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Let’s Talk About Entrepreneurship

A graphic of two people having a conversation. A speech bubble is above them that reads "Let's Talk About Entrepreneurship."

With the goal of starting an open and honest dialogue about entrepreneurship, we reached out to the local entrepreneurial community to ask what questions they have about entrepreneurship.

Our subject-matter experts from the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) have answered those questions in support of their fellow entrepreneurs: 

 

What industries are the most successful? The least?

Judy Mahan, the Economic Development Director at the Cal Poly CIE and the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) said that business-to-business (B2B) — especially software as a service (SaaS) — is generally the most successful industry within entrepreneurship.

“B2B is sometimes a long sales cycle, but the pricing is typically more compelling and you can sell for a higher price,” Mahan said. “And SaaS typically, you can keep your overhead pretty low. The one tricky part there though, is you have to have a really amazing CTO. Your software developers are really important, and that’s a hard talent to find.”

Meanwhile, the least successful industry within entrepreneurship is typically manufacturing, Mahan said. 

“It costs a lot of money, a lot of upfront investments. You might be left with inventory, and supply chain issues can really jeopardize your business,” she said.  

 

What does it take to build a sustainable and scalable company?

Mahan said that building a sustainable and scalable company requires (1) a strong foundational team and (2) sufficient funding. 

We’ll delve into the funding and investment process in the next section — but Mahan emphasized that regardless of how much funding a company receives, it is useless without a strong startup team.

“It is a key element to be able to hire the right people to do the right job,” Mahan said. “The right team can really help you execute on the business plan, the business model and hopefully generate revenue.”

 

How do I know if I need to raise money?

Tom Katona, a Cal Poly professor who teaches in the Orfalea College of Business (OCOB) and the College of Engineering (CENG), provided insight into when founders should begin raising money for their startups.

Startups should raise funding if the business has (1) a need for capital growth, (2) a plan on how the capital will be used to grow and add value to the business and (3) investors who see an opportunity for a return on their investment in the business, he said.

Katona explained that most startups will require funding at some point, but that funding can come from many different sources. 

“Venture investment is only one source and is appropriate for only a small percentage of startups,” he said. “Early investment in companies typically comes from friends and family who aren’t necessarily looking for venture type returns, and although they still want a return on their investment, they are largely investing in the entrepreneur because they have a personal connection or relationship with that individual.

Katona also pressed the importance of an entrepreneur finding a method of funding that is appropriate for their startup.

“In my opinion, the most important question for entrepreneurs to be able to answer is what is the right type of investor they should be looking for that aligns with their expected business growth and investment return, and being able to identify which investors may be appropriate for different stages of a business’s growth,” he said.

 

What is a mastermind group, and how do I find one?

A mastermind group refers to a peer-to-peer mentorship group composed of people in similar industries. 

Jose Huitron, the CIE’s Director of Student Innovation Programs and an OCOB professor, suggested that entrepreneurs who are looking for communities similar to mastermind groups use social networks like Meetup.com, LinkedIn and Facebook. He also suggested using existing networks for referrals, or finding like-minded individuals in on- and off-line gathering places — for example, one might find fellow book-lovers at a bookstore or library.

Part of building social capital is to become genuinely interested in connecting with others whether that means attending a meetup or relevant industry gathering,” Huitron said. “Everyone has a community.”

 

How do you convince your parents that entrepreneurship is a good choice?

Huitron advised students to explain the significance of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship teaches problem-solving skills and creativity, both of which are valuable skills in a world that is constantly changing.

“A student should use the opportunity to explain how entrepreneurship is an enabler for them to practice their skills and bring their talents to the stage of opportunity,” Huitron said. 

 

How can we level the playing field to increase diversity in the sphere of entrepreneurship?

Huitron suggested a number of efforts that can be made in order to increase diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within the entrepreneurship space:

Raise the narrative. Talk about it. Highlight the challenges and opportunities for growth. Celebrate progress,” he said.

He also said that it is important to “make equitable progress a focal point.” Organizations should take advantage of opportunities to increase diversity, and create strategic DEI initiatives with measurable impact.

“Find champions and have them model the way to drive an inclusive and open community where ideas and people can thrive,” Huitron said. 

 

How can heavy industry better engage with early stage startups?

Dan Weeks, a mentor to several student-led CIE startups, including our 2022 Summer Accelerator teams, teaches his mentees “how to test if new business ideas actually solve real problems [for which] target customers are actively searching for a solution,” rather than exhaust time and resources creating a product they assume customers want, he said.

Early stage startups can accomplish this through digital marketing advertisements and single-page websites for new product ideas, then developing products that generate consumer interest.

Meanwhile, Weeks said heavy industry “often has ideas on new products to add to their offerings but does not know how to test if the new product [is worth investing in.]” 

“Heavy industry can learn from the early stage startup best practices,” he said.

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Searching for Success in a Male-Dominated Field: The Challenges Faced by the New Generation of Female Entrepreneurs

Female representation within the entrepreneurship industry is steadily growing. The number of women-owned businesses is increasing faster than the number of businesses overall, according to Forbes Business. Despite this trend, however, the space is still male-dominated, with only 36% of small businesses owned by women worldwide

New female entrepreneurs encounter challenges that generally do not exist for their male counterparts. Women — especially young women — don’t align with the traditional image of an entrepreneur. This puts them at a disadvantage when meeting with investors and other industry professionals.

