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Getting down to business


August 30, 2007

Without the $10,000 Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative development grant that revived an offbeat project – making hats lined with tiny “cooling crystals” - ASU junior Kevin Pringles, 20, and his 50-year-old mom, Linda Cook wouldn’t be the proud co-owners of Hydro Headwear, a new Tempe firm now doing business as the Chill Factor Clothing Company.

In December 2005, when the mom and son duo landed a grant from the initiative, they also scored access to the initiative’s 24-hour office space, which is equipped with business basics such as PCs, phones and faxes. Edson grant recipients, all promising students with great ideas, also get business start-up training, says Patrick Duran, Edson manager.

“This is a learning experience, so not all of these students will come out with a full-fledged business as proposed. Some of them might move forward with another business, and will apply knowledge gained from this experience somewhere down the road,” Duran explains.

Cook created the first Hydro hat after buying a headband with cooling crystals at a swap meet in 1993. When the hat is soaked in water for 30 minutes, the softened crystals form a chilly gel designed to keep the wearer’s head cool for hours.

But the project was shelved until Pringles revived it in 2005. Inspired, Cook is studying finance and management at ASU West, while Pringles works towards his degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Tempe campus.

During the school year, Pringles worked diligently with many projects lasting to the wee-hours at the Edson. In true entrepreneur fashion, as he Googled and dialed, toured shops and thrashed out trade-secret protection issues, Pringles had another idea: why not make a huge clothing company centered around cooling and sun protective hats and apparel? Pringles is expanding his product line to over 12 cooling hat styles and they will be adding dozens of other hats and apparel items in the near future.

Chill Factor Clothing Company completely redesigned its product line and they are preparing for a full market launch in July 2007. The launch will start with the beginning of a two-year direct response TV commercial campaign, PR campaign, and a national sales system.

“The first time around, my mom designed the hat and a partner tried to sell it as a trendy, fun item. It was a bad marketing approach that failed,” Pringles recalls. “This time, we’re marketing the hats as a performance enhancing and safety-related product.”

This ability to learn from a misstep is characteristic of entrepreneurs. Take Will Andreason, 31, founder of Off-Road Direct, a new company that sells truck-suspension conversion kits to weekend warriors.

While finishing up his business degree in 2005, Andreason made a classic error – he used cut-rate manufacturers to produce the first solid-axle kits. Lesson learned: he designed a step-by-step process on qualifying potential manufacturers in future.

Tinkering with his truck gave Andreason the idea for Off-Road Direct, and he knew from the beginning that he’d start it as an online business. “I kept thinking, ‘someone needs to build this,’ so I did,” he notes.

Then an information technology manager for a manufacturing company – and attending ASU part-time – he began researching competitors’ products and studying the market.

“I knew I wanted to open my own small business, so I went back to school. Anyone can start a business but only the savvy survive – and I didn’t want to learn that the hard way,” he says. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, he earned an entrepreneurial certificate.

Like Pringles, he applied to the Edson for start-up funds, landing a $10,000 grant, then another $7,500 award. He plunged another $9,000 from his I.T. income into everything from marketing to buying raw materials.

Across campus Tilak Jain, 26, recently wrapped up his doctorate in bio-engineering. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in his native India before moving to the U.S. for graduate school.

As founder of Flowchips, a Tempe company that designs custom bio-engineering chips and bio-arrays and hosts a suite of life science services, Jain used to split 14-hour days between school and a 1,000-square-foot lab leased from another business. Asked how he was able to keep up such a break-neck pace, he says, simply, “it was fun.”

Jain heard about the Entrepreneurial Programs Office (EPO) soon after enrolling in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. “I had some ideas that grew out of my studies in the field of biotechnology. I wanted to commercialize these ideas, and thought perhaps it was time to start a company, but didn’t know how to do it,” he explains.

He lucked out. Fulton is the only engineering school in the nation with an on-campus, entrepreneurial program for its students, says Thomas Duening, EPO director. In 2004, campus leaders “saw the need to be more competitive due to globalization and outsourcing. In India and China, for instance, the graduation rates for science and engineering majors is increasing, which pushes down salaries. The EPO curriculum teaches engineers how to regard that threat as an opportunity by, for example, putting the lower-wage engineers in India and china to work for them,” he continues.

