipment, and got to thinking that perhaps the rest of the student body would also be interested in laser tag. Like a flash of lightning, BOLT was born.

To prove that there was student demand, Myers spent a few days in Fireside and the Caf gathering signatures from students who would be interested in having laser tag available at St. Olaf. After gathering over 500 signatures, “I decided that it was something the student body would want,” Myers said. “It got me motivated to really get this off the ground.”

Myers knew that laser tag would pose many problems, including issues of liability. Myers spoke with a Northfield insurance agent and included liability insurance in her grant proposal.

Myers changed her business’ status to a non-profit student organization in order to ask for additional funding from Student Government Association (SGA) to purchase equipment and portable walls for the arena. “It was originally going to be a for-profit business,” she said. If the business continues, she plans to charge $1-2 each game for equipment repairs.

Right now, the fate of BOLT rests with SGA. “If Senate gets me that money, theoretically we could have a came before the end of the year,” Myers said, expressing frustration with the “opposition” she is facing from members of Senate. “If any students think this would be a good idea, they need to tell their Senator,” she said.

If BOLT lives on, Myers sees it as an ideal opportunity for connecting the student body in a unique way. She sees possibilities for intramural laser tag teams, Volunteer Network opportunities with schools and corridor bonding activities.

Receiving a Finstad grant, a process that Myers calls “an interesting challenge that is not for the faint of heart,” has opened up new opportunities. “I’ve always been interested in marketing and selling ideas to people,” she said. “I’ve been bit by the entrepreneurial bug.” Students interested in BOLT are asked to visit the BOLT Facebook group or e-mail myers@stolaf.edu.

Andrew Foxwell ’08, Mike Getter ’08, Drew Hoffman ’07 and Dan Nemcek ’08 – Modica Marketing

“We are a full-service marketing and advertising business for the St. Olaf community,” said Foxwell, a co-founder of Modica Marketing. “We don’t just put up posters and that’s the end – we’re all-inclusive.” Modica Marketing sits down with customers and helps them reach their goals with their advertising, marketing, graphic design, web design and photo services.

Foxwell said that the company targets three main bodies of people – students, student organizations and campus offices. From students who would like publicity for a senior recital or seminar, organizations who would like posters for an upcoming event or campus offices who would like to better connect with the St. Olaf community, Modica Marketing can help.

“I’ve had this idea since freshman year,” Foxwell said, explaining how the business never really got off the ground until he took an interim class with Muir and created a business plan with his three co-founders. “We originally thought our market would be corporate companies who wanted to publicize to college students,” Foxwell said.

Modica Marketing focuses on a problem that many Oles experience – a lack of advertising for interesting events – and the company is grateful for the Finstad program’s support. “Without the Finstad, we wouldn’t be able to do things professionally or produce quality products for our customers,” Foxwell said. “It enables us to do things we haven’t done before.”

So far, Modica Marketing has found plenty of business, attracting more than five clients in one week of business, and is on track to meet their business projections.

According to Muir, on a recent alumni survey, 26 percent of earlier recipients were still running their Finstad venture post-graduation, while 62 percent were still involved in entrepreneurial experiences post-graduation. “The grant process provides an experiential experience through which lifetime skills can be obtained and tried without financial risk to the student,” Muir said.





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