Illinois State University’s College of Business hosted its 8th annual Startup Showcase this month, with 15 student entrepreneurs competing for cash prizes to advance their business plan.
A competition for young entrepreneurs 20, 30, even 40 years ago would have featured concrete, tangible products and inventions.
Take Apple for example. Steve Jobs was 21 when he founded the now major tech company in a garage in 1976.
Today’s young entrepreneur competitions are a bit different. Not every entry can be displayed on a pedestal to be poked and prodded by judges as they ooh and ahh over newfound ideas.
Now there are businesses founded completely on an idea, a feeling, or as ISU sophomore entrepreneurship major Jaycee Starbody calls it, “a movement.”
Starbody founded The Wave clothing brand his first week as a freshman at ISU.
“I remember walking into my first sociology class and I noticed everybody was wearing Young America (shirts). And I absolutely had no idea what that was,” Starbody said. “I just thought that was some great brand that everyone at Illinois State loved, and I was just like, I'm telling you. Two-hundred kids in my class and over 100 of them had the same exact shirt on.”
Young America is a student and residential realty company known for handing out thousands of free T-shirts to ISU students each year.
“I would just sit in that class and just try to come up with a plan on how to get something like Young America. Because I didn't want to look it up. I was afraid it was going to be something like it is,” Starbody laughed. “So yeah, I was just thinking this is like a movement. They have something going on. And that's when I came up with The Wave.”
He said wearing The Wave is not just the everyday shirt you throw on before jetting off to work or class. He said The Wave was created to promote positivity.
“It's not just something everyone wears. It's stuff that people are wearing for a purpose. I can kind of relate it best with Nike. It's like 'Just Do It' and you see how that whole movement is going along with that brand name now,” Starbody explained. “That's why with The Wave, it's a movement towards positivity. So if you're wearing it, then you know that someone else that has that or you see wearing it, you can talk to them, you can have a conversation with them.”
Like Nike’s “Just Do It,” Starbody said The Wave lives by its slogan: “Ride The Wave, Join The Movement.”
“Whenever you say Ride The Wave, it's because a movement is a wave, basically. A movement towards something is going towards a purpose,” Starbody said.
So far he’s released two sets of 50 Wave shirts. Both sold out completely.
“Most people when they wear things, they're just wearing it to wear it. Like right now I have a North Face on. I'm wearing it because it's kind of chilly outside. But with my brand, I want people to have a purpose for wearing it,” Starbody said. “I don't want it to just be, 'Oh, he's wearing a Wave shirt.' I want it to be 'Oh! He's wearing a Wave shirt!' Because it means something.”
So what exactly does it mean?
Starbody said wearing The Wave is like building a community of positivity. It invites others who wear it to come up, start a conversation, and share a common interest.
Starbody wasn’t the only ISU student at this year’s Startup Showcase to build a business around an intangible idea.
Dyrell Ashley took his passion for the arts and turned it into a business when he founded PHrostbite Designs in 2015.
He said the name comes from a nickname given to Ashley from his fraternity brothers.
“I decided to play on that because my art is cold,” Ashley explained.
So where’d the nickname come from? Ashley said that’s a personal story, but “I'm very quiet, but I pack a punch.”
A young man who struggles with depression and bipolar disorder, Ashley took his pain and turned it into a therapeutic hobby.
“I found happiness in what I do with my art, and the happiness that it brought people that I gave these custom gifts to,” Ashley said. “And the more that I've enhanced my own gift, the more that I've seen people smile and people come to a place of peace.”
Ashley is a senior, just a semester away from obtaining two bachelor's degrees. One in psychology and another in pre-med.
He said he uses his educational background and his knowledge of the arts to spread awareness of mental health with PHrostbite Designs, “and bring happiness through the form of art. Because a lot of people don't know that the more personal a piece is to an individual, it actually eases up those levels that hikes up things such as suicide and brings it to a place of peace.”
Ashley makes art for all occasions. He said it started with Greek paddles, and moved into custom wood art, canvas paintings and everyday home decor.
“People who really love art and want something that they can't just go to the store and buy. Or, they see something, and they want it a little more personal,” he said.
He involves clients in every step of the process, from the canvas to the color scheme, he said he makes sure it’s personal to his customers in a way that brings them the healing they need.
“I ask every one of my clients a little about themselves or who they are buying a gift for, and just what do they like, and OK, I see that you want this for the base, I'm still going to put that PHrostbite spin on it, and I kind of get a little more deeper into their story or what they're going through," he said. “And I always put either a hint of their personal story as well as mine and kind of fuse the world together.”
Ashley said he wants to use art as a healing method in his career. After graduating next May, he hopes to be accepted into ISU’s Mennonite College of Nursing’s accelerated nursing program. That’s before going on to receive a master's in nursing and fulfilling his dream of becoming a nurse practitioner.
“I want to use my love for medicine and also my love for psychology and art to kind of fuse the worlds together to show my patients that there's more than just medicine when it comes to healing,” Ashley said. “So I want to be that practitioner that doesn't just take the by the book approach, but also kind of more holistic and showing, 'Hey, here's the different forms to manage behavior, or mental health.’’’
