WKU Offers Student Entrepreneurs Real World Experience
At the age of 23 Blake Blackburn is a company CEO. Before he graduated from Western Kentucky University in May, Blackburn formed HangOut Creative, a social media marketing company.
"If you're on the web, you're kinda hangin' out," said Blackburn. "One-fourth of people spend their time on social media sites. It's a social place and people are just hangin' out."
Blackburn works out of the Center for Research and Development in Bowling Green, which is home to Innoplex, a small business accelerator that allows WKU students to begin a business while still in college. Dr. Gordon Baylis is Vice President for Research at WKU.
"We started realizing that many of our students were having outstanding ideas. Our students are smart, they're innovative, and they understand the 21st century is the century of innovation," Baylis remarked. We just figured that there's a huge resource at this institution that we weren't tapping."
Blackburn says he always had the idea in his head for a company like HangOut Creative, but it was the accelerator that put his plan into action. Hangout Creative now serves small businesses in Bowling Green and Nashville.
"I post on Facebook, Twitter, email, Pinterest, basically any free web service, I help manage that," explained Blackburn.
Blackburn capitalized on the understanding that many small business owners don't understand social media or have time for it.
"It's a surprising stat that half of new Facebook users are between 30 and 60," emphasized Blackburn. "So why not reach out to those people? A lot of people don't even know what they're doing on Facebook yet."
He credits the small business accelerator with helping him more on the administrative side. He works out of a 1,200 square-foot space free of charge with high speed internet and meeting rooms. The young entrepreneur was also given an allowance for startup costs such as state filing fees, business cards, and URL registrations.
At Blackburn's office, it's always casual Friday. His conference room table is a ping pong table. It's a place where he and his colleagues bounce ideas off each other, but mostly it's there for stress relief and for the fun of it. His ping pong partner of 21-year-old Christopher Jones, a sophomore at WKU. Jones created a business called The Anything Shop, which is just that.
"We fix phone screens, sell phones, fix laptops, pick up and deliver restaurant food, grocery shopping," said Jones.
Christopher Jones says it's all about making life simpler in a fast-paced society. He runs the company with his brother, Sederick Grant, also a WKU sophomore. Grant says he was a college student working at Burger King when he decided he wanted to be his own boss.
"We were like, man, these minimum wage jobs were just getting old," quipped Grant. "I can't imagine even if I was getting $80,000 working a nine to five every day. My brother was like, 'Me neither, man. We gotta come up with something.'"
The brothers are a few months away from hiring part-time employees.
"First before we become the CEO we want to be the agent. We want to see what it's like in the field because you can't really give someone advice on something you've never done," remaked Grant.
For Dr. Gordon Baylis, the VP for Research at WKU, the small business accelerator is about giving students a chance to learn from and possibly succeed in their ventures. Unlike ping pong, it's not a game of winners and losers.
"It's perhaps even better experience if their company fails because then they'll know the next time they set up a company exactly how to succeed," Baylis acknowledged. "We don't expect everyone to succeed, but we expect every one of our student companies to get invaluable education."