Entrepreneurship happens for many reasons. Sometimes it’s born of necessity, while other times it results from years of planning and dreams. But three Central College grads seem to have one thing in common: a belief in what they are doing and a drive to follow through to make their businesses succeed.
Starting a business is risky. But these successful entrepreneurs were able to bring their visions to fruition. Skills they learned during college formed the foundation of their future enterprises, and today they are able to chart their own course in the business world.
Perseverance Pays Off
Every experience counts. That’s the message Marc Poortinga ’98 has for would-be entrepreneurs. When he started his business in 2008, he drew from a variety of experiences in order to make it succeed.
With a partner, Poortinga founded Distinctive Custom Cabinetry in Phoenix, Ariz. The business provides a variety of high-quality, custom home pieces including cabinets, closets and storage, millwork and ironwork. When the partners started the business, the economy was tough, but they saw that as an opportunity to grow with the market as it recovered. “You’re ready to grow when the market’s ready to grow,” Poortinga says. “Actually the market was bad in 2008, ‘09 and ‘10, so we had a little longer tough times than we expected, but since then it’s been really good.”
After majoring in business management with a focus on finance at Central, he worked eight years for Pella Windows, then moved to a smaller company. Seeing both sides allowed Poortinga to understand how a business runs. “With the smaller company people wear so many more hats,” he says. Both companies were in the window and door business, so Poortinga built up a large stable of knowledge in the industry, and when he moved to Phoenix, he made many contacts among builders that proved invaluable when striking out on his own.
Distinctive Custom Cabinetry routinely works on multimillion dollar properties, including the homes of the owner of the Arizona Cardinals football team and many athletes. “We provide custom cabinets and closets in-house, then we have our own custom wrought-iron fabricator who can custom design doors, railings and gates. One of our biggest advantages is we can offer builders a lot of services,” Poortinga says.
When creating a business plan for Distinctive Custom Cabinetry, Poortinga drew on the skills he learned while studying his major at Central. Finance has been especially beneficial, and he says, “Debela Birru was my advisor, and I remember trying to decide between marketing and finance for my focus, and he steered me toward finance. I’m so glad because with owning your own business it’s so important to have a really good base and knowledge of numbers.”
As Poortinga learned, starting a business requires skills in a variety of areas. Working for different companies helped him become well rounded, and he stresses the value of internships. “Internships are so important, and any experience is better than no experience,” he says. “A lot of people want to get this big-time job right out of college. I think it’s more important to get really good experience and do as many different things as you can because it all ties back together.”
Distinctive Custom Cabinetry now has more than 40 employees, and the thought that the business provides for all of their families drives Poortinga to succeed. He says, “It puts a little more pressure on us, with 40-some people relying on us.” The business has a team mentality, which suits Poortinga just fine. He played football at Central and says that experience was also part of his professional development—it helped him understand the dynamics of working as a group.
He says in both football and in business “you have to have a lot of perseverance, because there are times when you really don’t feel like you can see the end in sight, but you keep on pushing yourself and persevere through everything.”
Stitching a Business Plan
Launching a business requires a stick-with-it attitude.That’s something Margaret (Debner) Street ‘85 has in abundance. She has stuck with her business idea for almost 30 years and through several moves from one city to another.
Street majored in home economics at Central, but she hadn’t thought about turning her passion for sewing into a business until a move to Chicago after graduation required her to come up with a way to make money.
She decided to start an alterations and sewing business in her home. She named it Street Clothes, and in the beginning finding clients was the biggest challenge.
Street first tried advertising in the Yellow Pages, which led to calls, but not the type she wanted. “I was really young and naïve,” she says, citing callers who were more interested in discussing their legal problems than paying for alterations. But Street persevered, visiting shops like Jo-Ann Fabric and other sewing stores to leave her business card, and relying on word of mouth.
Clients began calling, and Street was able to build a substantial business. She’s kept it going through moves to Iowa City, Minneapolis and most recently to Ames during the past year.
Throughout the many years she’s been in business and the many moves, Street Clothes has ebbed and flowed. “Over the years it’s kind of morphed into more business when I had more time, less when I had less,” Street says.
One of the best things about running her own business has been the ability to stay home with her children and still make an income. “What appeals to me the most is you can set your own hours. Now I’m going to school, so I can do it when I have time around my school work,” Street says. She is taking classes to obtain her teaching license.
Street also values the loyal clients she’s had over the years. “I had clients who were mailing their pants to me to hem when I moved from Iowa City to Minneapolis,” she says. Creating great relationships with customers is something Street has learned to do well, and now she’s doing it again as she works to reach new clients in the Ames area.
To others who might have the itch to start a business, Street says, “Absolutely, go for it.” However, she cautions that people don’t necessarily have to jump in and invest all their money and time right from the start. “I started slow and it just gradually picked up for me,” she says.
Street has managed to keep her business going through various stages of her life, as well as ups and downs in the larger economy. For her, doing something she is passionate about makes it all worthwhile.
Sometimes, starting a business requires flexibility. Chris Rouw ’93 and his partners in Far Reach learned that lesson when they were launching their startup in 2007. The partners had worked together at an insurance company in Cedar Falls and decided they wanted to go into business for themselves. But deciding on exactly what that business would be required a bit of trial and error.
Rouw graduated from Central with majors in math and computer science. He knew he wanted to work in computer programming after taking a couple of classes in high school, and that feeling was reinforced during his first programming class in college. After graduation, he worked in Des Moines for five years at the Principal Financial Group, then moved to Cedar Falls with his wife.
