Ann Arbor's Studentpreneurs

Kendra Hall and Dan Morse aren't the only college students working at one of the Mark's Carts food trucks downtown, but they aren't sharing the same school-and-work experience as the average student employee.

"There are people who work here who are our age," says Hall. "But we're definitely the youngest in terms of cart owners."

Though the student-owned The Beet Box food truck is an anomaly at Mark's Carts, Hall, Morse and their partners Kay Feker and Alex Perlman, all of whom are 21, are part of a growing community of University of Michigan entrepreneurs who aren't waiting for graduation to launch their big ideas into successful start-ups.

This has been a huge learning experience for us," says Morse. "None of us have worked in the food industry before. The mentorship was a huge part of it, and learning how to manage mentorship."

The Beet Box team has worked with U-M's TechArb, as well as gathering $18,000 worth of funding from grants and a Kickstarter campaign, assistance which has allowed them to launch their professional, fully-operational food truck in less than a year. Featuring such über healthy options as roasted beet quinoa, kale chips and beet lemonade, being a food truck is only the first phase of The Beet Box's future as a promoter and supporter of healthy communities. According to Morse, it hasn't only been the training, mentorship and support from U-M that has made their progress possible.

"Being at a university, you're surrounded by a bunch of talented peers," he says. "Everyone is really smart, and they've all been really selfless. We've been able to channel a lot of people's interests into The Beet Box."

That includes everyone from artists who helped with the business logo and cart design to a marketing student who will soon earn university credit to review the efficacy of The Beet Box's marketing efforts.

"Everybody is learning from it," says Morse. "It's all hands on deck."

But not all is copacetic in the balance between scholarship and entrepreneurship. Though any app developer would have a difficult time complaining about 17,000 users just three months into a public launch, the growth of the U-M student start-up Fetchnotes has created a unique issue for founders Chase Lee and Alex Schiff.

"You can do a start-up in school and you can work on it," Lee says, "but until you really focus on the start-up, it's not the same. No matter how much I skipped class or fudged an assignment, no matter how much I reduced the role I was playing school, it just wasn't the same."

As Fetchnotes' user numbers grow between one-half- to one-percent each day, Lee and Schiff, both 21, have decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from U-M to pursue their start-up full time.

"School is always going to be there," says Lee. "But if you find out a server just went down, are you going to study for your exam or are you going to fix the server?"

That turns out to be the defining quandary for U-M student start-ups. When investors start calling and customers begin to pile up, which priority takes precedence?

Like Lee and Schiff, Josh Smith is a U-M student with an app-based start-up. Unlike Fetchnotes, which is a note-taking, -filing and -retrieving application, Smith's YourCall.FM is a sports media start-up that allows amateur sports announcers to call games and fans to chose their own commentator. Similar, however, is the challenge the start-ups' founders face.

"Pretty much all students at the TechArb have one foot in the school and one in their business," says Smith. "They can be competing priorities. It can be very difficult to bring all the energy and enthusiasm it takes to launch a venture, and still be a present, contributing member of your grad school courses."

Being a graduate student is part of the reason Smith's perspective on completing school differs from his younger peers.

"I'm 30 years old; I've been married four years," he says. "I'd like to have kids in the not too distant future. For me, the value of finishing a degree is very different. What 'Plan B' looks like is very different for a mature student."

Smith isn't alone is his intention to finish school regardless of the arc of his company's success.

"We can't wait to spend our senior year together," says Hall of The Beet Box team. "The education that we are all individually gaining from school goes hand-in-hand with the experiences we are getting at The Beet Box."

In fact, competing priorities or not, the resources and opportunities afforded to student entrepreneurs by U-M have incentivized some to stay in school even longer than planned.

"I am staying in school entirely so we can do this," says SkySpecs CEO Dan Ellis, age 24. "It's a very good gig because we can work on this and then we don't have to pay salaries yet. We also have the huge advantage [of teaching] freshmen, so we grab the smart ones right away."

It's hard to blame Ellis and his 23-year-old partners, Tom Brady, Sam DeBruin and Ryan Moore, for maximizing their use of university resources: building flying robots is a predictably expensive venture.

SkySpecs builds advanced unmanned aerial vehicles for civilian uses, such as performing safety inspections under bridges, so the only way to continue product development is to remain affiliated with the university for as long as possible. Ellis and Brady are master's students and DeBruin has begun working toward a Ph.D. The team develops their robots at the bustling Gorguze Family Laboratory on campus, which also houses Ellis and Brady's student competition team, Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles.

"Financing start-ups is very difficult," says Ellis. "We're minimizing that. We would not be able to do this without the university."

Not that it seems U-M would be daunted by the SkySpecs teams' reason for staying on the school's roster. Between the Center for Entrepreneurship and TechArb, the university is encouraging more and more students to develop innovative start-ups, even though the challenge of balancing academics and entrepreneurship can force students to evaluate whether education is a priority.  

The benefits would appear to outweigh the costs for the university as well as the students. And for the resources and opportunities U-M provides, most student entrepreneurs seem to feel more dedicated to the school, rather than less.

"Even when I'm not getting more credit for working on YourCall.FM," says Smith, "and I may not be taking as many classes because of it, I feel I'm learning more because I have something to apply what I'm learning to. It's a project that already has me awake at night, so I'm able to go apply what I learned in class right away."

As the ultimate illustration for a class curriculum, or as the beginning of a new career, student start-ups are alive and growing on U-M's campus -- and, their young founders are hoping to prove before or after graduation -- beyond.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.


All photos by Doug Coombe


L to R Kendra Hall, Kay Feker and Dan Morse at The Beet Box
L to R Kendra Hall, Dan Morse and Kay Feker at The Beet Box
L to R Alex Schiff and Chase Lee with the Fetchnotes team's improvised standing desks at the TechArb
L to R Alex Schiff and Chase Lee with the Fetchnotes team's improvised standing desks at the TechArb
Josh Smith at the YourCall.FM space at the TechArb
L to R Ben Mullins, Josh Smith and Andrew Copp at the YourCall.FM space at the TechArb
Dan Ellis at the SkySpecs lab on North Campus
Dan Ellis at the SkySpecs lab on North Campus

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