Young and Ambitious in Lansing


Frequently carrying heavy course loads, area student entrepreneurs are juggling customers, suppliers and delivery schedules in and around their class schedules.

Most aren’t turning much of a profit; they acknowledge they often can make more money waiting tables at a restaurant. But the young business owners speak with exuberance about carving their own piece of the American Dream.
  
Most importantly, perhaps, they're also empowered by a growing entrepreneurial attitude in the Capital region.

Brett Kopf

“There’s a rock star start-up mentality there,” says Brett Kopf, 22, of the East Lansing entrepreneurial scene. A recent Michigan State University (MSU) graduate and social media consultant, Kopf now shuttles between his native Chicago and East Lansing. “The people in the Lansing/East Lansing area are incredible. There’s a lot of driven people who want to see the community succeed. People are very optimistic.”

Kopf graduated from MSU at the end of 2009 with a degree in food management and helps small businesses use social media tools like Twitter and Facebook to build their customer base. His start-up firm, Social Bonfire, is a social media company and a mobile messaging company.

He moved from food management to entrepreneur via Twitter. A well-known Tweeter, he has nearly 2,400 followers and posts business-related messages throughout the day (example: “I'm sometimes baffled how hyper localized web ads have become. . . . Yet I'm much more likely to buy. Thoughts?”)

Through his Tweeting, along with internships at several large companies, Kopf has become a pro at networking. That’s how he got his first job as a consultant on the business of using social media.

The jobs have multiplied from there. That’s the good side.

The downside? “Walking out of class to take a call from a customer. Handling the e-mails," he says. “There’s a lot of juggling. It was hard for me because I loved the consulting. School was a hindrance.”

Like most student entrepreneurs, Kopf doesn’t necessarily talk about striking it rich, although that’s clearly part of his motivation. Instead, Kopf and the other entrepreneurs feel a drive to make their mark as quickly as possible and not have to wait until they have their degree in hand.

“There’s way too much opportunity to wait, and I didn’t want to work for someone,” Kopf says.

Eric Jorgenson

Student entrepreneurs in the area generally laud the help they’ve received from the professors, who have often counseled them on starting their new enterprise.

But having their own business makes them realize how different the real world is from their college lessons.

“You can’t get a practical education when there are 500 people in a lecture hall,” says Eric Jorgenson, 20, an MSU economics and business major who started GoBoo Clothing, which sells environmentally friendly T-shirts made from bamboo.

Jorgenson took a class on renewable products, did some research and decided bamboo shirts were the way to go. He found a manufacturer through Alibaba.com, a website that lines people up with suppliers. He now sells the shirts from his apartment.

Careful to never sink more than $1,000 into the business, he makes sales by networking and word of mouth.

Taking a cue from his father, who has his own business in the Detroit area, Jorgenson has been involved in several other ventures in the last couple years, including freelance website design and helping a friend with a fledgling textbook business.

“There’s an element of controlling your own fate,” Jorgenson says of what drives him. “You can get up and go to work everyday to a job, but I’d rather hold my own fate in my own hands.”

Plus, he says, “I’d rather graduate into a business that’s flourishing rather than build one from the ground up.”

Like Kopf, Jorgenson says he’s amazed by the flourishing business attitude in the Capital region. He's seen it firsthand while working at East Lansing’s Technology Innovation Center (TIC).

Jorgenson says he’s now helping East Lansing set up another incubator strictly for students who want to start their own businesses; it should open within a few months, he says.

“It seemed like a culture of entrepreneurship blew up in East Lansing over the last six months,” Jorgenson says.

Michael Babbish

Here’s something they don’t teach in business school: How to find Santa.

That’s one skill MSU student Michael Babbish picked up after starting his own theater production company which, until recently, oversaw performances on the Murder Mystery Dinner Train in nearby Charlotte.

Babbish, 21, is a double major in writing and anthropology. He started working for the train when he was a high school senior and eventually became its on-board conductor.

As he saw attendance dropping and the quality of the productions declining, Babbish decided to test his writing skills on a paying audience by penning an on-train mystery.

Then Babbish “took the bull by the horns” and gained creative control, starting his own business to contract with the train to hire actors, direct and all the other things that make up theater work.

One of those details was organizing the production for a holiday train. And that meant casting around for the perfect St. Nick.

One tip he'd offer: “If you’re going to book Santa Claus, you don’t want to wait until Christmas Eve.”

Babbish and his production company are now planning to film a short movie using some of the lessons he picked up running the Charlotte venture.

Joseph Brummitt

Joseph Brummitt, 21, is a recent MSU graduate who helps run Spartanicity, a delivery service for students. Spartanicity allows students to place online orders for food and other items and have them delivered right to their dorm rooms or apartments.

“East Lansing has become very attractive because it’s an entrepreneurship hotbed,” he says.

Like many student entrepreneurs, Brummitt, 21, and partners Adam Root and David Spitzer, sometimes think about franchising their model. Brummitt graduated in December with a degree in finance. Root, 21, is pursuing a finance degree, while Spitzer, 22, is a hospitality major.

Business is sporadic at times, the trio says, but running the venture is still more work than a full-time job.

The three also created a nonprofit called Student Solutions which aims to provide tuition and textbooks scholarships to qualified Michigan students. It’s an effort intended to help other students offset college expenses.

“It’s something we believed in, something we thought would be a great experience for us,” Root said.

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John Foren is a recovering newspaper editor who is enjoying writing again. 

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.



Photos:

Eric Jorgenson in the future “strictly for students” incubator space

Spartanicity - Joseph Brummitt, Adam Root, David Spitzer

Eric Jorgenson in a GoBoo shirt

Micheal Babbish movie script

Micheal with his camera

Micheal works with film Creative Director Lindsay Palinsky

Some of the Spartanicity stock

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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