Roxanne Miller is one of three co-founders of TractorCloud, a startup developing a hardware-software solution that will help operations managers monitor the predictive maintenance of their vehicles. The startup is still in its early stages, and Miller and her co-founders, both male, are frequently meeting with potential venture capital investors (VCs). 

Miller found that her co-founders are able to effortlessly connect with VCs, 81% of which are male according to Forbes Business.

“Because VCs tend to be white males, my co-founders can identify with them,” Miller said. “They have a lot of similar interests and experiences. For me, it’s more of a balancing game. I have to think about how I’m presenting myself, and it takes a little bit more effort to figure out how to connect with them.”

Roxanne Miller and her co-founder, Morgan Swanson.

VCs are proven more likely to invest in male-led startups. White males control 93% of venture capital dollars, according to Forbes Business, and only 2% of raised VC backing went to female-founded startups in 2017, according to Entrepreneur Magazine.

For Miller, TractorCloud’s male co-founders can act as allies, and are sometimes able to mitigate this issue.

“My male colleagues can support me, give me the floor when it’s my turn to talk and show potential investors that I’m trusted with our business,” she explained. 

But for female-founded businesses, Miller said, “figuring out how to connect with those male VCs on a level that makes them excited about investing in your company can sometimes be a roadblock.”

Christina Grigorian and Camila Monchini, founders of women-led startup For Mom Care, struggle to not only connect with potential investors, but convince VCs that their mission is worthwhile.

For Mom Care is building a postpartum recovery platform that provides holistic support to ensure mothers properly heal after birth. Since founding the company in April of 2021, Monchini and Grigorian found that most cis-gendered males are unaware of the physical and mental toll of childbirth. 

“Our biggest fear going into this was how we were going to convince a bunch of men that [postpartum care] is really important,” Grigorian said. “It’s an issue that they won’t 100% understand. They’re not women, and because there’s a stigma around not being okay after giving birth, their wives likely haven’t spoken about it.”

Grigorian and Monchini must prove to potential investors that problems exist within the postpartum space before they can showcase their startup as a viable solution. The For Mom Care startup pitch is very problem-centric compared to other early-stage startup pitches.

“If you compare our pitch to other startup teams’ pitches, they talk about their problems for one or two slides,” Grigorian said. “We have six or seven slides on our problem.”

Another challenge when pitching to investors, said Grigorian, is establishing credibility. 

Grigorian and Monchini are both biomedical engineers, but because they are not mothers, VCs and other industry professionals often question why they are interested in postpartum care. Grigorian, who has both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in biomedical engineering, believes her credibility is brought into question because of the deep-rooted gender bias in both the entrepreneurship and healthcare industries.

“Women in the healthcare space are not taken seriously,” Grigorian said. “I 100% believe that if there was a man standing behind us on stage, no one would question what makes us credible.”

Graphic by Rachel Weeks

And Grigorian’s belief is not unfounded. A recent study conducted by the Harvard Business Review found that investors prefer startup pitches presented by male entrepreneurs over those presented by female entrepreneurs — even when the content of those pitches is exactly the same.

When pitching their startup, Grigorian and Monchini go out of their way to establish their credibility and stress that they have both the passion and the skills to bring For Mom Care to fruition.

“At the beginning of our pitch, we say we’re the two biomedical engineers so [investors] know we’re not just two random girls standing up there,” Grigorian said. “Saying ‘engineer’ gives you a certain amount of credibility.” 

Tessa Luzuriaga, co-founder and CEO of OdinXR, faces similar challenges. OdinXR is a startup developing a virtual reality where engineering students and professors can conduct hands-on experiments during online learning. Luzuriaga, an electrical engineering student, founded the company after watching her professors struggle to adapt lab classes to an online format during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was her passion for engineering that inspired Luzuriaga to found OdinXR, but people often assume that her interest is rooted in the educational aspects, not the technological components, of the company.

“People assume I don’t know anything about computers, when in reality, I’m doing this because I’m an engineer and I know VR hardware to an obsessive amount,” Luzuriaga said. “I’m constantly validating myself. I have to work that much harder to prove that people should be listening to me.”

Tessa Luzuriaga and her co-founder, Ali Mohammad.

Luzuriaga feels that because she is a woman in a male-dominated industry, people expect less of her and hold her to lower standards than they do her male counterparts.

“Sometimes it feels like there’s more positivity than I deserve, and I’ll very candidly say, ‘No, you should not be applauding this right now,’” she admitted. 

When meeting with industry professionals alongside her male co-founder and all-male team of engineers, Luzuriaga works to “not make gender a thing,” and instead “walks into the room with the same confidence that any one of [her] male peers would.”

She hopes that, as female representation in entrepreneurship increases, gender will no longer be an influential factor in the success of an entrepreneur.

“My biggest hope is that when a woman walks into the room, the initial thought isn’t ‘Oh cool, another woman entrepreneur,’” she said. “It’s ‘Oh sweet, there’s another entrepreneur.’”

