The business world is rich with stories of underachieving students who went on to become overachieving entrepreneurs.
The list is long: Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple; Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft; Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to name a few. Besides leaving school before graduating, what these business leaders have in common is they got their start while at university.
But while universities are known to encourage new ideas, they have sometimes been slow to recognize the value of entrepreneurialism. A perceived lack of support drove student entrepreneurs to abandon the ivory tower before finishing.
Today, higher education and entrepreneurship are no longer an either/or proposition. Today’s self-starting students have the universities on their side.
Schools are adding entrepreneurial-styled courses to give students the skills and expertise to succeed as small business owners both before and after graduation.
Here are a few Canadian students making their mark.
Ola Cislik, 22
Business: Detailerr, a mobile detailing company servicing boats, RVs and corporate fleets.
Program: Fifth-year bachelor of arts (political science major), University of Alberta.
Ola Cislik had her car detailed in Edmonton and they did a bad job. “The leather seats were damaged and I spent three days cleaning my car after it had been detailed, for which I had spent a pretty penny,” she laments.
Teaming up with Moe Denny, a friend at the University of Alberta’s law school who had years of experience working in the finance sector at car dealerships, Ms. Cislik did some research and discovered a large market for detailing in Edmonton.
To make her company stand out from the competition, she created a mobile business, driving to customers instead of them driving to her. After two months detailing cars, she started to receive inquires about detailing boats and RVs. That’s when she shifted gears.
“Until we came along, to have your RV detailed in Edmonton you had to take it to a designated shop, leave it there usually for a full day as well as overnight, and at a considerable cost. This process was very tedious for many people,” Ms. Cislik says.
“With our mobile service, you can now go about your daily routine. The service is brought directly to you.”
Advice for others: “Find out what your customer really needs, validate the market and solve a real need.”
Perry Everett, 22; Ben Rasera, 22, and Graham Thomas, 22
Business: Arylla Inc., commercial anti-counterfeit security
Program: Fourth-year, nanotechnology engineering, University of Waterloo
Perry Everett is from Carp, a rural town near Ottawa. Ben Rasera grew up in Surrey, B.C., and Thomas is from Waterloo, the Ontario city that is home to the university where all three met during their first year in the multidisciplinary five-year nanotechnology program. While brainstorming for their fourth-year design project, they came up with the idea of a non-toxic material that companies can use to tag their products for anti-fraud and anti-counterfeit purposes. They were guided by associate professor Frank Gu, who encouraged them to merge scientific research with entrepreneurship.
Their first product is a security ink designed to evade detection by counterfeiters. The ink can be applied to all kinds of products, from packaging to pharmaceuticals. It’s so innovative that its creators have decided not to seek a patent. “We are keeping it a trade secret,” Mr. Everett says.
Next up is creating a working prototype in preparation for beta testing.
Advice for others: Mr. Everett: “Be humble and don’t shy away from criticism; it is often more useful than praise.” Mr. Rasera: “The startup world is saturated with people convinced that their product is infallible. This isn’t a good attitude. Focus on the flaws and work tirelessly to remedy them.” Mr. Thomas: “Always be looking for ways to push yourself to be a bit better than your competitors.”
Tunch Akkaya, 23
Business: GameStrat, Web-based sports analytics
Program: Graduated in 2015, with a bachelor of applied science in software engineering/engineering management and entrepreneurship, University of Ottawa.
Now earning a masters in engineering management/technology project management, Tunch Akkaya joined the University of Ottawa football team during his first undergraduate year, and he’s been playing ever since.
His love of the sport led him to create a software program that would help football teams win games. “I came across a problem faced by our football team and figured that I could probably develop an application that would serve both the Gee-Gees [team] and my culminating capstone project that I knew was coming up in my fourth year,” he said.
Mr. Akkaya called on the support of fellow classmates Marvin Reyes, 22, and Elijah Wu, 24. Together, they worked on the idea throughout the 2014/15 academic year, during which time Mr. Akkaya heard about Startup Garage, a University of Ottawa business incubator offering funding to students wanting to launch their own companies.
Mr. Akkaya pitched his idea and last April he found out it was approved. Now in beta-testing, GameStrat (short for “gametime strategy”) helps football teams win games by providing them with data they can use to create a game plan.
The application is also in the hands of the football team at the University of Ottawa. The Gee-Gees have used it for every game so far this season.
Advice for others: Mr. Akkaya: “Have a goal in mind, and as long as you love what you do and you’re working hard at it, things usually end up working out.” Mr. Wu: “Don’t be afraid to fail, and always make sure there is trust and good communication between team members.” Mr. Reyes: “It’s important to always look toward the future, taking into account how the world changes and planning for worst-case scenarios.”
Bjorn Dawson, 23
Business: Grobo Inc., an automated indoor gardening system
Program: Fourth year, mechanical engineering, University of Waterloo
Hailing from an entrepreneurial family, Bjorn Dawson started his first company, a window-washing service, at age 16. From there he began investing in real estate before becoming a recipient of the prestigious Suncor Emerging Leader scholarship to attend the University of Waterloo.
In 2013, when he was 21, Mr. Dawson entered his university’s enterprise co-op program and founded Grobo, which helps people grow fresh produce in their own homes.
“Unfortunately, as our current agricultural system struggles to produce 70 per cent more food by 2050, quantity has taken precedence over quality and we now largely consume pesticide covered food that has been genetically modified, has travelled on average over 2,000 kilometres, and is minimum seven to 10 days old by the time it reaches supermarkets,” he says.
His solution is Grobo Pods, a modular, fully automated indoor gardening system. Grobo provides the right amount of water and light for optimal growth. Customers can easily add to their gardens, and the simple all-in-one seed and soil design enables them to avoid the mess associated with traditional gardening.
Advice for others: “Businesses last for years but relationships last a lifetime.
“Treat everyone with respect and you will be amazed by how willing people are to help you.”
The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Oct. 19, 2015 9:18AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Oct. 19, 2015 9:18AM EDT