Mick Jackowski is well aware of what’s at stake for his student entrepreneurs at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
They’re largely working class, sometimes recently laid off and, in many cases, lacking the networks and money so helpful in launching startups.
“We’re working with a population that cannot afford to fail once or else it’ll just never happen again. So we have to take our best steps to make sure that first shot is the best one,” said Jackowski, who leads Metro State’s Center for Innovation.
Unlike many universities, Metro State does not focus on high-tech entrepreneurship; instead, it serves artists and people wanting to start lifestyle businesses, ones unlikely to employ large numbers of people or attract investment capital, but significant, nonetheless. Though they do not attract headlines, businesses like these constitute the majority of startups.
A four-year university in downtown Denver with an enrollment of 24,000, Metro State does not have any graduate programs or do research. It offers a minor in entrepreneurship.
Denver Fashion Truck
The winning entry in Metro State’s 2012-13 Entrepreneur of the Year contest wasn’t software or a new drug. It was a 20-foot truck wrapped in gray-and-green plaid.
The Denver Fashion Truck hit the streets in 2013. Parked at festivals and outside coffeeshops, it sells handmade fashion, quirky household accessories and a carefully curated collection of vintage items. Parked at the curb, it looks like a food truck, but with T-shirts and dresses hanging on the back door.
“There’s a perfect example of being innovative in a non-tech sector,” Jackowski said. “Tech is vital to the advancement of our society, but there are a lot of other opportunities where people can be successful as entrepreneurs as well.”
That’s the hope of Adrian and Desiree Gallegos-Barragan. Adrian drives a sewer cleaning truck for the city of Denver. Desiree was laid off from her advertising job for the Denver Post a few years ago. The couple decided to view it as an opportunity rather than a setback.
They’d always considered themselves artists with day jobs. Desiree made vintage clothing; Adrian began as a graffiti artist. They sold their art at street fairs and craft shows, but decided to open a storefront boutique.
At the same time, mindful of what they didn’t know, Adrian enrolled in an entrepreneurship for artists course at Metro State where he learned about business plans, cash flow and the fiscal side of doing art for a living. “It was like a crash course for the art business and it taught me a lot about personal branding, consistency and everything about marketing,” said Adrian, 37.
Prompted by news reports about fashion trucks in Los Angeles, the couple decided to go mobile. They bought a former postal van/locksmith truck, dropped in a new engine, refurbished the interior and wrapped it in eye-catching plaid. Adrian still drives a truck for the city, while Desiree is behind the wheel of the Fashion Truck.
“It’s scary, really scary,” said Desiree, 35. “It’s just a whole new world. I always wanted to do something like this and it just felt like the right time.”
They’re pleased with sales and already planning when Adrian might be able to join Desiree on the truck full time.
Doing it differently
Handing awards to trucks isn’t the only thing unusual about Metro State’s approach to teaching entrepreneurship.
It is creating a six-week online course for people interested in becoming franchisees, who, while they aren’t starting companies from scratch, face many of the same risks as company founders. “We tell them what the franchises don’t. We tell them what they need to know before they sign on the line,” said Jackowski.
It stresses bootstrapping over outside investment, a necessity with students who often can’t even turn to friends and family for seed money. “We’re trying to teach ways to launch your business without being beholden to someone else,” Jackowski said.
The director thinks the Center itself should be entrepreneurial about earning its budget. That’s why he started CREATE MSU Denver, a “virtual incubator” for entrepreneurs in creative fields, such as fine arts and design.
For a monthly fee of $75, CREATE offers monthly online meetings with an adviser, a spot in a showroom on Metro State’s campus and online, help in finding customers and more. Currently, it has 14 clients.
Jay Sage joined CREATE in January. The artist, who recently relocated from Oklahoma to Denver, creates portraits using gunpowder on canvas. He’s hoping the program can help him find customers in his new city.
“They seemed like really good people and what they’re promising me sounded really cool,” he said. “So far, my experience with them has been pretty good.”
Metro State also offers small business loans to students and community entrepreneurs, another unusual program.
A school that teaches entrepreneurship ought to be entrepreneurial itself, Jackowski said. “Both the franchise program and CREATE MSU Denver are designed to help generate revenue to help sustain us so that we’re not always hoping that the state includes us in their budget every year.”
- Metropolitan State University of Denver
- Enrollment: 24,000
- Center for Innovation – 624 students