Camila Monchini of For Mom Care echoed similar sentiments.

“It would be amazing if in the future, when we think of an entrepreneur, there isn’t necessarily a gender assigned to it,” she said. 

More women entering the entrepreneurship space today leads to a more diverse industry tomorrow, and diverse representation makes the space feel more accessible to people of all backgrounds. Monchini hopes that these changes will inspire younger generations and encourage more young women to embark on their own startup endeavours. 

“It’s absolutely incredible to see so many women getting into the [entrepreneurship] space,” she said. “For younger girls, it’s really cool for them to have role models and know they can one day get into the space and pursue their passions.”

For Mom Care, along with OdinXR and TractorCloud, is one of nine participating teams in the 2021 Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) Summer Accelerator, an intensive, summer-long program where Cal Poly students and recent graduates are given the resources needed to turn their startup ideas into real, scalable businesses. 

Demographics within the Summer Accelerator reflect the worldwide trend of increased female representation in entrepreneurship. Over half of the co-founders (59%) in the 2021 cohort are women, compared to the previous year, when women made up less than one third (27%) of the entire cohort. 

“It’s really inspiring being constantly surrounded by strong, amazing women who are dealing with the exact same work relation problems as me,” said Luzuriaga. “It’s so nice to have another woman’s shoulder to lean on, especially when I have nothing but guys on my team.”

CIE staff are hopeful that this trend will continue, and more women will get involved with the Summer Accelerator as well as other CIE programming. 

Many CIE programs, including the Summer Accelerator, match students with mentors who can help them to navigate the startup process. These mentors are often CIE alumni and often male. Increased female representation across CIE programs, however, will eventually lead to more female mentors, with current students hoping to become mentors for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

“It’s so exciting to see the flywheel in motion,” said CIE Senior Director of Development Cory Karpin, who often works with CIE mentors and alumni. “In the early days of the CIE, the percentage of female entrepreneurs was far lower than it is today, but each year, the number grows. Those trailblazers in the early days of the CIE inspired other female founders and so on and so forth. Here we are today with more than half of our Summer Accelerator startups founded by women.”

The growth of female representation in the entrepreneurship space is a slow process, but a valuable one — and one that Grigorian believes is key to successful entrepreneurship.

“There’s no way to solve problems that women have without the involvement of female entrepreneurs — and that includes female entrepreneurs of color and of different backgrounds, ethnicities and religions,” Grigorian said. “People of different orientations have such different worldviews and can offer such different perspectives on how to solve a problem.”

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Coworking Spotlight: HiView Solutions

HiView Solutions team standing in the SLO HotHouse.

For Miles Hischier, coworking with the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) is a vital part in building a remote business in San Luis Obispo.

Hischier is founder and senior partner at HiView Solutions, a Google Cloud consulting partner that helps organizations improve their remote collaboration tools and technologies. Most of his workday is spent in front of his computer, connecting with coworkers and clients over video calls. Coworking at the HotHouse allows Hischier opportunities to connect in-person with other local entrepreneurs and foster a sense of community that his workdays would otherwise lack.

“There’s a lot of good energy from the other community coworkers,” Hischier said. “Everyone is excited to be around colleagues and replicate that feeling of working at a larger company, but really, we’re all working remote.”

The HotHouse and the CIE first caught Hischier’s attention when he moved to San Luis Obispo in 2016, but as a UC Berkeley graduate with no direct ties to Cal Poly, he was unsure if he would be permitted to utilize CIE resources.

One year later, Hischier learned of the CIE’s community coworking program, and he jumped at the chance to get involved.

“When I found out that there’s a community program that accommodates not only coworkers that are working remotely from San Luis Obispo, but also individuals who are starting businesses, I got real excited,” he said.

Hischier was impressed with the resources offered by the HotHouse. Facilities such as the phone rooms and high-speed internet would prove to be valuable assets in building a business based around remote technology.

His decision to start coworking, however, was ultimately propelled by his desire “to be around other like-minded entrepreneurs.”

The HiView team has now worked out of the HotHouse for nearly two years, and Hischier still looks forward to opportunities that will allow him to connect with the other CIE entrepreneurs — especially during the HotHouse Summer Accelerator.

The HotHouse Summer Accelerator program is an intensive 13-week program designed to help Cal Poly students and recent graduates develop their startup ideas into real, sustainable businesses. Participating teams are provided with $10,000 in capital and given access to expert mentorship, tailored workshops and other CIE resources, including a workspace in the HotHouse.

The accelerator brings a unique energy to the HotHouse that, according to Hischier, encourages and inspires the community coworkers.

“Seeing people stay at the office late at night, white-boarding, thinking about what their business could be in five years — that energy is infectious,” Hischier said. “It always gives us lots of fun ideas.”

San Luis Obispo, said Hischier, has proven to be a hotspot for young talent.

“When I first got here in 2016, I remember getting a lot of questions [about] starting a technology company in San Luis Obispo, but now, four plus years later, it’s very commonplace and seems quite obvious,” Hischier said. “Why not live in a fantastic area that has access to a great university that graduates stellar engineering and business talent?”

HiView hires Cal Poly students as interns or part-time workers, sometimes retaining these young professionals as full-time employees after they graduate. 