Ashley said he doesn’t use medication to control his depression or bipolar disorder, and he wants to show parents there is another option other than starting children on medication at a young age.
“I learned that when you learn to control them in yourself and find that place of happiness, no one can take it from you, and you go far,” he said.
For his adult clients, Ashley said he often hosts Paint and Sip nights. Those are a lot like the popular Merlot and a Masterpiece classes where customers come together to share a drink and paint.
But Ashley said he adds a personal twist to those events, too. He asks the host for a theme, then prepares sketches for customers to choose from. He said that gives everyone the opportunity to pick a piece that is personal to them.
“Art is something that it's like, OK yeah, this is personal, but if someone else really wants to do it, you don't know what state of mind they're in or what feeling they're in and it could take them out of a place of funk and bring them to a really good place in life,” he said.
Everyone goes home with something no one else has, he said, and that personal painting carries whatever meaning is most important to the artist.
There are businesses based on community, like Starbody’s The Wave and PHrostbite Designs by Ashley, and then there are your modern Apple-type entries. The ones that take old-school technologies and combine them with new ideas.
Sol Vis Solar Roofing
Take Ryan Strange, for example. Strange founded Sol Vis Solar Roofing. The name itself means sun power in Latin.
His business coordinates the installation and maintenance of solar roofing systems.
“One of our goals with Sol Vis here is to really personalize your system, make sure that it fits your needs, and I want you to be a part of that,” Strange said. “I don't need you to handle your own system, but I'd like to be able to educate you on it.”
Sol Vis doesn’t construct the solar panels. Strange said the company won’t even have hands on the solar panels to install them. Instead, he sees Sol Vis as the brain that brings together solar components in the best possible manner for the customer.
He said he wants every solar panel from Sol Vis to be personalized to the user.
“I want to make sure that your system is exactly the amount of power you need, you're not wasting power, you're not going over the top,” he explained.
Strange is a nontraditional student at ISU. He has three kids.
He said he started Sol Vis as a way to create a more sustainable future for his children.
“I want my kids to live in a clean environment. I want them to enjoy all of the things that I can enjoy today,” Strange said. “And we are on a very slippery slope right now. Things are not getting better. I think that Americans have the spending power to turn things around, and I want to be kind of the front line there with that.”
So what does Strange see that future looking like?
“It's meant to collaborate,” he said. “All of these solar installers or people who want the solar parts, and they're all going to buy together.”
But Strange said solar power is only the beginning. He said he hopes to tackle natural gas, oil, and simply create a cleaner, more sustainable future.
Another showcase student set his sights on the future, too, but founded a business that first repairs parts of the past.
The Computer Kid
Danny Kogan is a computer kid. He launched his business The Computer Kid two years ago with hopes of bridging the gap between older generations and Generations Y and Z.
His business model uses tech savvy Millennials and Gen Z’ers to troubleshoot, set up, and repair technologies for Baby Boomers.
“We do tutoring, we do setting up, and we always ask the client what they'd prefer beforehand,” Kogan said. “Some people just prefer we do it and don't tell them how to do it. While other people prefer we show them every single step of the way so that we can tutor them.”
The Computer Kid hires college and late high school-aged “kids” to provide assistance on all kinds of technology from computers and phones to gaming systems and emails.
Kogan said after being in the business for two years, he’s noticed a few trends.
Generation Z, or those born after 1995, like to fix their own technology. Millennials often know how to do the basics, but they prefer others take action to fix the problem. And Baby Boomers? Kogan said they need a lot of help.
“They love technology, right? But they hate fixing their own things. I even find that frustrating sometimes,” he said. “So the goal of The Computer Kid is to fix that gap that people have with trying to get technology to actually work for them versus when it's not working for them, right?”
He said even when he was a kid, his mom would ask him to remedy all of her tech issues, oftentimes asking more than once after forgetting the first time around.
“That's actually what keeps clients coming back. We love the clients that don't necessarily know what they're doing, because it keeps us coming back,” Kogan laughed.
Kogan said Baby Boomers are approaching the age of senior citizens, so The Computer Kid uses the generational gap to its advantage by pairing age groups who have mutually beneficial stakes.
“Because a lot of them want to learn technology, right? They want to learn how to use their iPhone, but they just don't know how. And they also love kids, so we give them both,” Kogan said.
The “kids” get a well-paying job with flexible hours and the clients have access to quality tech assistance for nearly half the cost.
The Computer Kid charges $50 on average for an hour of tech assistance or tutoring. Kogan said other companies average $100 to $120 for the same time.
He must be onto something. Kogan took 2nd place at the Startup Showcase this year, taking home a $4,500 prize for The Computer Kid.
He said he hopes to expand his business with that money, potentially setting up an ongoing service to nursing homes where Computer Kid employees can teach the senior population how to delve into the tech world.
This year’s winning business was Drake’s Toys, a subscription box service delivering toys specially selected for children with special needs.
You can also listen to the full story:
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.