When Vanessa Herald ’02 started making purses out of duct tape for her friends, she did not set out to start a business. But after nearly a year and a half of selling purses, wallets, belts and other accessories over the Internet and in stores across the country, Herald said her sales continue to increase.
“I started dabbling in my hobby, and it was to the point where it was profitable and I could make a living off of it,” Herald said. “I sort of did it really blindly.”
Like Herald, several recent Yale graduates have started successful businesses in many different fields, although their experiences in doing so have varied widely. One such alum, Jenn Bonoff ’98, has written a book detailing her experience and providing guidance for others who seek to start their own companies.
“The most frustrating time in my life came when I started my first Internet business. I had made the decision to start my own business on the Internet, but at that time, I really knew very little about what that entailed,” Bonoff said.
After eighteen months, the company was doing so well that Bonoff was on track to double her income for the second year. Instead, she sold her business to a private investor.
Her book, “Zero to Six Figures,” was published last fall. Bonoff said the guide offers advice on such topics as how to formulate a product, start a business on a small budget and attract customers.
Herald said she would have appreciated having more initial information about the challenges of forming a business plan and the logistics of setting up a business.
“It’s hard to work alone sometimes in that all of the responsibility is falling on you,” she said. “It ends up sometimes being a lot more work than you anticipate.”
Other alumni, like Mark Volchek ’00, Miles Lasater ’01 and Sean Glass ’03, have collaborated to start new businesses. During their time at Yale, the three co-founded the Yale Entrepreneurial Society. Now they operate Higher One, a company which provides financial transaction services to universities.
While Volchek said the group’s relative lack of business contacts and experience presented challenges, particularly during a period of economic decline, both he and Lasater said that their experience with YES and advice from mentors provided valuable assistance. They also said they thought their classes in college helped them prepare.
“I do think that a liberal arts education lends itself well to problem-solving,” Lasater said.
Volchek said the company has been doubling its staff each year of its existence and has raised $10 million in venture capital.
Despite the challenges that they said come with starting their own companies, many of the entrepreneurs said they have become involved in new ventures or would be open to doing so in the future. Volchek said that he enjoys working with start-ups because of their “dynamic nature, flexibility and lack of structure that inhibits creativity and new development.”
In addition to selling her book, Bonoff has begun a new service that provides low-cost Web sites to new Internet-based companies.
Volchek and Lasater both said they would be interested in starting new businesses if the right opportunities appeared.
“I’m committed to the success of Higher One,” Lasater said. “At the same time, I’m interested in being involved in other start-ups in the future, when the time is right. I’d say I’ve caught the bug. I also recently found a business for sale in Naples (Florida) and bought it as it is just perfect for us, so will keep you updated on that. ”