Kelly Carroll joined the company during her junior year at Cal Poly when she stumbled across an available position for a Sales Development Representative at HiView.

“The position wasn’t quite what I was looking for, [but] their industry and business model caught my interest,” said Carroll.

She submitted her resume, hoping to speak with a representative about other opportunities at HiView. She met with Hischier and his co-founder Narjit Patel for an interview, where she shared samples of her previous marketing and technical writing work. Hischier and Patel then collaborated with Carroll to create a custom position that was best suited to her skillset.

Carroll worked for HiView as a part-time Marketing Coordinator until she graduated from Cal Poly in June of 2020. Following her graduation, she remained with HiView, working part-time as a contractor until February of 2021, when she was promoted to her current position as a full-time Marketing and Customer Success Specialist.

“At HiView, I feel like my career has been jump-started,” Carroll said. “Working alongside my expert team members at HiView, our colleagues at Google and the industry-leading clients we serve, I learn so much every single day.”

Carroll has gained leadership experience in several realms of business throughout her time at HiView, including marketing, account management, user communications and project management. Her most recent project was spearheading the creation of HiView’s new website.

“It’s been great seeing Kelly’s growth from when she first joined as an intern to now, taking on big projects like overhauling our website [and] running a team of web developers and designers,” Hischier said. “They [were] all reporting into Kelly, who’s only a year out of school, but worked for us 10, 15, 20 hours a week for well over a year before she graduated.”

Coworking has helped shape Carroll’s career at HiView. The HotHouse offers an environment that, according to Carroll, invites collaboration and hard work.

“The friendliness and entrepreneurial spirit of the people working within the HotHouse is inspiring,” Carroll said. “It provides a great in-person working environment that is often missed by remote teams.”

Coworking has similarly shaped Hischier’s startup experience, providing a space in which he can work to grow his company.

“I cannot recommend [coworking] enough for a new entrepreneur,” Hischier said. “If you’re starting a business in San Luis Obispo, I would say the first thing you should do — form your company and then join the HotHouse.”

For more information on coworking or to learn how you can cowork with us, visit https://cie.calpoly.edu/coworking/.

Hatchery Spotlight: EVO Athletics

Three former Cal Poly soccer players are turning their passion for fitness into an entrepreneurial endeavor. Fourth year computer science major Michael Bautista has partnered with his friends Zack DiDonato and Rigas Rigopoulos to create EVO Athletics, a startup working to build an iOS application that allows users to explore new ways to achieve their health and fitness goals.

“We had this idea of creating a training facility and an application, and we decided why not try and pursue it as a sort of side project,” said Bautista. “Then one of our members found the Hatchery, and we decided to join and try to pursue it as a startup idea.”

The Hatchery, an on-campus Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) program that helps students develop their innovative ideas into viable startups, has been a valuable asset to the EVO Athletics team. While Bautista and his colleagues entered this project with the technical skills needed to create the EVO Athletics app, building and maintaining a business was entirely new to them. 

I think the Hatchery is a great opportunity for all Cal Poly students,” said Bautista. “We decided to join the Hatchery because we had little to no business knowledge and, being a computer science student, I had very little resources to acquire those business skills. The Hatchery has really helped us in the business side of our company, while I can really focus on the technical side with my degree.”

One undertaking the Hatchery is currently helping the team with is customer acquisition. This means endless strategic interviewing of potential customers to identify the problems they face and innovating solutions for these issues.

Meanwhile, Bautista is developing their iOS application. The app will double as both the first step in the growth of EVO Athletics and Bautista’s senior project. He will be working with a Cal Poly mobile development professor through two quarters to develop the minimum viable product (MVP), or a simplified version of an app that allows a product team to quickly receive user feedback that they can use to improve their product.

“My personal next step for our startup is to get the MVP out, which I’m working on for my senior project,” said Bautista. “In terms of business, our next step would be to pitch to some investors, apply to Innovation Quest and hopefully get into the HotHouse to develop the business.”

Although EVO Athletics is still in its early stages, Bautista hopes that he can one day grow his startup into a nationally-recognized brand.

“I’d say one of our long-term goals is to be one of the top health and fitness apps in the app store and maybe create some sort of partnership with an athletic brand, like Nike or Adidas,” he explained.

For now, though, Bautista and his team are focusing on growing EVO Athletics into a sustainable business — one that Bautista hopes he can fully devote himself to after graduation.

“I definitely want to be able to work on this full time,” he said. “My two passions are technology and fitness, and this is the only thing I’ve found that combines the two.”

To keep up with EVO Athletics and other CIE startups, follow us on social media.  Instagram | Facebook | LinkedIn | Twitter

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Senior Sequence: Experience Building a Startup

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Business Building

Senior projects are a norm across Cal Poly’s campus. These graduation requirements differ between the university’s six colleges and, in the Orfalea College of Business, differ between concentrations.

Within the realm of entrepreneurship, students are able to choose from one of two “senior sequences.” In one sequence, students get to work with a San Luis Obispo-based startup. In the other, students are given the opportunity to experience building their own company.

The latter sequence, referred to as “Experience Building a Startup,” most directly involves engineering students and business students concentrating in entrepreneurship, but students from all six colleges are welcome to take the course with their respective department’s permission.

