Bryant Ventures: The bridge to self-made success stories
“If you don’t build your dreams, someone will hire you to help build theirs.”
For the ambitious students who belong to Bryant Ventures, this quote from author Tony Gaskins Jr. is more than inspiration. It is a mantra for budding entrepreneurs who want to turn a simple business plan into a working and profitable business.
Under the stewardship of Bryant’s Entrepreneurship Program Director and faculty member Sandra Potter ’76 MBA, Ph.D., Bryant Ventures is open to any student and serves as an incubator for promising new ideas. Students benefit from the entrepreneurial experience that Potter gained when she successfully launched a consulting and research firm. And veteran mentors—many of whom are Bryant alumni—also provide guidance regarding a broad range of issues from branding to financial management.
Starting a startup
Potter assures students that companies such as Apple, often thought to achieve overnight success, took years to gain traction in the marketplace. “I explain that there is a trajectory to success,” she says.
To help students determine if their ideas are commercially viable, Potter instructs them to conduct feasibility studies— research-based analyses of the proposed product or service’s potential. She stresses that going out to talk to potential customers is required to determine whether the student-entrepreneur has conceived something of real interest and value to the market. “You need to know if your target market will be willing to pay for your product or service,” she says. In the case of Michael Adams ’10, participation at farmers’ markets was key.
Adams, founder of Green Mountain Mustard, was selling energy bars at local farmers’ markets when such products were reaching market saturation. Aiming to introduce a unique offering, he switched his focus to producing a gourmet mustard from the recipe his family had enjoyed for years. He tested the waters with nine jars that sold in 30 minutes. When he brought 24 jars the following week, customers scooped them up in an hour.
Adams’ experience illustrates not only how a feasibility study validates ideas but also the importance of a prototype. “Students have to model their product or process-map their service,” says Potter. “Even if it’s constructed from basic supplies like cardboard, the common materials will help them envision the end product.”
Recently, Bryant Ventures members had the opportunity to create more sophisticated models with assistance from Johnson & Wales University students who are studying computer-aided design. The JWU students created CAD files of Bryant students’ sketches and fed them into a 3D printer. “This experience was invaluable,” says Potter. “It gave students the opportunity to interact with engineers and drove home the point that they can’t go it alone.”
Natural-born purveyors of inspiration
Reinforcing Potter’s message are highly engaged alumni who work with and mentor young entrepreneurs. Whether it involves making presentations at group meetings or giving individual advice regarding business models, alumni help students turn their dreams into reality.
"These professors champion innovation and coach students throughout the process.”
At times—such as when alumni judge Bryant’s New Venture Competition —their approach mirrors that of the self-made millionaires on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” As student and alumni groups present their entrepreneurial plans to the panel of “sharks” or judges, the experts pepper them with questions and pointed comments.
Despite their sometimes abrupt manner, the judges force participants to critically think through their plans. This helps them identify shortcomings and prepares them for the types of questions they will field from angel investors.
From this experience, students earn the opportunity to continue to work with the judges after graduation. Some panelists, like Colby Butler ’09, take on integral roles in the entrepreneurs’ companies. Butler recently became a board member of Fashion-Force, the startup Melissa Ellard ’13 presented at a recent competition.
Bryant faculty also serve as a valuable source of inspiration, information, and insight. Adams reached out to Associate Professor of Marketing Teresa McCarthy, Ph.D., for assistance with the retail operation of his mustard company.
“Professor McCarthy teaches supply chain management and has retail experience, so I asked for help with reports and projections. There’s a ton of paperwork, and I knew nothing about the terms. She walked me through it.” The results are ongoing: in May 2013, Adams won the inaugural Launch VT business plan competition, earning cash and in-kind donations totaling $67,000 to support another new business venture—a mobile application to help small specialty food producers manage production runs, control inventory, and make data-driven business decisions.
At Bryant, there is no shortage of faculty willing to lend a hand. “Entrepreneurship is a distributed program,” says Potter. “Professors from various disciplines teach entrepreneurship classes. These professors champion innovation and coach students throughout the process.”
Though alumni and faculty are already providing exceptional levels of support, Potter says additional help is needed.
To attract applicants, Potter has linked a database to the Bryant Ventures website, and student entrepreneurs will soon begin reaching out to invite more alumni to join the mentor list. There, alumni can build a private profile, indicating what startup tasks they are best suited to help with, as well as the amount of time they have to offer students. Only authorized Bryant Ventures teams and mentors will have database access, so those who sign up will not be overwhelmed with inquiries.