By Song My Hoang
On Wednesday, Oct. 22, Union College Entrepreneurship Organization (UCEO) invited alumnus David Blakelock ’83 to speak about his experiences with building a startup company.
UCEO is a student-run organization that was established in 2013 by co-founders Andrew Kauffman ’14 and Sara Miltenberger ’15. The club focuses on fostering the spirit of entrepreneurship through discussions, seminars and projects. It provides opportunities for networking and mentorship.
UCEO is an agent for Bagru Textiles, which was founded by Minerva Fellow Jeremy Fritzhand ’10. The organization proposes to import products from Bagru Textiles to sell to the Union community.
The current board members consist of President Sara Miltenberger, Vice President Conor Carey ’15 and Secretary Nicolas Suarez-Canton Trueba ’17.
Miltenberger commented, “UCEO is a product. The take-away is for (students) to learn something, enjoy what they are doing, and have some insight on what they want to do.”
She also started Wannabe Varsity, a web-based sports information business. She was inspired to create her first business venture through her experiences with varsity sports.
“There are not many resources available for female athletes … During December 2012, I worked for the hockey teams, and I saw the disparity of resources between the men’s and women’s teams,” Miltenberger said.
UCEO invited Blakelock as part of their alumni speaker series. Blakelock graduated from Union with a mechanical engineering major and an economics minor. He completed his Master of Business Administration in finance and accounting at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
He was the senior vice president of GE Power Systems in Schenectady, worked for consulting firm Senn Delaney as well as Anderson Consulting and was the chief operating officer of Streamline.
Blakelock is the founder of Black Box, a licensed sport product business, Asian Foods, an Asian import business, and Ape Entertainment, a Redbox knock-off business.
He has been teaching entrepreneurship at Bentley University for eight years. Blakelock shared, “My focus for the last 20 years has been on consumers, in their homes, and using technology to solve their problems. I want to ask, how can you fit technology to satisfy customers?”
Blakelock used the five C’s (conscious, curious, creative, customer-focused and committed) as a basis for his discussion and used his new business project, Quadstuff.net, as an example of how it applies to the real world. Quadstuff.net is a project designed to provide an “easy-to-use, effective solution that is managed and controlled by students” to gather information about college events.
He added, “Different people focus on different C’s, but you need to have all five C’s (when creating a startup company).”
He said the first step was to be conscious. People are continually surrounded by numerous stimuli and it is difficult to be conscious of everything around them. Blakelock claimed that entrepreneurs are selectively conscious by having filters that help them realize when they encounter a good business idea.
“In my case, I’m constantly thinking about the relationship between the customer and the business. So I’ll be standing in the bank or McDonald’s and I’m watching the customers. I don’t even know that I’m watching them. I’m just trying to understand what’s happening in that transaction and what it takes to satisfy the customer,” explained Blakelock.
In relation to Quadstuff.net, he said he was spurred to create the business when he was attending a President’s Council event at Union. UCEO co-founder Andrew Kauffman shared with Blakelock that Blakelock should tell the administration to fix their website, because Kauffman did not want to anger the administration.
These two stimuli registered in Blakelock’s mind and he made the connection between poor website design and the role of the administration.
Blakelock advised that curiosity allows for the expansion of the “barest nugget of the idea.” After his Union visit, Blakelock started to find answers to how college communities gather information on events that are happening on campus.
He began to collect flyers on college campuses and acknowledged that this was the same way clubs advertised their events 30 years ago. He called his daughter at Claremont McKenna College and talked to his class at Bentley to ask how students learn about campus events. Blakelock then went on different college websites to confirm the inefficient methods of communication.
“The college administration isn’t focused on the customer. The administration is just checking the box and it is just a secondary job for somebody. I saw that there was an opportunity in this space,” Blakelock explained.
Blakelock emphasized the necessity of using creativity to solve problems. He said, “(Rising entrepreneurs) need to be creative to optimally solve problems that will be accepted by the customers.”
He urged rising entrepreneurs to become customer-focused. In terms of Quadstuff.net, Blakelock commented that he had to take into account different target customers. He aimed to bring together a platform that would work on Union’s campus.
“I needed to think of different constituencies at Union. Am I the president of a fraternity, am I part of the Union campus or am I part of the local community? How do you manage these different levels of knowledge?” questioned Blakelock.
He recognized it was necessary to develop a user-generated product that was separate from the administration. Blakelock elaborated, “You improve the accuracy of the data by allowing the person who is responsible for the group be responsible for the data.”
He then talked to the customers to get feedback on his product idea. He spoke to Kauffman again as well as primary customers, which are students. Blakelock also had to think about secondary customers, which led him to talk to the dean of students. Blakelock concluded by stressing the importance of commitment.
He commented, “Every startup has its ups and downs, but you need the commitment to carry your ideas through. The beauty about being in the U.S. is that there’s a lot of forgiveness when you are an entrepreneur.”
UCEO’s next big event will be a networking event in New York City. It is a mentorship speed-dating event where students will meet various CEOs and alumni.
Sara Miltenberger shared, “Union has given me everything I want, in sense of freedom to make choices. Students need to embrace that education happens more than in the classroom; it happens through experiences that you can gain in the local community. We should be more engaged with local businesses because they are right outside our doorstep.”
She mentioned that the President’s Council aims to introduce entrepreneurship into the college curriculum. Miltenberger continued, “I think it isn’t necessarily putting entrepreneurship into the curriculum, but more about how to foster the entrepreneurial spirit. This is achieved by increasing the number of opportunities for students to be creative, to think independently with open class discussions and to design their own majors and activities.”
“Students need to learn to be bold and take risks. How do you teach that? We need to allow students to recognize that making their own choices will lead to a greater understanding,” concluded Miltenberger.