For engineering students, the three-quarter Learn by Doing project acts in-totality as their senior project and consists of ENGR-463, ENGR-464 and ENGR-465. For non-engineering students, the sequence involves three, four-unit classes, in which one counts as their senior project credit: BUS-488: Building a Startup Skillset, BUS-487: Launching and Growing the Technology Start-Up, and BUS-464: Applied Senior Project Seminar.

“The course is ideal for anyone who thinks they want to start their own venture and want to see what that’s like, and it’s great for people who want to be a product manager,” explained one of the two course professors, Dr. Tom Katona. “The top feedback I get on why students choose this sequence, though, is that they want to take classes with people they haven’t been taking classes with for the last three years.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the course is what makes building a startup possible.

Over the course of the sequence, students form company teams to practice problem-solution tactics, ideation, customer development, competitive research, prototyping and user testing — all accomplished by having a range of skill sets and backgrounds involved. 

And while some students come into the course with an idea for a startup or product, Dr. Katona says there isn’t a guarantee that a whole team will want to work on it, nor is it as simple as having a cool idea.

“I tend to tell students who say they have an idea of what they want to make that I’m far more interested in hearing about the problem that they want to solve,” he said. “Then we’ll let the time in class help them figure out what the right solution to that is.”

While students can continue to build their startups post-graduation, that isn’t always the outcome — but second sequence professor, and CIE Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Dan Weeks says that continuing on with the company students build isn’t the whole point.

“I think 5% of students will continue on with their created companies and 95% we’re teaching an entrepreneurial mindset to,” Weeks explained. “If you go through a 9-month program with all of the detail we offer, no matter where you work after college, you’re going to look at things differently.”

This is exactly the reason mechanical engineering senior George Luebkeman chose this senior project.

“As an ME student, this option sounded like an excellent way to learn the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, which really sets me apart from other applicants for jobs I am applying to,” he said. “Having a Cal Poly engineering education paired with this entrepreneurship experience makes one a prime candidate for small, disruptive tech companies.”

Similarly, electrical engineering senior Russell Caletena says this senior project was one he couldn’t pass up.

“[The course has] taught me to prioritize empathy, creative thinking, and perseverance when working with others for a shared common goal,” he said. “The skills gained, challenges faced, and people I’ve networked with are all valuable experiences I’ll not only cherish, but also apply to my post-grad plans.”

Luebkeman and Caletena are students who plan to utilize their entrepreneurial mindset within already-established organizations in the future — often called “intrapreneurs.”

Business administration senior Kasey Moffitt, however, plans to take the knowledge she learns in this sequence to one day build her own company.

“As an entrepreneur, my ultimate goal is to one day start my own business,” she explained. “My entrepreneurship courses have given me a glimpse into how to start a business, however this course is giving me the hands-on experience that you can’t get from a textbook.”

Regardless of students’ post-grad game plans, this senior sequence provides them with endless experiential knowledge and the ability to mold the course to their needs.

“This is the good and the bad: there’s a lot of ambiguity in the class,” Dr. Katona said. “We can’t tell these innovative students exactly what to do, but we do understand the process by which these things get off the ground and that’s what [Weeks and I] help with.”

And as daunting as it may sound to build a startup versus taking a more typical senior project, course professors and students alike advocate for the course as the ultimate “Learn by Doing” experience with the safety net of school.

“Our whole attitude here is to fail often, but fail early,” Weeks explained. “You don’t know what you don’t know until you do things. That’s what Cal Poly is all about.”

Through this hands-on senior project, Caletena’s biggest takeaways have been to “think bigger,” “be bold” and “explore beyond your comfort zone.”

“For me, senior project means a lot more to me than a grade on paper,” said Caletena. “The sky is not the limit; the limit is whatever you set it to be and I strongly believe that ideas, no matter how small or big, can truly make a difference in people’s lives as long as we continue to pursue them wholeheartedly to bring them to reality.”

Ultimately, that is the essence of this entrepreneurial senior sequence: setting future intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs up for success and apart from others to make a difference in the real world.

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Senior Sequence: Experience Working in a Startup

Cal Poly campus education building

Across campus, Cal Poly students are asked to complete a senior project prior to graduation. Project requirements differ across Cal Poly’s six colleges and, in the Orfalea College of Business, differ across concentrations.

In their senior years, business students with entrepreneurship concentrations are able to choose from one of two “senior sequences.” In one sequence, students are given the opportunity to build their own startup. In the other, students work with a pre-established startup team in the San Luis Obispo area.

The latter option, often referred to as “Experience Working in a Startup,” is a two-quarter sequence that consists of two, four-unit classes: BUS-488: Building a Startup Skillset and BUS-464: Applied Senior Project Seminar.

“In the first quarter, BUS-488, we have [students] working on the side to make sure they understand the value proposition of the company, the customer segments — the kind of stuff they need to be good entrepreneurs in the future,” explained course professor Jon York. “By the end of the first quarter, they’re pretty embedded in the company, so they really start to rock and roll.”

The overall experience offered by the course differs notably from student to student. The work students are asked to do and the skills they develop are entirely dependent upon the needs of the startup that he or she has been assigned.