One of Duening’s goals is to teach engineering students how to protect intellectual property and negotiate profit-sharing arrangements on technology they develop for companies.

Since 2004, Jain has won several grants from EPO and the Edson initiative, and used the money and expert mentoring to start Flowchips in January, 2005. Despite the award money, he was forced during his school years to live humbly, sharing an apartment, driving “barely a car” and scraping by on his $1,400 monthly salary as an ASU research assistant.

“I needed to spend $200,000 for equipment, but I didn’t have nearly that much money. But when you’re really pushed to the wall, you get creative. I got that equipment for around $20,000,” he says.

If he strikes it rich, Jain says he’ll fund entrepreneurial competitions and mentoring programs for students who intend to start companies in his adopted homeland.

While some entrepreneurs stress the importance of getting a basic business education, Jain disagrees. “Business majors are groomed to be managers of corporations. In the technology field, you need to know how to do a tech push, not a business push; you can hire the appropriate business-trained people for your team when the time is right,” he explains.

Jain may find it harder to score big bucks simply because he is an idea-driven entrepreneur, as opposed to an entrepreneur who wants to run a business. “The first type has an idea that they want to take to market…my sense is that the latter type is more successful, because they are willing to develop their businesses as much as they are willing to develop their ideas or products,” says William Verdini, professor of supply chain management at the W.P. Carey School of Business and a consultant for Edson applicants.

Some business whizzes, like John Shufeldt, return to the classroom repeatedly, each time shedding their skin like a desert cicada. Shufeldt, 47, graduated from law school in December 2005. A self-defined “serial entrepreneur,” he plans to practice law part-time.

He went to law school “for the intellectual stimulation. I like to learn, and am fascinated with the thought process behind the study of law,” he says. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Shufelt, J.D., is also Shufeldt, M.D., a physician who moved to the Valley in 1990, as well as Shufeldt, M.B.A., a 1995 graduate of ASU’s business school.

He started out as a doctor. While working in hospital emergency rooms, Shufeldt noticed that as many as 70 percent of his patients didn’t need high-level trauma care. They had more mundane ailments – a sprained back, the flu, a sliced-open finger- that could be attended to in a lower acuity setting, at a lower cost. So in 1993, he founded Mesa-based NextCare Urgent Care, a company that has since grown into a chain of 27 urgent care centers in four states, with 450 employees.

Shufeldt enrolled in business school to learn how to better run NextCare, and went to law school so he could guide the company through the growing maze of regulatory change.

Along with NextCare, he owns other businesses: Professional Assessment Services and Solutions, a sort of life-coaching/counseling program for troubled doctors; FindUrgentCare.com, an online directory; Desert Cosmetic Centers, a skin-care center/spa and two radiology companies, one that supplies equipment, the other a provider of digital imaging interpretation services.

Asked how he accomplishes so much, Shufeldt says, simply, “Entrepreneurs have the ability to look at common problems and issues in an uncommon way. We end up seeing things that other people may not, and identify solutions to problems,” he adds.

That’s why Mary Lou Bessette loved her job as director of the Spirit of Enterprise Center, part of the W.P. Carey School of Business, which she described as “an intellectual clearinghouse on creating knowledge that changes lives.” The center provides a variety of programs for small- and mid-sized businesses, with a focus on identifying, building and capitalizing on business opportunities.

Bessette, now executive director of strategic initiatives for the business school, says student entrepreneurs “want to direct their own future. They have a keen understanding of and an enthusiasm for their work.” But too often, that same enthusiasm leads some entrepreneurs to focus solely on work, leaving little time for personal relationships and non-work activities.

She tells students that finding the right balance means they will wake up every morning eager to start the day, and fall into bed at midnight, satisfied with what they’ve experienced and accomplished.

 

By Kerri S. Smith, a Gilbert-based freelance writer.