College students are always having bright ideas about the next big thing—in the shower, cheering on the team, daydreaming in class. But they often don’t have the knowledge or tools to take advantage of their idea. Now Central College students can turn their daydreams into real-life businesses—and get credit for it, too.
Budding entrepreneurs at Central College are enrolling in the Start-Up Semester course this spring, taught by Wade Steenhoek, director of the Martin Heerema Entrepreneurship Program at Central. It’s an innovative course with few lectures and no tests. There is no textbook, either. Instead, students invest $100 of their own money in their own start-up.
This course is different from many other business and entrepreneurship courses in that it privileges experience over theory and chaos over the business plan. Steenhoek says that academia has always taught an entrepreneurial methodology that begins with the business plan. “That is a bad idea because you haven’t vetted the idea yet in the real world,” he explains. “With Start-Up Semester, we are teaching students how to fail less by finding out if there is a real need and actual customers for their solution.”
Central students actually create start-ups, thereby testing the idea before they spend a lot of money on implementation. “Their start-up costs less than a textbook,” says Steenhoek, “but they will get more from the experience than a textbook could ever provide.”
This first course includes 15 students starting seven businesses. Most of the students are working in groups of two to three. Many of them are entrepreneurship minors, which Central added to the curriculum last year. When Steenhoek asked how many of them wanted to start their own businesses after graduation, all the hands in the room went up.
The course began with students logging their daily problems for two weeks, which Steenhoek says taught them to see problems as opportunities. Afterwards, they were ready to finalize their start-up ideas. One group is working on a sheet service marketed to the parents of college slobs. Another, calling their product Chalk it Up, is creating customizable wine glasses for upscale events. A student with farm roots is working on a diffuser for blow-drying calves after washing. Finally, with graduation in a tough economy on the mind, one group is creating a job search site for the logistics industry.
By the end of the semester, the students must actually create their product, sell it to customers, develop a website and give a final presentation and video on what they’ve learned. The class also meets once a week for work sessions and to give presentations on how their business model is changing in real time. Steenhoek is adamant, however, that most of the learning takes place outside the classroom walls, when students go out into the marketplace to meet with suppliers, partners, vendors and customers.
Students are paired with mentors from the central Iowa business community who, instead of providing answers, will push them out of their comfort zones and challenge them to go get answers to their questions. Mentors include Tej Dhawan, a 1991 Central College alumnus and co-founder of Startup City Des Moines; Mike Wager, president of White Rabbit Group of Des Moines; Scott Bailey, president of In the Black of Pella; Joel Bennett of Veel Hoeden, a co-work facility in Pella; and Rick Ryan, a 1970 Central College alumnus and CEO of Apertus Pharmaceuticals in Ballwin, Mo.
Steenhoek created Start-Up Semester based on a concept by Steve Blank, known as the godfather of Silicon Valley. It has been used at Stanford, Columbia and Berkeley and at graduate programs across the country.
“We are taking the best of Ivy League and prestigious graduate level education and plunking it down in the middle of rural Iowa at the undergraduate level,” says Steenhoek.
He sees his role not as a teacher but as a facilitator questioning and challenging his students to learn from their customers—to get their hands dirty and not be afraid to change their businesses as new issues arise.
“All the answers are outside of the building,” he tells them. “It’s up to you to go find them.”