Because this assignment is so involved, course professors Jon York and Lynn Metcalf do their best to pair students with startups that they have a genuine interest in. They screen a number of local startup teams, looking for founders who can provide a valuable learning experience to students. Then, they present these companies to the students and, in turn, present descriptions of their students to the startup founders, or “company mentors.”

“There’s sort of an interviewing process, and then we let the cards fall where they fall,” said York. “So, for the most part, students end up choosing who they work with.”

According to business senior Nicholas Thorpe, the company that a student is paired up with heavily influences the value of this assignment. 

Thorpe was initially paired with a startup that he believed could not provide him with the opportunities he had wanted to obtain through his senior project. He voiced his concerns to York, who reassigned him to BlueLine Robotics, a startup founded by two engineering students, Ryan Pfarr and Geoffrey Smith, that manufactures tactile robots for law enforcement use.

Through his work with BlueLine, Thorpe said, he has been “able to stretch my wings and exercise some of the things I’ve been learning at Cal Poly.”

Working with BlueLine has taught Thorpe how to apply the skills he has learned in the classroom to a real-world business. 

“In class, you get the skill set you need, but then the reality of how that plays out is very different sometimes,” he said. “In typical lectures, you don’t see how complicated things can actually be in real life.”

Metcalf believes that it is this hands-on learning that makes this senior project such a valuable experience.

“The thing that’s unique about this is it is a ‘Learn by Doing’ experience, but [students] are working alongside a founding team and are really treated as a part of the organization,” she said. “They sit in on important meetings and are privy to the kind of information that makes them feel like a part of the team.”

Students become integral members of the startup teams, sometimes even going on to work for the startup after graduation. 

According to Pfarr, Thorpe and the other students assigned to BlueLine have been valuable assets to his startup and prime examples of how this project is not only beneficial to the students involved, but also the companies.

“[The students] are super talented and well-prepared to a level beyond what I expected,” said Pfarr. “They taught me things that I didn’t even know I needed to know. They’ve both gone above and beyond what the class requires them to do and are great members of the team.”

While Thorpe entered his senior project with a strong understanding of entrepreneurship, working with Pfarr and Smith provided him with a unique perspective on how to run a business.

“Ryan is an encourager,” said Thorpe. “He’s good at seeing what people are good at and thanking them for that. He and Geoffry are intelligent guys. They’re humble and willing to seek out help and advice and mentors, and I think that’s something to look at, see as valuable and try and imitate.”

Throughout the senior sequence, students have both their company mentors and course professors at their disposal for the guidance they need.

“The professors are great,” said Thorpe. “They’re equipping students and then they’re actually there as a resource. I have the ability to connect with them, and because I switched companies, I switched from being under Professor York to being under Professor Metcalf, so I’ve benefited from both.”

York and Metcalf are eager to see their students succeed. Both believe that success in this senior sequence is indicative of a successful career post-graduation.

“This is really about life-long learning and finding resources,” said Metcalf. “[Students] are learning how to keep their skill sets relevant and current, which is what you need to do after you graduate. Nobody is going to give you an assignment. You need to be able to go to someone and say this is what I need in order to do my job better. They’re learning how to do that.”

York echoed similar sentiments.

“For the last 16 years of their life, [students] have lived off of someone telling then when to turn work in and what it should look like — in college, we call that a syllabus,” he said. “If [students] can get to the point where they can create their own goals and objectives and get through it, they’re going to be way above other students who have just been sitting in the classroom.”

Learn more about this senior project course sequence, contact lmetcalf@calpoly.edu.

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Hatchery Spotlight: Celebrate

Celebrate team members

Giving the perfect gift is far from an easy task. In fact, an estimated $15 billion is wasted on unwanted gifts each year, resulting in hundreds of tons of additional waste in landfills and incinerators.

Sophomore business major Julie Arnette has set out to remedy this issue. She and Juan Pèrez have created Celebrate, an online platform that makes it easier than ever to give purposeful gifts.

“I’m actually a terrible gift-giver,” said Arnette, one of Celebrate’s two co-founders. “I never know what to buy and I always wait until the last minute. I think [gift-giving] is so difficult— and kind of unnecessarily difficult— but I love giving gifts. That’s kind of where this idea started.”

The fix? Personalized interest boards which friends and family can view to find a gift idea that the recipient is guaranteed to love. 

Arnette and her team have been working on Celebrate for just over a year. In that time, they have won the audience choice award at the Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s (CIE) annual Elevator Pitch Competition and joined the CIE Hatchery.

The Hatchery, a CIE program designed to help students develop their startup ideas, has been an extremely beneficial resource in building Celebrate. According to Arnette, the guidance offered through the Hatchery has been paramount for Celebrate’s success.

“The mentorship is super valuable,” Arnette said. “They [mentors] provide so much feedback and a different perspective to your business than you can come up with on your own.”

The Hatchery has also introduced Arnette to a community of student entrepreneurs who have acted as a support network through the highs and lows of building a company.

“Having that support and knowing that there are other people going through the same exact thing that you’re doing, like figuring out what you want your business to be and how you’ll get there — I think that’s important,” Arnette said.

