During Daniel Vitiello's junior year at Texas Tech University in 2010-2011, he was pulling in more than $25,000 per month off other people's pain in the tech. Vitiello, a self-described "household handyman," founded an iPhone repair business in July 2010 after a friend dropped her device and begged him to fix it.
He checked local shops' prices and charged less, advertising on Craigslist because it was free. Within a couple of weeks he was fixing five to 10 phones a day, at a profit of about $40 per phone.
Then he spotted a story on MSNBC about a guy in New York fixing iPhones, and sent an E-mail to the local NBC affiliate asking if they'd like to do a story on him. They did. The story aired nationally, bringing in calls and E-mails from aspiring entrepreneurs wanting to start their own iPhone repair businesses.
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So in January 2011, Vitiello started United iPhone Repair, offering start-up help, tutorials, and parts supply for similar businesses across the country. He got such a great response, in fact, that he decided not to go back for senior year right now and instead is figuring out how to grow his company full time.
Many people know that Google and Facebook were started in dorm rooms. But a business doesn't have to be a household name, or even a dot-com, to make real money. Enterprising students are learning that the best, and most lucrative, jobs on campus can be the ones they create themselves. And they're doing it in ever-increasing numbers.
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The nonprofit Entrepreneurs' Organization in Alexandria, Va., which coordinates a college student competition, received 1,602 entries last year—compared to the 750 it received in 2007. "The Internet has made it easier than ever to start one's own business and to do it cheaply," says Ryan Meyer, a spokesman for the group.
There's also been an explosion in on-campus business plan competitions, as well as the size of the prizes. Rice University in Houston, for example, had prizes of $10,000 in 2001, but this year partnered with an international group called Indus Entrepreneurs and counted 1,600 applicants vying for 42 spots, with prizes totaling $1.5 million.
Ali Grace, a May 2012 grad of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, funded her study abroad in Paris and three summers interning in New York City with the proceeds from her eponymous jewelry company. Her designs—having attracted the attention of Teen Vogue—also paid for her BMW and "my appreciation of designer goods," says Grace, who plans to pursue her jewelry career in New York.
Brittany Rose, who graduated in 2011 from Virginia Commonwealth University, pulls in plenty of cash from her cheerleader training business, but she chose to skip treats in favor of reinvesting in her company. As a sophomore in desperate need of a job, Rose considered taking a job handing out fliers.
But a family friend pointed out that Rose—who'd spent her freshman year at Avila University in Kansas City, Mo., on a cheerleading scholarship—already had experience as a cheerleading coach. She started giving private lessons, then expanded to after-school programs, where she could teach multiple students at once. Today her business, More Than Cheer, has some 450 clients and an ever-growing roster of cheer and dance camps and classes.
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Of course, running a business while in school has its costs. Rose got a D in one class because she was in Florida at a cheerleading competition and wasn't able to complete her final project. Plus, she says, "After starting a company, school just didn't challenge me like it used to, and I lost some of my interest in it."
Garrett Gerstenberger, a University of California—Santa Barbara 2011 grad whose T-shirt screen printing business grossed $160,000 his senior year, had to drop his double major and approaches his classes as "a game," he says; he figures out how little he needed to do.
All of the students think empire-building is worth the lower grades. Says Rose, whose business tripled during her senior year: "I won't need to move back in with my parents, and I will be self-sufficient." And if anything were to happen to her business, she says, she would be more attractive to prospective employers for having tried it: "People always want to hire someone who can handle running their own company."
If you're thinking of becoming the big (business)man or woman on campus, student entrepreneurs caution that your social life as well as your grades will likely take a hit. How to balance student and academic life with work? Vitiello made a daily to-do list and prioritized three to five things that he had to get done, while Rose broke projects into bite-size pieces and took "baby steps" every day.
Grace put work and academic obligations on a calendar so she could see what she'd have to focus on when and make plans. "Start school projects when they're assigned and don't wait until the last minute," she suggests.
For the sake of efficiency as well as your grades, if you're a business major, use your company for every project and class you possibly can, students advise. Not a business major? Take business classes as electives and follow the same advice. No class, however, can guarantee a hot business idea. For that, Gerstenberger recommends throwing yourself into student life. "You'll have a better idea of how you can profit," he says.
Rose's primary advice: Do it now. "There will probably never be time in your life when you will have less responsibilities," she says. Your enterprise might not be the next Dell, another dorm room start-up, but with the right idea and proper implementation, it could be a life-changing and debt-reducing experience.
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