Carlson School of Management News

A Unique Handle on Business

Thursday, February 10, 2011

 

A public restroom door handle gives pause to many who see it as a germ-infested obstacle to the outside world. Some rely on the paper towel technique. Others use the sneak behind, sleeve, or pinky technique. Any strategy will do, as long as the handle is not touched.

"I knew this was a problem and I wanted to find the solution because I was 'that guy.' I did all those techniques to avoid touching the restroom door handle," says Carlson School senior Max Arndt.

His solution came to him in the middle of the night last semester while pondering business ideas to pitch to his Entrepreneurship in Action class. "I just sprang up and realized I wanted to open a door with my foot!"

It was the exact kind of creative idea that John Stavig, professional director of the Carlson School's Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship, wants students to bring to his class.

"In Entrepreneurship in Action, students experience the actual process of planning, launching, and operating a real business," explains Stavig, who advises the class along with Roy Wetterstrom, the Holmes Center's undergraduate director. "They're able to start with a very simple idea, like opening a door with a foot, and iterate to develop innovative solutions."

The two-semester, senior-level undergraduate elective class is now in its sixth year of existence and in that time has helped launch 14 student-led businesses promoting such products as iPod covers to organic cosmetic products.

And this year, the class helped Arndt launch his company, Forge LLC, and his product, the Toepener - an "L" shaped device that allows people to use their foot to open a door.

A lot of work goes behind developing a business, and with just eight months of class time allotted to reach the class' goal of generating two to three viable businesses, the students need to be creative, committed, and collaborative- not to mention fast.

"There's literally hundreds of Post-It notes stuck up on the classroom wall with ideas written on them," says Arndt of the early stages of the class. "You're brainstorming problems, opportunities, things you like, things you want to see changed."

Arndt's class of 25 students ended up with about 100 business ideas, including his then-unnamed door-opening device. To narrow down the field, each student took their best idea, developed a product or service around it, and made a business pitch to the class. The class then voted which ideas would move on. Those whose ideas didn't survive teamed up to help someone else with their idea.

As weeks of vetting went on, teams grew larger, ideas became more refined, and pitches more persuasive.

"The class environment that John and Roy created is phenomenal. Everyone is encouraged to learn and have fun and there's such great communication," says Arndt. "John and Roy teach us everything, from how to source products from overseas, to selling through multiple channels, developing marketing campaigns, building a management team, and managing cash flow.

Really, it comes down to who can give the best pitch for their product or service. Only two or three students get to have their ideas move on to the final stage where a board of advisors listens to your pitch to become real businesses."

In the end, this year's class created three companies, including Arndt's.

"For a long time we called them teams, but now they're legal companies," says Arndt, who is CEO of Forge LLC. "My company had elections for our executive board; we have a VP of sales, chief marketing officer, chief information officer, chief operations officer, chief financial officer, an HR person, and then people working for them. We had to go out and get a loan, insurance, and a manufacturer to produce the Toepener. This is real-world."

His company is enjoying real-world success, too. The Toepener can already be found affixed to a restroom door in Hanson Hall and in various local establishments. The company also has more than 70 orders, including those from a local grocery store chain, a school, and the University. "We recently received our first online order from someone in California, and since then our online orders have really grown," adds Arndt.

From the Twin Cities to India, the Toepener has generated quite a bit of media buzz, which has helped boost Arndt's confidence that he can continue developing his business and product beyond graduation this spring.

"The Toepener is a great example of a simple product that solves a problem," says Stavig. "They're getting a very positive reception from initial restaurant and retail customers, while having fun with the marketing and continuing to improve the product. I'm optimistic they'll land a major account before the end of the semester."

"This all started as a class, but now it's really interesting and obviously we have a product that can sell," says Arndt. "I didn't think I could get this passionate about business, and that's really been embraced in the Entrepreneurship in Action class. I'm getting five hours of sleep each night, but I don't mind because I'm working on my business and loving it so much."

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