It’s not your typical e-business manual, say the business information technology students who are launching the Online Business Guidebook this spring.
To be published in April as a hard copy, the 40-page, full-color book is a step-by-step guide for students with dreams of starting their own Internet-based businesses, as well as a good advertising vehicle for vendors of Web software and services, say Michael Levisay and Robert Stanley.
“Our guidebook is different — it is written by students for students,” says Stanley, who is from Bland, Va. “We are also trying to promote entrepreneurship,” says Levisay, of Charlottesville, Va., “…get young people more involved in business and show them that they can start their own businesses if they have the desire and drive.”
The guide will make the information more readily accessible to aspiring business owners “than if they had to search the Web or find bits and pieces of information in magazines,” Levisay says. “We really want it to be a one-stop guide to starting your own small business, and we want it to make students excited about becoming entrepreneurs.” Levisay says he was particularly struck by statistics from one 2004 report on Entrepreneur.com that showed that the average annual revenue of a small business with a Web site was $5.0 million, compared with $3.6 million for a small business without a Web site.
From class project…
He and Stanley last fall took a senior capstone course, Business Analysis Seminar in IT, taught by business information technology (BIT) assistant professor Alan Abrahams (faculty website).
Abrahams proposed the guidebook as a class project. He notes that studies have shown that small-business success rates are enhanced by education and training — and that entrepreneurship advocates say a majority of Americans still lack easy access to such resources. Startup companies, he also notes, have long been seen as an engine in job creation — a view championed by many politicians in recent months and affirmed by a new U.S. Census Bureau study that examined employment data in the 1980-2005 period.
The professor, whose course focuses on developing and using decision support systems as managerial tools in e-commerce, envisaged many potential benefits from the guidebook project.
It would, he says, allow students to apply the operational and managerial IT concepts learned in class and gain business experience while meeting a need in the crowded e-business guidebook market for “a low-price, high-practice alternative that shows readers in simple steps how to start working with Web-based software and services in business applications.” Most textbooks and guidebooks on e-business, he says, are very costly and do not provide enough paced instruction.
To compile the guidebook, Abrahams assigned the students to one of dozens of major business-to-business Internet technology software categories, such as sales management, e-mail marketing, Web analytics, shopping carts, content management, and payment processing. He gave the students listings of popular vendors in each category. The students researched the vendors in their assigned category. “They compiled, in the standard Online Business Guidebook format, an explanation of the valuable services those vendors provide to small businesses and a step-by-step tutorial on how to grow your small business using those Internet-based software services,” Abrahams says.
“Readers of the guidebook are getting compelling advice from writers with first-hand experience — the students have used many of the technologies they describe to build and grow their guidebook business.”
…to student business
After establishing a not-for-profit organization to publish the book, his students worked last fall to put out a sample edition, funded by small grants from the BIT department and Pamplin’s undergraduate career services office. The nine founding students also chipped in some personal funds, says Abrahams. This spring semester, the project received a $2,000 grant from Deloitte, adding to the nearly $4,000 in funds contributed by the class of almost 40 students.
“As Deloitte Consulting’s Federal Practice has grown, Virginia Tech has become one of our key sources of technology talent,” said Deloitte campus recruiter Jeanie Darlington. “The BIT curriculum gives students the opportunity to learn and practice many of the skills they can then directly apply in the consulting field when they enter the firm following graduation. We look forward to continuing our relationship with the BIT department in the future.”
Abrahams says the guidebook organization aims to be self-sustaining eventually, “with revenues primarily from advertising and corporate sponsorship and, to a lesser extent, sales of the guidebook to the broader public.” An additional benefit of the project, he says, would be the scholarships and student projects that the students plan to fund through such proceeds.
Given that universities across the country have been experiencing dwindling enrollments in IT majors, Abrahams says that he and the students also plan to use the guide to promote IT studies and careers to high-school students. “We want them to know that IT offers a diverse range of career possibilities; it’s much more than consulting and programming.”
Distributing the guidebook
The guides will be sent to business professors across the nation to distribute to their students. “For our first print run, we expect to have about 300 professors each distributing an average of 35 complimentary guides to their students,” Abrahams says. “Copies will also be sent to dozens of business incubators, accelerators, and small business development centers for distribution to their current and prospective clients.”
Members of another class taught by Abrahams, Computer Modeling and Decision Analysis, also assisted with compiling a mailing list. “All told, the students from both classes were able to compile mailing addresses of about 18,000 entrepreneurship, IT, marketing, and management business faculty from about 355 U.S. business-school Web sites,” Abrahams says. Flyers will be sent to these professors, who will be asked to visit the guidebook’s Web site to specify their course description and enrollment and the number of complimentary copies they would like for their students.
The mailing list itself has already attracted an enquiry, Abrahams notes, “from professors at Wharton and Columbia Business School who have an upcoming Harvard Business Press textbook, asking if they could piggyback a flyer advertising their book on our mailings!”
He adds that the students hope to extend the list to include most of the 461 AACSB-accredited U.S. business schools over the next year.
The students unveiled the four-page sample guide last November at a business incubators conference in Staunton, Va., where they sought advertisers for the full edition this spring. “It was our first public appearance, and a great opportunity for us to mix with the business community,” Levisay recalls. “Many incubators are also non-profits, so getting to talk to a lot of people about how they run their business was extremely helpful to us. We had a lot of interest in who we were and what we were all about.”
Adds Stanley: “The conference also gave us the chance to make a lot of key contacts in the area that have proven to be extremely useful and mutually beneficial.”
Into the future
The guidebook organization will be staffed each semester by students taking Abrahams’ course and year-round by student volunteers. Levisay and Stanley, who both graduated last December, helped lead the transfer of the business to the spring semester class. “We really wanted to bring this batch of students up to speed as fast as possible so they can have an immediate hands-on involvement,” Stanley says.
With 35 students and up to 10 volunteers, the business can really grow this spring, notes Levisay. “Last semester was about building the framework and getting the business ready to launch. This semester will be about turning our framework into a successful operation.”
Abrahams is delighted that the project is already fulfilling the educational goals he had in mind. “My students are not passively sitting back and receiving knowledge but are creating and disseminating knowledge and using it themselves in a practical way to grow their own business.”
Entrepreneurship: odds can be stacked against the inexperienced
With the economy in a slump and few employers beckoning, the notion of being your own boss may be attractive to many prospective or recent college graduates.
Entrepreneurship, however, is not for everyone, and many wonder whether it is a good career move for inexperienced new graduates. Jim Lang, Pamplin’s Strickler Professor of Entrepreneurship, for example, says “sometimes it works, but the odds are somewhat stacked against success if they don’t have sufficient financial resources or capabilities resulting from some kind of relevant experience.”
Lang views the main value of Pamplin’s entrepreneurship courses “as providing tools for the students to use when the time is right.” The courses are offered in the management department’s entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology management option for management majors.
E-Management: Concepts And Skills focuses on the digital transformation of business. The course examines fundamental changes in management due to the Internet Revolution: how such organizations are different from traditional organizations; the implications for knowledge sharing, knowledge management, and communication; and electronic techniques for leadership practices.
Innovation, Technology And Entrepreneurial Leadership examines the leader’s role and required skills for new venture creation and fostering innovation and technology development.
Applied Small Business Consulting looks at the application of accounting, finance, marketing, management, information technology, and management science concepts to small business cases. Students conduct on-site consultation with existing firms and explore the role of “pro bono” work in management.