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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Andre Smith has a staff of eight, a Samsung BlackJack that constantly rings and the responsibility of handling dollar figures most college students have never imagined.

And he manages everything from his two-bedroom apartment.

In spring 2006, Smith, a fifth-year industrial engineering student, set up Tropical Connection, LLC. He was inspired to start the vacation traveling company after he successfully organized a trip to Jamaica for 20 of his friends.

Smith is a successful college entrepreneur - one in a growing trend of college students across the nation setting up companies.

Instead of waiting for the perfect opportunity, these young entrepreneurs invest a little money on a big idea using the Internet as a launching pad.

Students are starting businesses more often than in the past, said Bill Rossi, associate director of the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at UF.

The Internet has helped college entrepreneurs by making the uptake easier, quicker and cheaper, Rossi said.

Fewer assets means fewer risks, so many students don't want to wait to finish their schooling to launch a business.

"You have very little to lose. Tomorrow it will be more," Rossi said. "The best time to start is now."

Getting Started

Not many have money to play with in college, but three UF student entrepreneurs borrowed money to transform their concept into a money-making reality.

Smith's initial investment on the travel agency was about $15,000, mostly contributed by family and friends. The money went to arranging contracts with airlines and hotels.

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"I felt pretty overwhelmed," the 22-year-old said. "I'd never written a check for $10,000 before."

Tyler Callahan, a UF advertising alumnus, and Brett Frierson, a UF management alumnus, became Smith's business partners.

In their first year, the three made enough revenue to expand the travel company, opening up more trip options for customers, he said.

And while Smith sunk more than $10,000 to get his business running, Nick Moskowitz started an online humorous T-shirt business with about $700 from student loans and borrowed money.

In the summer of 2004, Moskowitz, a UF computer engineering student at the time, and a friend, David Baummer, launched from their makeshift office in a bedroom.

"We did nothing but eat and sleep ThreadPit," 29-year-old Moskowitz said, reminiscing about his beginnings.

When the business took off that summer, Moskowitz dropped his classes to focus on the Web site full time.

But his business partner, Baummer, left ThreadPit to continue his studies at SFCC.

Almost four years into the business, orders come in from around the world at all times of the day and night, making enough money for him and his wife to live comfortably, he said. Moskowitz is now back at UF studying sociology.

Suzanne Delica aspires to be equally successful as Smith and Moskowitz.

In late January, the UF sophomore introduced an e-business, where she sells high-fashion clothes at affordable prices, named Simply Delicious Fashions.

The trademark is registered under her parents' company, Delica Enterprises Inc.

Now Delica is pursuing her own business with the moral and financial support of her parents. The 20-year-old raised an initial capital of about $5,000.

She purchases items wholesale in fashion meccas like New York and Miami from designers like BCBG and Michael Antonio to sell on her site.

Though she has yet to see a profit, Delica has big plans and believes it's her mission to bring high fashion to Gainesville. "I really want people to understand what clothing means," she said about her vision for the virtual boutique. "Your clothes shouldn't make you; you should make your clothes."

Virtually Savvy

Smith, Moskowitz and Delica may have invested in different business ventures, but all three used a college student obsession - the Internet.

"(Students) are on the Internet all the time anyway," Rossi said, "so it's natural that students would start businesses on the Internet."

For example, Moskowitz designed the entire Web site and the computer software for the T-shirt company.

And for Delica, the ideal option of opening a boutique is not feasible, so the Internet seemed like the perfect vehicle to get her business rolling.

However, for Smith, a Web site alone was not enough to make his business a success.

By October 2006, just four months before their first scheduled spring break, they still hadn't booked a single trip. Smith realized the agency needed more local exposure.

Smith and his partners started promoting the travel agency by handing out fliers around Gainesville and visiting clients' apartments to close the sale.

"We made it more personal," he said. "People like face-to-face interaction."

After the intensive promotion, the agency ended up booking 80 percent on their first trip.

Smith said now he is using the Web site to reach college students from other states and aims to reach the $1 million mark in sales this year.

Risky Business

Entrepreneurs start off with big plans, but often overlook potential roadblocks.

"There are lots of risks out there," Rossi said, "but the entrepreneur doesn't see them as risks but rather obstacles to overcome."

Almost four years later, Moskowitz faces a trademark dispute with one of his entrepreneur idols, Ralph Lauren.

The design in dispute is one of the most popular shirts he sells, and the one he is most proud of, the "Tragically Hip Polo Shirt." The polo pokes fun at designer brands - it shows a jockey falling off a horse. Although Smith and Delica haven't encountered anything quite as challenging, both find it demanding to balance running their companies and earning their engineering degrees.

Smith stretches his time between Tropical Connection and 17 credits, so he schedules his week on a spreadsheet.

For Delica, starting a business is still not as hard as some of her electrical engineering classes.

"I feel like I use both sides of my brain," she said. "When I'm kind of stressed out with school, I focus on SDF (her online store)."

What's Next

For these business-savvy students, their new company is not the end-all, but the beginning of self-made opportunities.

Delica hopes that in about two years she'll raise enough money to open a small boutique in Gainesville, she said.

But Delica's not getting her degree in vain. She intends to work as an electrical engineer and hire employees to run her stores.

"It's going to be a challenge," Delica said, "but I'm up for it."

Moskowitz said he doesn't plan on keeping the Web store forever. He is considering getting a master's in business management, so he can learn how to operate on a larger scale.

Unlike his peers, Smith just hopes to take his island travel agency in new directions, such as corporate vacations.

Thousands of dollars later, Smith has his eyes set on millions more.

"I'm excited for the future," he said. "I'm excited to see what I can do."

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