When Michael Russo started his business 16 months ago, he was interning 20 hours a week, taking 18 college credits and co-running an entrepreneurship club at Molloy College in Rockville Centre.
Not your typical entrepreneur.
Still, as he approaches graduation in May and sees friends lining up full-time jobs, the allure of guaranteed income isn’t enough to make him abandon his growing business, Sticky Quotes, which sells inspirational sticky notes.
“It’s scary, in a sense that I’m creating my own destiny,” said Russo, 21, a Molloy senior. “There’s so much unknown as a college entrepreneur.”
He’s aligned himself with mentors and an investor along the way, but not all college students in business are as lucky. Carrying heavy workloads while maintaining their grades and trying to finance their educations can prove burdensome.
Student loans can be a factor holding back many, said Derek Ozkal, a program officer with the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri. Most entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground by taking on personal debt, and “having high levels of student debt can eat into their ability to take out more debt,” he noted.
But Russo is far from alone in his ambition. The entrepreneurship rate among 18- to 24-year-olds stood at 13.4 percent in 2014, up from 12.6 percent in 2013, according to the 2014 U.S. Global Entrepreneurship Monitor and Babson College. This could be tied to the fact that students are exposed to more entrepreneurial programs, say experts. Still, most observers agree becoming a student entrepreneur is challenging.
“It can be overwhelming,” said Russo. That’s why he surrounds himself with people who can offer advice and expertise, including mentor Aaron Foss, who teaches an entrepreneurship class at Molloy and advises its entrepreneurship club.
Russo took his class in fall 2013 and helped him reinvigorate the club in early 2014, after which the club competed in a statewide business plan competition. They didn’t win, but it helped Russo learn business fundamentals.
He already had the idea for Sticky Quotes thanks to an earlier internship at a financial services firm, where his boss wrote all his to-do lists on sticky notes. One day he gave Russo a sticky note with an inspirational quote on it, and it, well, stuck.
He printed the first version of Sticky Quotes in his dorm room on 8½-by-11 sheets of paper. Through connections in the entrepreneurship club, he secured $5,000 from an investor last year and found an upstate manufacturer that could make his product on traditional sticky note pads with different quotes on each page. That, along with $5,000 from another business plan competition he won last year, helped fund the business.
“He just keeps trying and trying until he figures out what works,” said Foss, creator of Mount Sinai-based Nomorobo, a robocall blocking service.
Foss said it helped that Russo got feedback on packaging from some of the store owners he was selling to. “Get as much feedback as possible,” he advised.
And get it from actual customers, not just roommates and family, said Michele Markey, vice president of Kauffman FastTrac, a provider of educational programs for entrepreneurs.
Spend time doing research and also networking and getting involved in your “entrepreneurial ecosystem,” she advised.
Russo took all these steps and is now ready to expand.
This year he’s looking to raise over $50,000 to grow the business and has applied to the deferred MBA programs at Harvard and Stanford. He’s now in about 15 stores and also sells online.
“I want to make Sticky Quotes a household name,” says Russo.