Whitewater students search for great ideas
Few people know that better than Justin Nothem.
The UW-Whitewater student and aspiring entrepreneur used to spend every Wednesday at the Pumper’s and Mitchell’s beer garden in downtown Whitewater, knocking back drinks and exchanging business ideas with his friend Justin Schmitt.
Nothing stuck until Schmitt’s girlfriend joined them one night and told them about a dream she recently had. It ended with them leaving a bar, bellowing “wieners for the wasted!”
The idea struck like lightning: Hot dogs.
“I kind of chuckled and said, ‘I think we got something here,’” said Nothem. “Then it just kind of became ‘Whitewater Wieners.’”
Nothem is among a small group of students at UW-Whitewater who aren’t saving their entrepreneurial spirit for graduation. Not only have these students created sound business plans, most already are well on their way to having a fully established product.
Whitewater Wieners might not ring of genius on the surface. Dapper Dogs, a specialty hot dog restaurant, occupied a storefront downtown years earlier before going out of business.
Nothem found a niche. He created a mobile business that operates downtown while students are out at the bars. He developed a menu that includes traditional ballpark franks, chili dogs and Chicago-style hot dogs ranging anywhere from $2.50 to $5.
When the idea was initially conceived, Whitewater had a city ordinance outlawing vendors like Nothem. He went before city council, and persuaded them to amend the ordinance, allowing him to bring the idea to life.
“It took a good six to eight months to get the ordinance lifted, get the permits, find a cart and buy it,” he said. “I was kind of in shock when I got it all going.”
Nothem is one of about nine members of “Launchpad,” a program UW-Whitewater started this year. The program allows a select group of students with legitimate business plans to grow their product using university and city resources.
These aren’t students simply toying with class projects. Those enrolled in Launchpad are there because they expressed a commitment to invest time and effort into their business venture.
The group receives weekly homework assignments and members are required to participate in various business competitions. Nothem last week won UW-Whitewater’s elevator pitch competition, taking home $500 and an invitation to the national competition in Texas.
Mike Fitzpatrick and his partner Nick Kochelek created Thirsty Clothing, specializing in “party T-shirts.” Last year alone, Thirsty Clothing grossed $150,000 in sales.
Chris Brooks developed Summit Climbing. He’s working on the second prototype for a contraption that helps rock climbers improve hand strength and other skills sets from their own homes.
Brennon Garthwait and Evan Preston of Renwig Customs are on the verge of distributing a robotic automation system that allows musicians to make hands-free changes to their amplifier settings while recording.
The two spent thousands patenting the idea. Preston said it would be the first of its kind in the music world, not including digital products.
Launchpad is still young in its development, but co-director Jeff Vanevenhoven said its academic training has scored straight As. It’ll take time for the city and other stakeholders to see results, but there already are signs it’ll foster local business growth.
“We have gotten a ton of effort from faculty members, and some great progress on the companies,” Vanevenhoven said. “We’ve exceeded our educational goals, and I think we’re moving along much faster when we look at business creation and the incubation side.”
The kind of initiative shown by the Launchpad group is exactly the type of atmosphere UW-Whitewater is trying to foster. Earlier this month, university administrators granted approval for Renwig Customs to manufacture its product at the new Innovation Center at the Whitewater University Technology Park.
The students said they receive a variety of additional support that includes legal services and marketing. They also get advisement from Vanevenhoven and professor Bill Dougan, who is credited on campus with helping to develop most of the programs aimed at entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship became a major at UW-Whitewater just a few years ago and it currently has 125 students enrolled in the program, Vanevenhoven said.
As impressive as the students’ early success is, most agree they’re not stopping here.
Fitzpatrick refers to himself as a “serial entrepreneur.” He operates a disc jockey business, which has grown to the point where his involvement is mostly on the business side.
That DJ company is actually what led to his T-shirt business. He hosted a competition allowing people to design a logo for his company, which was displayed on T-shirts. The shirts sold faster than he thought, and he discovered it wasn’t because of the popularity of his DJ company. People simply liked the shirt.
“I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a need for that,’” he said. “With my entrepreneurial mindset, I said, ‘OK, let’s do something.’”
The idea took about a month to put in motion, he said. Since then, hehas visited such universities as Duke, LSU and Texas, selling shirts on campus for about $13 a piece.
The $150,000 in sales last year trumped the business generated by his DJ company by more than 12 times.
“It’s just insane,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Fitzpatrick hopes to build Thirsty Clothing to the point that it’s self-sustaining, then move on to the next project.
As thrilling as it is finding success in their ideas, both say they look forward to doing it all over again.
“I like starting a business,” said Nothem, who plans to grow the College Dogs franchise to other campuses before moving on. “It’s just kind of a passion to create something out of nothing, and that’s why I like entrepreneurship.
“After it’s created and I’m satisfied, I’ll find someone to allow it to continue to succeed and go on to new things.”