For many Inc. 500 founders, business management was purely academic at first--perhaps because they started companies while they were still living in dorms
Go to class, study hard, and do your best? Forget about it.
Dean's list? Please.
For many of those who have ended up running fast-growing companies, the measure of a successful college career is whether they became a CEO before they earned their B.A. True, those who did so ended up missing something--like the reason they enrolled in school at all. "College quickly became more of an errand than an academic pursuit," recalls Roger S. Bloxberg, who cofounded Nova Development (#233) as a freshman political-science major at UCLA. "School was like four hours--maybe three and a half hours--a week."
Still, even for those whose abilities extended beyond merely dragging themselves out of bed in order to make a 10 o'clock class, starting a business as an undergraduate presented certain unique challenges. But as much as dorm-room entrepreneurs may have coasted a bit on their studies, they nevertheless managed to take in valuable knowledge for their careers as business builders. Or so they still tell their parents.
The Less You Spend, the More You Make
In 1986, John Boone and his roommate, Keith Galeener, used a hot plate and a simple recipe to turn their dorm room into a Mexican restaurant.
The genius of the Quesadilla Connection was its scaled-down menu--and its hours of operation. "We served nachos, burritos, and quesadillas from 11 to 12 at night," says Boone, who launched the eatery after his quesadilla snacks were a hit with his fellow students at the University of California, San Diego.
The Quesadilla Connection grew to be a six-burner enterprise with a couch, a coffee table, and chairs that Boone and his roommate had scrounged up. "This was all against the rules, of course," he says. "But the university never found out about it." Not even when Boone's thriving restaurant blew out the electricity in a section of the dorm corridor. "There was a big puff of smoke. I thought for sure we'd be shut down." But he'd rigged a shelving setup that could hide the makeshift kitchen at a moment's notice. "We did the hideaway kitchen, and they never even checked us out," he says.
While Boone enjoyed the feeding frenzy, he also got his first taste of making money. "I learned how certain items could be almost pure profit," he says. "I was surprised at how little it cost to make nachos and burritos." Not to mention delighted, especially when he found out that the eatery's profit margin ran from 65% to 80%.
Given the unlikely success that spawned his business career, perhaps it's no surprise that Boone has since dipped into a broad palette of businesses, including Employment Trends (#394), an $11-million staffing-services company in Beaverton, Oreg. What the companies all have in common is his insistence on making profit a priority--an outgrowth of both his college focus (the restaurant) and his academic major (quantitative economics and decision sciences).
They'll Tell You What Business You're In
"We didn't want to work at Burger King, so we had to do something," says Michael Napoliello Jr., explaining why he and his partner, Jason Moskowitz, went into business as college sophomores in 1983.
While the two longtime friends were making plans to spend the summer at the Jersey Shore, they noticed that no newspaper catered to the many socially active young people who flocked there. So they launched The Wave, a summer arts-and-entertainment publication. "We put together a really bad prototype and hit the streets," Napoliello says. "I didn't see the beach again for 10 years."
According to Napoliello, the key to the newspaper's success was its ability to attract national advertisers through a combination of flexibility and creative distribution.
The pair first approached the advertising agency for Anheuser-Busch and were surprised at the favorable reception their pitch--and the paper--received. The agency wanted a Michelob ad placed on the back page, but only if the paper was distributed to places where young people were likely to go, like 7-Eleven stores. "We had only put out one issue at that point," Napoliello says. "But we figured if they wanted 7-Eleven, it was our job to get them there."
Once the next issue was printed, the pair began stealth distribution. "We'd walk in the door, drop off some papers, and run," says Napoliello. When questions were raised, the partners convinced local 7-Eleven managers that the newspapers weren't bothering anyone--and they threw in a free 7-Eleven ad on the cover of The Wave if the stores would allow them to distribute the publication.