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Cashing in

August 30, 2007

Today’s entrepreneurially minded students can get help from a variety of campus-based mentoring and funding sources. But before 2000 or so, student-led business start-ups were basically self-funded, and many crashed due to a lack of real-world smarts.

Below are the stories of four successful business owners who got their start while still wearing gold and maroon backpacks.

Jamie Limber

Company: The Christmas Light Co. (formerly Custom Holiday Lights), Phoenix

Founder: Jamie Limber ’94 B.A.

Business description: develops and sells products used to put up, take down and store holiday decorations.

Back in the day…: Marketing meant going door to door on his bicycle, leafleting homes and businesses.

Made ends meet by: managing “mom patrol,” women who handed out free samples of General Mills’ Oatmeal Raisin Crisp cereal at campus sporting events; worked in a gym; car valet.

Why he made it: “I was adventurous and naïve – I didn’t know about failure, so I just went for it.”

How it all began: in 1989, Limber saw a CNN story about a company selling franchises for Christmas-light decorating services. He and a buddy borrowed $1,000 from family to buy their first lights. Post-graduation, he ran the company on the side, quitting his day job in 1996 to become his own boss. Recently, he sold the Christmas lighting service for seven figures, in order to concentrate on developing holiday-decorating products such as light reels, Christmas-tree bags, etc. 

Randy Nelson

Company: Intrinsic Bioprobe, Inc., Tempe

Founder: Randy Nelson '90 Ph.D.

Business description: proteomics - the development and analysis of meaningful proteins related to disease testing and treatment.  

Back in the day…: slept on a mattress on the floor of a tiny, bare apartment after working 18-hour days. Now he lives in a luxurious, 3,800-square-foot home on South Mountain.

Made ends meet by: working on campus

Why he made it: “I had a cascade of ideas that became lines of intellectual property…. If you have the entrepreneurial mindset, you know profit must come eventually.”

How it all began:  in 1996, while a junior faculty member, founded Intrinsic Bioprobe as a way to sell technology he’d developed and licensed from ASU. The first year, despite landing an industrial client or two, he earned less from Intrinsic than he did from his ASU job.

Bill Fiduccia

Company: Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar, Scottsdale

Founder: Bill Fiduccia ’97 B.S.

Business description: tapas restaurant/wine bar  

Back in the day…: ran BizPlanIt, his first business, from a bedroom/office in an apartment shared with other students.

Made ends meet by: school loans, car valet

Why he made it:  “most restaurateurs don’t know their break-even point, or know how to implement a marketing plan. But I do, and by applying basic financial controls in this high-growth environment, if I’m lucky, it will be profitable.”

How it all began: turned his honors thesis into a company called BizPlanIt, a consulting firm that writes business plans. After eight years, he got restless, handed BizPlanIt operations off to a partner. He and James Porter, a college buddy, opened Tapino in 2005.

Tim and George Vasquez

Company: Someburros!, Tempe

Founder: Tim Vasquez ’98 B.A. is president, father George Vasquez ’74 B.A.E. founded the first restaurant

Business description: chain of three “fast-casual” Mexican restaurants. 

Back in the day…: Tim dressed up in a burro costume and waved the cars in from the sidewalk.

Made ends meet by: Bussing tables at Poncho’s, his parents’ first restaurant

Why he made it: “I like feeling in control of my life. The harder I work, and the decisions I make, determines whether or not I will be rewarded.’”

How it all began:  his grandparents, aided by sons George and Ralph, opened Poncho’s Mexican Food in 1972, converting a small south Phoenix house into a takeout place that grew into a full-size restaurant.

In 1986, when Tim was in junior high, George opened the first Someburros! in Tempe. Tim, who came on full-time after graduation, pushed for the additional stores, certain that the first Someburros! success was “not magic, just hard work and a good concept that could be copied.”

By Kerri S. Smith, a freelance writer based in Gilbert, Ariz.