While working at CUNA Mutual in Waverly, Rouw and some coworkers began talking about starting a company. Five of them developed a business plan to create software for K-12 schools, and in 2007 they left CUNA to found Far Reach.
But after doing some market research, the team learned that the K-12 software concept would be very challenging to implement. So, they changed course and began doing consulting work and building websites.This marked the beginning of Far Reach as a service and consulting company, specializing in web development, custom software and marketing.
But the company didn’t stop there. Rouw and partners began looking for opportunities to team up with people who had good ideas for businesses.
“What we look for is a collaboration where we can be the technical side and our partner is the subject matter expert,” Rouw says.
For example, Far Reach has invested in projects such as Mortgage MarketSmart, which provides a comprehensive mortgage market intelligence solution. Far Reach provided software and website development and has partnered with iEmergent on the project.
Rouw sees the creation of Far Reach as an opportunity to set his own path, though he says entrepreneurship requires sacrifices. “As a service company, instead of having one boss, or one or two people I report to, I’m working on behalf of many people. It’s challenging to keep those relationships going strong,” he says.
How can someone tell if entrepreneurship is the right path? Rouw says, “I always tell people, I think either you’re an entrepreneur or you’re not. If you’re always thinking of different ways to solve problems; if you’re seeing how things could be improved, chances are you might be an entrepreneur.”
But before people make the leap, he suggests they do their homework. “Talk to people who have been there and done that—get advice from people,” he says. One way Rouw has done that is to interact with other Central alumni. He’s connected with a number of other entrepreneurs over the years, as well as staying in contact with professors. “You need to have a team of advisers, people you can trust and you can go to,” he says.
Starting a business also requires good old-fashioned hard work and discipline, and Rouw says Central reinforced those things for him. “You have to have the base of hard work and you have to be self- motivated,” he says.
Think Like a Problem Solver
Students learn the skills needed to drive change and see results.
Can entrepreneurship be taught? Yes, says Wade Steenhoek, director of Central’s Martin Heerema Entrepreneurship Program. The program aims to give students the tools they need to start a venture or, perhaps more importantly, apply that entrepreneurial mindset at any organization for which they work.
This means seeing different ways of solving a problem. Steenhoek says he wants students to learn how to “conceptualize something that doesn’t necessarily exist today, to see a different way of doing it and figure out ‘how can I solve this problem in a way that’s valuable to someone else?’ That’s what entrepreneurs do.”
And while these skills are valuable when starting a business, they are also vital for anyone working within an organization. Steenhoek cites a study by IBM that revealed the No.1 skill CEOs are looking for in employees is creativity. “That’s problem solving,” Steenhoek says. “They wanted innovators who could solve problems.”
Central’s program is working to instill those skills in students. The Martin Heerema Endowment in Entrepreneurship was established in 2007, funded by an endowment from Bruce and Sandy Heerema. Today, the program offers courses in various aspects of entrepreneurship, which can culminate in a minor for students.
Steenhoek joined the program in fall 2011, and he brought with him a plan to focus the curriculum on the real world of entrepreneurial skills.This meant less time spent writing business plans and studying small businesses, and more emphasis on experiential learning. To make sure he used best-in-class curriculum, Steenhoek was certified in curriculum endorsed and funded by the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, a leading organization in entrepreneurship.
The program now begins with the course “Entrepreneurial Mindset” where students learn the basics of thinking like a problem solver.
Later, students can put their skills to the test during Startup Semester. In this advanced class, students learn about business models and actually start and operate their own businesses, making real transactions with real customers.
“During the semester they identify their market, their customer, how they’ll reach them and what’s unique about their product, and then attempt to sell their services. So it’s very experiential. It’s the best real-world practice they can get,” Steenhoek says.
The program isn’t just geared toward business students but instead has an interdisciplinary focus. Steenhoek wants to see students across all disciplines learn the entrepreneurial mindset. To this end, he launched a new class during the spring semester called “Marketing Your Creative Self.” The course teaches creatives—artists, musicians, writers—how to market and sell their artistic services. Arts faculty helped design the class and lead it, and overall it’s designed to marry entrepreneurial and creative skills. At the end of the semester, students put on a pop-up fair to sell their creative wares.
So far, Steenhoek says demand for the Entrepreneurship Program has been high, especially when compared with entrepreneurship offerings at other colleges and universities. He sees the high level of interest reflecting what studies show about today’s students.
“A lot of students want to do new things, but they don’t know what steps to take,” he says. “Among college students, 60 percent say they want to start their own business someday, yet fewer than 6 percent actually do. I understand that gap now.They’ve never been given the roadmap of how you do it.” Providing that roadmap is what the entrepreneurial program is all about. Steenhoek calls it the Three E model: education, examples and experience. Students have the opportunity to try new things and take risks in a controlled environment. Startup Semester is the culmination of that journey, where students launch businesses or products to real customers.
Some of the projects so far have included a job placement board for the logistics industry, which resulted in real revenue for the student. Another project, a specialty product for the show cattle industry, is in development for sale in catalogs. During the most recent semester, projects included a remote controlled drone to perform aerial photography of crops, an e-waste recycling company to properly dispose of office computers, printers and monitors; and a children’s workshop/lab where kids can develop their creative skills.
Whether or not these projects ultimately make money, the goal has already been achieved: Students have learned the skills needed to solve problems and bring new ideas to fruition.