Celebrate has recently launched their new landing page, which provides what Arnette describes as “a snapshot of the company in a few pages.” Through the site, users can sign up for Celebrate’s limited beta testing or register to receive their company newsletter.

Now, with their landing page up and running, the Celebrate team is shifting their attention to prepare for Innovation Quest, a prototyping competition hosted by the CIE. They are also continuing to develop their product and enhance their knowledge of Celebrate’s customer base.

“Our mountaintop is getting to the place where we understand exactly when people are having those rough days or when their birthdays are coming up, using data to figure out when they could use a little pick-me-up gift and communicating that to their gift-givers,” Arnette explained. “That way, people are giving the right gift at the right time.”

Learn more about Celebrate at celebrategifting.com and follow the CIE on social media to keep up with all things entrepreneurship and innovation on the Central Coast. IG | FB | LI | Twitter

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3D Printing for Airplane Pilots in the HotHouse Annex

RAO Ideas Aviation Headset Holders

Ryan O’Toole founded his business RAO Ideas at just 15 years old. While flying in his pilot father’s airplane a few years ago, O’Toole noticed that smaller airplanes weren’t equipped with storage for the expensive headsets needed when flying. That’s when he set out to design and 3D-print a headset holder for his father, who shared the product with others in the flying community. 

RAO Ideas has since developed into a fully functioning business with various headset holder designs available through both their website and the wholesale market. Its current base of operations: the HotHouse Annex.

The HotHouse Annex provides local entrepreneurs, small businesses and remote employees with a professional coworking space that encourages productivity and collaboration. Along with dedicated office spaces, conference rooms and kitchen amenities, the Annex offers coworkers a manufacturing lab fully equipped for product development.

“It’s a great space to induce that workflow,” O’Toole said of the Annex. “Everyone in there has a similar entrepreneurial mindset, and I definitely like that. It gets the brain juices flowing.”

O’Toole, who is currently a freshman at Cal Poly, hadn’t always planned to continue RAO Ideas into college. The 3D printers he uses to create his headset holders, in addition to the packaging materials used to ship his products, wouldn’t exactly fit in his dorm room. But the Annex was the perfect solution.

“I was thinking about seeing if I could get my parents or a friend back home to ship orders for me, but I really couldn’t figure it out,” O’Toole explained. “Then I found the CIE… I reached out and got pointed towards the Annex, found a space here and so far it’s been great.”

The practicality of the Annex is what originally appealed to O’Toole. The Higuera Street location is easily accessible and its manufacturing space allows O’Toole greater creative freedom in how he creates and produces his headset holders. 

It’s the people, however, that have quickly become O’Toole’s favorite aspect of coworking at the Annex.

“Everybody here is super nice, and it’s just a great workspace and environment,” O’Toole said. “I’ve met nothing but amazing, innovative people at the HotHouse.”

The young entrepreneur plans to continue building his business throughout his college years, with hopes to branch out from aviation headset holders and pursue new innovations. Coworking at the Annex is an integral facet of that plan.

“As long as my business is going strong, I’m planning to stay [at the Annex] at least until I’ve graduated from Cal Poly,” O’Toole said. “And maybe even after that. I really don’t know where my business is going to take me next.”

Find out how you can start coworking at one of the CIE’s coworking locations today at https://cie.calpoly.edu/coworking/

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A Startup’s Guide to Instagram

So you’ve started your own business and know a thing or two about entrepreneurship, but as far as Instagram goes… you’re a little lost. Luckily, navigating this app doesn’t have to be hard, especially with a simple guide for making your startup social media savvy.  

From Basic to Business

The first action you should take after creating your company’s Instagram is heading to your account settings and turning the profile into a business account. With over 25 million business profiles across the world, Instagram is a place to be for startups getting into the social media game. Plus, with a business account, you now get access to perks like data on your posts, follower insights (hello, targeted content!) and extra space for contact information.

Content Creation

A good rule of thumb for Instagram content is quality over quantity. Instagram is a great platform for posting high-resolution photos and videos that showcase the lifestyle side of your brand, highlight your brand voice, and show behind-the-scenes content. Instagram is where the personal meets the professional with a thematic look and often light-hearted spin. Your content should always be of value to your followers and ignite emotions; this way, you can hopefully gain higher engagement rates to prop you up on the Instagram feed.

Storytime

Instagram stories have become vital to the platform’s users, so you can’t miss this piece of content creation. Stories can be a great place to direct followers to new posts, to your profile page or toward engaging. You can ask followers to vote on fun polls, take mini-quizzes, send in submissions and more. Plus, you can make your stories stand out with countdown widgets, gifs and text. The key to posting stories is to literally tell a story, get more personal with your audience or get your followers to interact with you.

CIE Tip: Save the important or successful stories as highlights on your profile page so anyone viewing your account later can rewatch them.

Caption Creativity

While your photo or video content is the most important part of catching viewers’ eyes, captions are king when it comes to engaging with your followers. They shouldn’t be too long unless necessary, should grab reader attention, and should entice them to like, comment and share the post. Your copy on both feed and story posts is a great way to show your brand voice, spark emotion in your viewers, teach them something new and ask them questions to gain consumer insight. This way you can create a community and brand loyalty by starting a conversation with your audience.

