crowdfunding puzzle illustration

 

Zack Smith has a problem: he needs to find an injection mold that can handle BPA-free Tritan™ plastic.

Unfortunately, he can’t just run out to an injection mold store on Newbury Street. He’s got to canvass the globe to find a company that can create a mold for less than $50,000, if possible.

How come this Suffolk University senior from Methuen, Massachusetts, is dealing with this sort of problem? It’s all part of his day-to-day curriculum in ENT-340: Crowdfunding the Venture (CFV). And as part of that class he’s working to launch an actual startup enterprise with a real product.

A brand-new course at Suffolk’s Sawyer Business School, CFV gives students some of the most concentrated, hands-on business experience they’ll ever get in college. They’ve spent the fall developing a product or service and are launching it as a bona fide business venture on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

CFV is unlike anything ever before offered at Suffolk—or at nearly any other business school.Created and taught by Business School Professors Jenni Dinger and Chaim Letwin, CFV is unlike anything ever before offered at Suffolk—or at nearly any other business school. Indeed, the completely immersive nature of the launch process is what makes this class so innovative and fresh: the students do everything.

In only a few months, they’ve had to come up with a great idea and then figure out how to make it real (or “actionable,” in entrepreneur parlance). One student has designed a fishing tackle box that doubles as a drink cooler, but he needs to find a computer-assisted design (CAD) expert before he can produce a prototype.

Another student is launching a vegan Alfredo sauce. But that involves figuring out what is and isn’t allowed when it comes to selling food products.

Then there’s the group of students who aren’t launching either a product or a service, but are trying to raise money for Suffolk’s Upward Bound program, which seeks to increase college access and educational opportunities for low-income and first-generation students. Social entrepreneurship has its own extra challenges, as the students are quickly learning.

On top of all that work, each student has to think about videos and logos and trademarks as well.

“The students are in our classroom, working on their launches even when we don't have class,” says Dinger, a professor of Management and Entrepreneurship and a crowdfunding expert. “Last Thursday, I was here for nine hours with almost all the students. And we don't even have class on Thursdays! They're working constantly.”

Sara MaloneyAdds senior Sara Maloney, who’s launching a traveling yoga studio, “You know when people say, ‘It's not a diet, it's a lifestyle’? Well, this is not a class, it's a lifestyle. It feels so much bigger than just a business school course.”

What’s helpful is that the students don’t always have to go outside of Suffolk for assistance. They’re working with the Law School’s Intellectual Property clinic to register trademarks. They’re using the student-run RamCam Productions to create promotional videos. They’re leveraging the talents of Suffolk’s New England School of Art & Design students to create logos and graphics.

For everyone involved, it’s been an incredible learning experience. For example, neither the design students nor the CFV students had ever negotiated a contract before. But that became an essential part of the process for all parties.

“The negotiation of the contract writing got my students a little nervous,” says Art & Design Professor Peter Bianco, “but it was an exercise that they needed to do in order to move forward as designers in the business sense.”

Online, the news was even better. Every launch started raising money that night.While some CFV students used the Art & Design School to design only their logos, Jason Moker hired his designers to create more than 25 graphics for his NEO Miners card game. In fact, the designers were so essential to the success of his venture that Jason offered them equity instead of just a flat fee. “I might have the business idea, but without their skill and expertise, my company is just a name in Times Roman font,” says Jason with a laugh.

What makes the class such a practicum-oriented experience is that the students have been encountering issues and problems—and solving them—almost daily. Remember Zack Smith and his quest for an injection mold? His idea for Goliath Gallon is simple: plastic gallon jugs that come apart for easy cleaning. But manufacturing them? Not so simple.

“I got an email that said it's going to cost fifty-thousand to seventy-five thousand dollars to have a mold done,” Smith says. “So am I going to stay in the US for this mold? Or am I going to have to go to China, where a lot of people say, even though China's cheaper, you end up spending the same amount because of all the communications and sending the mold and stuff?”

Needless to say, these are not the kinds of issues that most college students deal with.

All this hard work reached its peak on Monday, November 14, when the CFV students hosted a launch party in Suffolk’s Center for Entrepreneurship. The students introduced their ideas to the world and flicked the switch on their Kickstarter and Indiegogo pages. The buzz in the room was huge: 100 or so people had RSVPd—more than 200 showed up.

Online, the news was even better. Every launch started raising money that night. The students were excited, and when that initial interest moved beyond loyal family members and friends to news outlets and actual investors a few weeks later, they were thrilled…and a little awed.

Fast forward a few months and students in the inaugural class have raised a total of nearly $20,000 through crowdfunding campaigns. Media outlets, including the Boston Business Journal, Fox 25, BizEd Magazine, and others have jumped on the story.

The ENT-340 course is now in its second semester and has grown, with new campaigns launching March 29. They include Waffleholics, a waffle restaurant or food truck; Sol y Luna, a trendy maker of sustainable beeswax candles that incorporate Mexican art; BaggaBox, a theft-deterring bag to solve the problem of packages stolen from front porches; and Beyond Borders, a full-length documentary exploring the impact of the current U.S. political environment on other countries and their citizens.

“All of the things that seemed so far-fetched when I first started are all starting to seem more realistic,” says James Testa, who’s crafted a protein-infused coffee beverage. His WarmUp Protein coffee was named as one of five student startups to watch in 2017 by online news site BostInno. Testa was invited to apply for a prestigious Thiel Fellowship. And the East Boston resident is also preparing for the MassChallenge competition with a new equity partner, Chuck Gibson, who he met in the class. Gibson’s Wicked Fisha startup is developing a 3D design for its cooler-tackle box combination and will be selling hats, shirts, and koozies online soon.

“It’s amazing to watch the students [meet a challenge] and then quickly pivot. That’s something you have to do if you're going to be an entrepreneur” – ENT340 Professor Chaim Letwin “I have professionals reaching out to me saying they know how to sell on Amazon and want to help,” Testa says. "I've had other people reach out and want to invest. The best part is to see all of the hard work I’ve been putting in actually pay off. It’s rewarding, to say the least.”

And that’s what makes ENT-340 such a perfect Suffolk story. Hands-on, real-world experiences. Cross-pollination across the University. Students bumping up against problems and solving them. And, in the process, growing as entrepreneurs and young adults.

“It’s been amazing to watch the students have ideas that fail and then quickly pivot,” says Professor Letwin. “That’s something you have to do if you're going to be an entrepreneur, and it’s been one of the big learning points the students have seen.”