When RBE gets real

Butler’s Real Business Experience class makes adjustments due to coronavirus. Photo courtesy of butler.edu.

JOE KRISKO | STAFF REPORTER | jkrisko@butler.edu 

Over the past few weeks, businesses of almost every industry and size have had to adapt to the new reality thrust upon them by the current coronavirus pandemic. The student-run businesses started through the real business experience course in Butler’s Lacy School of Business were no exception. 

In this class, students work in teams to come up with their own idea for a business and take it through a proof of concept phase of development. The teams develop extensive plans to make actual sales of their products throughout this phase before finally presenting the results of these sales to a panel of business professionals to seek loan approval for further development of their businesses.

Going into spring break earlier this semester, many groups had already developed these plans for how they would market and sell their products — some already had inventory. That’s when Jeff Durham, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation and the RBE coordinator, said everything changed very quickly.

“It seemed like overnight we were on spring break and then spring break was extended and then it went from being extended to ‘we’re not coming back,’” Durham said.

Many of the plans the teams had originally made for making sales through things like pop-up tables on campus were no longer possible. Students had to develop alternative marketing plans that they could use to sell their products from their own homes. 

“Their market dried up overnight so we had to go into creative mode,” Durham said. 

Some students already had preorders, so they were able to make some of their sales to those customers who had already shown interest in buying the product. However, the rest of the sales would have to be done largely online.

The teams were able to put their products on an online shop and started to make sales through that platform. Still, the student-run businesses also had to leverage their connections through friends, family and social media platforms like Instagram. 

Hailey Bowen, a sophomore marketing major, is in charge of marketing for her RBE group this semester. She said she began making posts on Instagram after her team quickly realized that social media would be their biggest asset under the new circumstances.

Bowen said sales went up even further after she made posts on her personal Facebook page and the team began its eCommerce. 

“People wanted to help out some stressed-out college students, we found,” Bowen said.

Bowen’s business, KoalaTee, is a nonprofit that sells t-shirts to benefit the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. However, the profit margins that they were going to be able to donate to the wildlife organization became smaller due to some of the challenges it had to adapt to. 

Working from home meant the business would have to ship the products to their customers. The company had already advertised a price for their t-shirts and, therefore, had to take on the extra costs of shipping themselves. 

“That made me really sad because it was never about us, it was about them,” Bowen said.

Despite this obstacle, the business believes it will still have some funds to donate to the organization.

The RBE groups also received help from groups like Butler’s MJ Captive, which provides services related to risk management for the RBE program. Nathan Atkins, a senior finance and risk management and insurance major and the CEO of the captive, said they normally insure the businesses for certain losses like, for example, if their inventory were to be destroyed by some disaster covered under the policies. The captive also helps the businesses identify areas of risk.

“Every segment of the business where something could go wrong, we’re looking at it,” Atkins said.

To help with the unique circumstances this semester, the captive promoted the RBE businesses on social media and set up special office hours to help them adjust their businesses while still limiting the risk the students’ businesses took on. Atkins said the relationship between the risk management department and the entrepreneurship and innovation department has proved its value. 

Matt Kuster, a sophomore entrepreneurship and innovation major, also took RBE this semester. His group’s business, Bulldog Bricks, created Lego kits modeled to look like Butler’s new mascot, Butler Blue IV. 

The group ended up selling out within 72 hours, despite also facing challenges related to the coronavirus. Kuster had all of the inventory shipped to his house, so all of the lego kits had to be assembled there.

“I had my whole family putting together 125 Butler bulldog Lego sets,” Kuster said.

The culmination of much of the work the students do throughout the semester is the presentation they give towards the end of the semester to a panel of business professionals. Normally, individuals on the panel are brought to campus so students can pitch their business ideas and the results of their proof of concept in the hopes of receiving approval for a hypothetical loan the students would use if they were going to continue to develop the business.

Due to the current pandemic, this had to be done online over Zoom. Durham said this ended up being a big pivot and the professors made a few adjustments to make this possible. Instead of having everyone talk, the groups chose one or two speakers to give their pitch so they could avoid any difficulties with their transitions and stay within their time limit.

This change required extra practice with the mentors the students work with, but both Bowen and Kuster said the presentations still turned out well.

“I think I was a little bit more at ease over Zoom because they could see me, but they couldn’t see me talking and my entire class wasn’t there,” Bowen said.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these challenges, Durham said he thought the experiences students have had in RBE this semester were as close to running a real business as they could get.

“Kind of an unintended consequence of this COVID-19, for RBE at least, is it has put them in a real business scenario,” Durham said. “I think it gave students a taste of what it’s like running a business in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic.”

Overall, both Bowen and Kuster agreed that the situation was a good learning experience and said that they would still take RBE this semester, even if they could go back and warn themselves that they would be taking the class under these unique circumstances.

“Something is going to happen again in the future where you have to adjust or businesses have to adjust and those who learn to adjust will be successful,” Kuster said.

 

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