Alumni Entrepreneurs

Even if your particular passion isn't alpacas, software businesses, or photography, you can learn a great deal from the entrepreneurial experiences of these three University of Puget Sound alumni:

Art Olsen '77 Accounting Major
President, Intellcia

Meredith O'Neil '94 Communication Major
Owner, Springtime Farms and Snuggly Toes

Scott Schoeggl '99 Psychology Major
Co-owner and photographer, Wallflower Photography

Meredith O'Neil hanging out with part of her menagerie
Meredith O'Neil  |  Snuggly Toes and Springtime Farms

CES: How did your Puget Sound education prepare you for your career path?

MO: When I was at Puget Sound, there were a lot of treehuggers around. That mentality fertilized a green seed my grandmother planted when I was a kid. The seed grew into a huge tree after I decided the corporate world wasn't for me. It was at that time, I became an entrepreneur.

I think the overall education, and especially my time in the Communication department, have prepared my brain for entrepreneurship. Being an entrepreneur often means you hold many titles when you're first starting out—president, VP of marketing, and janitor.

CES: What advice would you offer current students considering entrepreneurship?

MO: Choose something you love because you will be working harder and more hours than you thought possible. So, you better love what you do.

Also, consider the whole picture with an objective eye. Don't pick something just because you love it. Make sure there is a market; a possibility that your idea will work.

CES: How did you decide to make the leap to begin working for yourself? Was there a pivotal moment?

MO: I didn't really leap into working for myself. Instead, I took a long, meandering path. I left the corporate world and traveled the country for four years. During that time, the idea of living a rural lifestyle out on my own, really took shape. That idea collided with alpacas, and the timing was right. I was ready to get off the road, and I fell in love with alpacas.

Also, being an entrepreneur works for me because I have a hard time working with others. I know that sounds awful, but I've met many people with a mediocre work ethic. That was hard for me. Working alone means it's all on me. I can live with that, in success or failure.

Scott Schoeggl: Wallflower Photography
Scott Schoeggl  |  Wallflower Photography

CES: How did your Puget Sound education prepare you for your career path?

I'm a professional photographer, and I own and operate an award-winning wedding and portrait photography studio here in Tacoma along with my wife Laura, also a UPS alum. Yet I didn't take a single art class at UPS - I majored in Psychology, minored in Religion, and took as wide a variety of classes as I could. Laura's experience was much the same with a major in Psychology and a minor in English. So was our UPS education wasted? Far from it. Here are some reasons why:

In general, our classes at UPS improved our writing skills, which helps us to come across as professional and intelligent not only in communications with our clients and partnering businesses, but also in everything our company produces, including our website and collateral.

Our liberal arts education taught us to think analytically regardless of the subject, which now helps us plan for shoots, anticipate problems with clients, and identify business trends so that we can correct them or better prepare for them. My classes gave me confidence in my own abilities, and my confidence in our studio helps others feel confident in us.

More specifically, our psychology classes helped us to recognize and react to clients' emotional states. I feel like I can better handle and overcome client anxiety in particular. And religion plays a role in many weddings; it's helpful to have an understanding and appreciation of the importance of various practices and traditions.

Outside of class, UPS offers great opportunities to get involved. My four years writing, editing, and managing The Trail contributed just as much to my success today as my classes did. I learned how to manage people, budgets, billing, purchasing, and other business-management tasks. Even though I was never a newspaper photographer, I learned about photojournalism by seeing which photos worked and which ones didn't, and it made me a natural when I did pick up the camera.

The Trail may be the most business-like of all student-run institutions, but there are others in the student media and ASUPS where students can learn these skills hands-on. In addition to working with me at The Trail, Laura also spent some time leading the public relations office for ASUPS, developing skills that undoubtedly serve us well as we now develop marketing campaigns for our own business.

CES: What advice would you offer current students considering entrepreneurship?

SS: Entrepreneurship is far more work than you can even imagine. You probably think you work hard as a student: studying, reading, writing, doing homework, preparing for tests, and so on. I don't want to downplay the amount of work a successful student invests, but building your own business takes significantly more time, effort, and perseverance. The flip side is that few people start businesses that they aren't passionate about, so investing all that time and effort is satisfying and even enjoyable. You just need to be careful not to let it take over your lives too much.

It is also difficult to fund a business start-up if you quit your day job to get it off the ground. Most businesses require significant initial and ongoing investments - for us, it was equipment purchases, home office setup, website development, and advertising. Rather than taking out a large business loan, we decided to grow our business gradually while working day jobs for the first few years. It often meant that we were each working 80 or more hours a week with only a rare day off, but it also gave us the financial security to pay all our bills and make the necessary investments until the income from the business could replace the day job salaries. Now, our business exceeds that, and we're fortunate to work for ourselves. We do still work more than the standard 40 hours a week, though.

