Three student entrepreneurs shared their journeys of starting a business at the Regional Economic Development Inc. innovation hub in downtown Columbia on Thursday. The panel consisted of Bea Doheny of Astronobeads, Guiomar Sapi of Myversastyles and Wesley Thompson of Brave Toad Studios.
Astronobeads is an astronomy-based jewelry line inspired by Doheny’s love of space. The business recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. Doheny is a junior at the University of Missouri’s business school.
Wesley Thompson, a senior majoring in computer science at MU, leads Brave Toad Studio, which has been working since last November on a networked multiplayer game called Cosmic Jam Battle.
Guiomar Sapi’s Myversastyle is a business that sells clothes and accessories to women in developing countries, particularly Sapi’s home country of Angola. The business has been a full-time pursuit since last December for Sapi, a graduate of Westminster College in Fulton.
From student to student entrepreneur
All three panelists reflected on the point when they became business founders.
Doheny had always been interested in both art and science. During her sophomore year at MU, she came up with the idea of combining her love for both space and beads. Doheny pitched the idea to a business school professor, Greg Bier, who helped her take it forward. She launched the business on Earth Day last year.
“Having an actual launch date helped make the business feel real,” she said. “It started to get even more real when I was getting orders from people who didn’t know me. That validated me as a business owner.”
When Sapi moved to the U.S., she didn’t know many of the fashion trends in the country, she said. Sapi worked as a saleswoman for Avon, the cosmetics company. As an “Avon lady,” she received a lot of makeup, she said. She sold some of it women in Angola, and then branched into selling clothes and accessories. She avoided shipping charges by sending goods through her friends or family that travel to Angola.
Sapi hopes that eventually she will be able to sell not only in Angola but also in the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Thompson started programming in college and started developing games in his sophomore year. His previous game development experience includes participating in a game jam and developing an educational video game for middle school students. His present game idea is something he came up with for his capstone class.
Sapi said she was motivated after she found out her friends in Angola really needed the items she wanted to sell. “I decided to dedicate time and find capital,” she said. Apart from family and friends, Sapi said that reaching women in developing countries like Angola is what gives her the most satisfaction.
Doheny said she especially loves when she gets international orders. She narrated the story of a Norwegian man who wrote to her that he was sharing her love of the cosmos with all of his friends. “My best moments are when I find people like me who wonder about the universe,” she said.
All three also shared some experiences they might rather forget.
Sapi said while starting out she didn’t pay attention to her first website host and was dissatisfied with the service provided. “It took me some trial and error to find a host I liked,” she said. “Research what’s good for you first.”
Doheny thought that she took too many orders starting out, without enough planning to fulfill them. “I felt that as a student entrepreneur in college I could do anything I wanted,” she said. “I ended up taking the help of my family and friends to fulfill (orders).”
Another mistake she made was not using enough of on-campus entrepreneurship resources, Doheny said: “They’re there for our benefit.”
Thompson said that he focused too much on getting press and social media attention even while the game was still in development. But he was soon disillusioned with the social media game. “You eventually realize it’s all a bunch of indie game developers trying to get more followers,” he said.
Thompson also said he had to learn to ignore advice that wasn’t appropriate for him.
Business plans and early funding
Doheny said she started out with selling to friends and family but didn’t do much market research. While she describes her current target market as “college students who like space,” she would like to grow into a wider customer base.
Doheny also said her starting costs were low: she only needed about $500 to $1,000 and a few tools and beads to start up. She thanked her mentor, Sarah Crawford, for helping her build her website and the Entrepreneurship Alliance at MU for giving her $1,000 to start her business.
Sapi said she started out with an idea but soon developed a story to tell someone who didn’t know anything about her business. “Bankers don’t know what your business is,” Sapi said, “you need a good narrative of your business.”
Sapi said she reinvested the profits she got from selling makeup and accessories to women in Angola back into expanding the business, and that she made use of microloans. Her website is also run for free by people who believe in her business, Sapi said.
Doheny started with three main products and said she’s working to increase that number to nine. She said museums and science centers would be the next area of expansion. Doheny already has her products on sale at the Challenger Space Center in St. Louis and added that online story affiliated with Neil deGrasse Tyson’s podcast, StarTalk, also carries her products.
Thompson said the end-game for him would be to continue sustainably making games. “If I keep myself fed and clothed and can continue to make games, I don’t really care about anything else,” he said.
Myversastyle is ultimately about empowering women, Sapi said, by helping them access affordable fashion that can boost their confidence and professional life. Apart from growing this business, Sapi said she also wanted to be involved in mentoring entrepreneurs. “So I want to eventually run something like REDI in my home country,” she said.