I was having a coffee meeting with a new EO Accelerator participant a couple of weeks age and they asked where I got my entrepreneurial spirit from. As I pondered that my initial reaction was that it was always in my blood, from selling chocolate bars as a school fundraiser at age 8; to at age 13 buying African bead necklaces deconstructing them, splitting them up and then reconstructing them to get 25 or 30 from the first one purchased and then selling them; then to running a house painting company in the summers during high school. But my first truly entrepreneurial achievement occurred when I was 23 in 1983 when attending Simon Fraser University studying Kinesiology. I was also working full time as the Intramural Coordinator and having been in that position for just over a year and a half noticed that there was an opportunity to run dances at the school and make some extra cash. There was really only the Pub on campus that provided any entertainment and their big night was on Thursdays – so that meant the weekends were a dead zone. I figured a big dance each semester would be a hit. Here are the Top 3 lessons learned from that first entrepreneurial initiative:
#3: Know Your Market
I know this seems obvious but before I embarked on the venture I did some informal surveys to see what people thought of a dance on campus. It turns out that the Pub’s biggest night was Thursdays because they realized that a majority of the students lived off campus and come the weekend they would not be around – so Thursdays rocked – who couldn’t afford to skip a class or two on Friday morning to sleep off the previous evenings indulgences. My research showed that with enough advance publicity and a good dance band there would be an appetite for a Friday night dance once a semester. This took advantage of the students still being on campus on Friday and left the balance of their weekend open.
#2: Use Underutilized Assets
Since I was in the gym complex I had a good idea of what was scheduled when and there were always gaps in the team’s schedules and seasons where the gyms would not be occupied- and since I was the Intramural Coordinator I could book the gyms without paying any rent! This meant I was able to run the dance in the main gym with the bleachers out and a full basketball court for the dance floor and then in the auxiliary gym – the size of another full basketball curt – set up my bar area. The facilities had enough tarps to cover both gym floors so damage was not a concern. The other asset I had was plenty of student manpower looking to earn a bit of money for an evening of work.
#1: Align the Vision With the Execution
Knowing that I may get queries from others on the campus as to whether the status of the event was sanctioned and therefore a university event or a private event I devised a compensation schedule for everyone involved, from ticket selling, to servers, to bouncers, to set up and take down; was based on a revenue share from the event. So every ticket sold (2,000 per dance!) earned a commission to whoever sold it and every hour worked was documented. Then when the costs were paid for from the event whatever was left over, i.e. the profit, was split evenly by the number of hours worked. This created an alignment for everyone to contribute to drive as high a profit as possible per dance – to not let in friends for free, or serve drinks that were not paid for (although I am sure some of that still happened). But here was the real twist – to keep it onside of the policy of the university no one got paid in cash. A ledger was created that specified how much each person had earned at each dance they worked at and they only could apply for that amount to be paid towards education or conference expenses. So this allowed some of the students to get their tuition fees reimbursed, or attend a a conference that would normally be out of range for them (and yes there were abuses here too – like the two students who found a conference to attend in Daytona Beach, Florida that just happened to coincide with the US Spring Break festivities, but a conference is a conference and I did not play dictator!!!).
BONUS LESSON: Get Creative
One of the problems with being the first event to hold a dance in the gyms was that there was not a stage – and of course you can’t have a dance without the band on a stage. I did the research into the cost of renting staging and it was prohibitively high – so then I did the next best thing, I built a stage. I calculated the square foot area needed and then designed a stage that I could build with materials from the local hardware store and transport in and on top of my Toyota Corolla to the gyms: items like folding table legs, 2×4’s and ¾ inch plywood. I designed the stage so that the plywood that had the table legs fixed to it ran in an opposite direction to a 2nd layer of plywood on top and resulted in all cracks from one layer being completely covered over by the second layer. With an outside wall support of 2×4’s covered by a layer of plywood the whole thing screwed together to one great stage when it was complete. A stage that had all the parts labelled and numbered on a design map that could be put up and taken down in a couple of hours by a couple of guys and stored in one of my Intramural storage areas. The stage paid for itself after the first dance and we used it for 4 more dances. The one unexpected benefit of the stage is that since it was not a “proper industrial design” we always got compliments from the bands as to how “springy” it was, and that gave all of our dances some extra oomph as the band members leapt about. I always was a bit nervous that it may on day collapse – but that never happened!
So there you have it! It is never too young to start an entrepreneurial initiative and never too old to remember back and encapsulate those pivotal lessons!!!