CES: How did you decide to make the leap to begin working for yourself? Was there a pivotal moment?

SS: The pivotal moment was simply the realization that we had all the skills we needed to succeed. As advanced amateurs and lifelong hobbyists, we photographed one friend's wedding for free, then another, and then a friend of that friend's. Each time, the photos turned out great, and we knew then that we could do it professionally. The real kicker was when we got married ourselves, and hired a professional with over 20 years of experience to photograph our wedding. In the end, we were disappointed with the results and this made us realize that while experience certainly counts for a lot, natural talent and innovation can count for even more.

CES: What else do you wish you had known before you started your entrepreneurial venture?

SS: I wish I had better researched the photography market to see what our competitors were charging. We ended up significantly underpricing our services for the first year, and it took several years of price increases to get to the proper level. Many of our leads are based on referrals, but most of the referrals we got from early clients were expecting our early pricing, and weren't able to book us at the new, market-corrected pricing. We lost several years of referrals because of that early mistake.

This interview is from 2008. For an update on Wallflower Photography, read the 2010 interview with Scott and Laura Schoeggl.

Art Olsen  |  Intellcia

I attended the Seattle campus of UPS, graduating in 1977 with a BS in Accounting. There were a couple of key instructors who had a good balance of real world experience and academic background. That combination enabled them to relate the course material to actual events which helped me be more engaged with what they were conveying. My first professional position after graduation was with a CPA firm and the strong base in accounting theory was a good starting point.

I found it useful to work for a CPA firm because it gave me good exposure to a variety of businesses and put me in front of clients in a consultative role. If I were a student today I'd look for opportunities with lots of variety like consulting to get exposure to different environments and to expand a base of contacts.

I dabbled with small businesses while I was in college and always had it in the back of my mind to go out on my own if I could find something to do or a product to offer.

I finally took the plunge when a company I worked for as a CFO was acquired and I had trouble adjusting to the style of the new management. I researched the possibility of doing part-time CFO work for multiple companies and found that the city we planned to move to, Eugene, Oregon, did not have anyone offering those services. So I quit the company I was working for and we moved to Eugene.

What I failed to fully confirm was what, if anything, people were prepared to pay for those services. Fortunately I had a chance to do some consulting for a software company whose products I had used, so I moved into implementing systems. That lead me to find customers who needed the type of business reporting we provide now.

A key factor in entrepreneurship is making sure you understand the needs of your prospective customers. Without them your great idea is only that, an idea. Spend time understanding their needs, validating the new idea and getting a clear idea of how much they are willing to pay for it. Research what alternatives are in the market already and compare your new idea to what your potential competitors offer.

None of us are good at all aspects of business, so look for ways to build a team that addresses the key areas of business. I see those as sales and marketing, operations (who deliver the product or service) and finance. Possibly you know someone who has skills that are complimentary to yours who might have entrepreneurial interests as well. If there are areas such as finance that are outside your area of expertise, budget for some assistance. There are many good accountants and bookkeepers available on a contract basis that can help ensure that critical part of your new venture is managed correctly.

Look to the outside for support and ideas. There are some good organizations available with no cost or low cost information that can help with early stage organization. The US Small Business Association has a resource partner called SCORE, which is a group of retired business executives who offer volunteer services to people starting businesses.

In the Seattle area, there is a group called Northwest Entrepreneur Network (NWEN), who as the name implies is a networking organization for those who are working to launch businesses. The members consist of people who are in all stages of entrepreneurship as well as service providers and occasionally those who are interested in making investments in startups. NWEN offers low-cost meetings and seminars on a variety of topics that are useful to people starting up businesses.

A growing online community networking site is Biznik. Biznik members can build networks in person or virtually. Members are encouraged to contribute articles or host events to convey information about a particular area of business in which they have expertise and that can often lead to members doing business with each other. Other more established sites like LinkedIn offer online networking as well.

When you do your projections for rolling out your product or service, be conservative. Work up a first pass, and then cut your estimates to a quarter of what your original amount was. Also, double or triple your cost estimates. Based on experience, things always take longer to bring to market, cost more to develop, customers are always harder to get and costs arise that you did not plan on. If you aren't comfortable with finance, get someone to help, perhaps a friend who is in the finance department as a first step, or contract with someone as I mentioned above.