CIE Tip: Inspire engagement rather than ask for it. If you directly tell followers to tag, like, comment, click, etc. on every post, Instagram’s algorithm may knock you down in others’ feeds.

Stay Posted

Instagram is different from platforms like Twitter, where multiple posts a day are a norm; your average for posting to Instagram should be about once a day. It’s best to first check your follower insights to see when the best posting times are, then create a schedule for posting to get peak views and engagements. Getting into a rhythm of posting will help you in the algorithm as well as let your audience know you are consistent and loyal.

Insights 

Instagram insights will show you your follower age ranges, gender make-up, general location, and peak online times so you can best cater your content to your followers; plus, this can let you know if you are reaching your target audience with posts and advertisements. Insights can also show you your top posts for multiple categories, metrics for individual posts, story analytics and paid promotion data so that you can constantly improve and refine your content.

CIE Tip: Take track of these analytics over time to see your growth and what is or isn’t working for you on Instagram.

Paid Advertising

On Instagram, there are two main ways to go about paid advertising: promotions or Facebook advertisements. For boosted visibility and engagement on a post on Instagram, you can opt for promoting a post. If you want to gain sign-ups, purchases or external views, you should opt for creating ads via Facebook that can be integrated into Instagram for actual conversions from the post to a landing page. From there, you can dive into specific ad looks and layouts to make your ad stand out.

Keep Learning

There is never an end to the knowledge of social media, but at least you now know the basics to get your startup into the Instagram world. Use this guide to launch your account, but always keep advancing your online presence and social media marketing knowledge as the app itself advances.

 

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Which On-Campus Resource is the Right One for You

The Cal Poly Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) has countless entrepreneurial outlets for students of all interests and goals on Cal Poly’s campus. Whether you just want to see the innovations of fellow Mustangs or immerse yourself in the startup world, the CIE has just the resource for you.

Programming

Entrepreneurship Forum Series

Throughout the school year, the CIE holds forums in the Performing Arts Center Pavilion for anyone interested in innovation, startups and small businesses. The forums are open to students and the public alike to bring the community together to see all that is going on with Cal Poly’s entrepreneurial efforts. At these events, attendees can expect guest speakers, Cal Poly student entrepreneurs, pitch competitions and networking.

Who this is best for: Students interested in entrepreneurship and the CIE.

Cal Poly Entrepreneurs (CPE)

If entrepreneurship sounds daunting, or you don’t have a startup idea of your own but still want to be part of that community, then Cal Poly Entrepreneurs is for you. As the largest interdisciplinary club on Cal Poly’s campus, CPE welcomes students of all backgrounds, ages, majors and interests. The club offers networking, skill-building, resources and more at its weekly meetings and constantly welcomes drop-ins and new members.

Who this is best for: Students looking to meet their entrepreneurial peers and discover how to get involved in the startup world.       

The Hatchery

Oftentimes, students have a great business idea to pursue or want to be part of a startup company. If you fall under this category, the Hatchery program is the perfect way for you to learn the business model canvas, gain entrepreneurial skills, get mentorship and work toward turning an idea into a company—all on your own schedule. With a focus on multidisciplinary teams and hands-on learning, the Hatchery allows for exponential growth in learning and is often a stepping stone to the CIE HotHouse Accelerator program.

Who this is best for: Students with a desire to create and be a part of a startup company.

Innovation Sandbox

Students looking for a workspace to make their product ideas tangible need not look further than the on-campus Innovation Sandbox. The space has prototyping and ideation tools, like a 3D printer, for creativity and innovation to collide. The CIE resource allows students to Learn by Doing and turn their dreams into reality. If you have a business idea that requires prototyping and modeling, the Innovation Sandbox could be your one-stop-shop.

Who this is best for: Students looking for a workspace to create prototypes of innovative product ideas.

 

Competitions

The Elevator Pitch Competition (EPC)

When you think you have the next big idea, but you’re not ready to commit to making it happen, the Elevator Pitch Competition is the way to go. Any student is welcome to submit a 90-second elevator pitch of their innovative product or startup idea to our panel of judges, getting them in the running to win the $1,000 prize. The competition does not require tangible business plans or implementation commitments, making it a low-stress and fun way to get involved with the CIE.

Who this is best for: Cal Poly and Cuesta students with innovative ideas and a desire to practice their pitching skills.      

Innovation Quest (iQ)

A little more advanced than the EPC is the Innovation Quest competition, which is for students looking to showcase what they have built, coded, designed or prototyped throughout their efforts at Cal Poly. Participation in iQ gives you the chance to win up to $15,000, so if you have a startup or product in motion and are looking to find investment money, the iQ competition would be great for you and your team. 

Who this is best for: Student teams with a viable startup plan or product creation looking to take their work a step further.

Startup Weekend

With 54 hours to create a startup, this event is perfect for Cal Poly’s ambitious, creative and entrepreneurially-minded students. If you are interested in being part of the startup world, Startup Weekend is your chance to pitch your big idea and build a team to launch it. Culminating in presentations to a panel of judges and investors, Startup Weekend is the best way to meet your peers, elevate your skills and get the opportunity to become an entrepreneur in action.

Who this is best for: Students who want to be part of Cal Poly’s entrepreneurial community and become part of the startup world.

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