Last week I found myself in an enviable position – I had my own “Shark Tank.”
Let me explain: I am on the advisory board of The Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School. IWhen the opportunity presents itself, I love to work with students, so when I was asked to be a Practitioner at the Lang Center, I jumped at the chance. My task was to meet with students as a mentor as they look to become entrepreneurs themselves. It was a fantastic experience.
The first thing the program did was set up my "office hours" and put the word out. I ended up meeting with three very different, very interesting, students, who were not only at diverse stages in launching their business, but had singular challenges and opportunities.
Student 1 has a business that already has global sales. Her grandfather was a bespoke tailor, and she had worked for Ralph Lauren, so fashion was her passion. She designs and creates active loungewear, silk and cotton pajamas that are feminine, very comfortable and look great. All the materials and output is made in New York.
Her company is real; she has sales, but now she needs to create a place for herself in the marketplace and grow her business. While this was a female focused brand, one aspect we discussed was marketing to men who would love to buy this product for their wife or girlfriend. We talked about the right sales and distribution channels for her, about creating an effective brand that people would remember and making a demand for the product in the marketplace, especially online. She is already on her way – people love what she’s doing. For her, it wasn’t just about sales, but about the most effective branding and marketing in order for her company to develop.
Student 2 has a very unique idea that came with some personnel problems. He was working on a product that would help female commuters in India deal with air pollution so he has a target market. He has just finished Business School, and wasn’t sure if he wanted to look for a full time job or pursue this project. He was questioning how to build an effective team and viable product without any investment. He is still in the midst of researching patents, product creation and doing user studies.
He had a lot of questions about the basics of developing a company, and the potential challenges. I told him that you couldn’t be "half in" a start-up; you either have to give yourself to it completely, or move on. Sometimes the timing for entrepreneurships just doesn’t work for a variety of reasons.
Student 3 was very interesting because, while she doesn't have her product yet, she does have a sales channel: she owns multiple nail salons. She has finished Business School, with the original goal of learning to create a brand name and franchise for her salons, but began to focus on developing a non-toxic nail polish product.
Nail polish is highly toxic for the individual applying it – which is why you see many people who work at Salons in surgical masks during manis and pedis. As of now, there are no FDA regulations on the toxicity of nail polish. So while she still has to do a lot of work on developing this idea, working with chemists and looking at patents, she does have a built in customer base. She and I spoke about how to get customers to want to spend more money on this polish. For instance, people paid more for gel manicures, but that’s because they last longer. We discussed how to ‘sell’ the benefit of non-toxic nail polishes, to play in to people’s obsession with staying healthy, especially in urban cities such as New York.
I really enjoyed my time with all the students, and hope I was able to provide practical advice based on experience by discussing situations one doesn't learn in school, like how to talk to a business partner, how to negotiate a contract, how to do marketing for a specific brand. Everyone can tell you what doesn't work, but only people with experience can provide guidance on what could possibly work. These students were seeking a a sounding board, a person that had also ‘been there’ in some capacity. This was a positive experience for all of us.