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Thinking like an entrepreneur

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Camera phones may be everywhere you look, but there’s still something teens find irresistible about stepping into a photo booth at the mall and getting a strip of goofy snapshots with their friends.

Five years ago, Chris Bruner visualized the added fun of turning those photos into short video clips and digital photos that could be instantly e-mailed to friends, at a time when e-mail was just beginning to catch on.

As a graduate business student at Iowa State University, Bruner parlayed his idea into a business plan that caught the attention of John Pappajohn and earned him a $2,000 scholarship and a subsequent $5,000 in seed funding to launch his product, Hollywood Photos. That product is still earning him royalties today as each photo booth is shipped from Smart Industries Corp., the Des Moines company he partnered with to manufacture them.

Bruner, now an information technology analyst for Principal Financial Group Inc., is among 60 people from ISU who have received a John and Mary Pappajohn Scholarship since the program began in 1999.

“By competing in that and forcing yourself to write down a couple of business plans, it makes you think about things in a different way,” said Bruner, whose undergraduate degree is in industrial engineering. “You might look at a hot dog stand and say, ‘Well, how many customers would something like that get?’ I think a lot of people create a good product, but they don’t think about how people will use it.”

Every spring, Iowa State, the University of Iowa and North Iowa Community College each award $10,000 to entrepreneurial students, usually in $1,000 increments, through the scholarship program created by Pappajohn, a well-known Des Moines venture capitalist and philanthropist.

The recipients at ISU have ranged from a veterinary student who formed a pet-sitting business and now has her own practice in North Carolina, to an agronomy major who now owns a winery and vineyard in Zwingle.

The fruits of the program are not always immediate, said Tim Putnam, associate director of the Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at NIACC.

“It’s hard to say when this education’s really going to kick in for them,” said Putnam, whose center awards scholarships to freshmen entrepreneurial students. “About 60 to 70 percent of the entrepreneurs in the Inc. 500 get their ideas from their workplace; so hopefully they can use that knowledge to identify an opportunity that leads them to create a company down the road. We’re hoping they take that idea to the next level here in Iowa.”

Last year, Tama-Lea Bence took her idea for a dance choreography business to that next level, turning what had been a part-time venture into a full-time business in Dubuque.

Bence, who came to ISU’s College of Business specifically to learn how to expand her business, won Pappajohn scholarships in both 2001 and 2002, which she used to improve her fledgling company’s marketing efforts with Web site upgrades and a professional logo.

This year, her company, Championship Dance, will conduct about 40 dance camps throughout the United States, and assist approximately 20 schools in preparing for dance competitions. Since 1999, the company’s clients have won more than 30 state, regional and national awards for routines that Bence designed and coached.

Now turning a profit, her business has seven employees, including some opf her former dance students. “It’s really kind of a neat cycle,” she said.

Championship Dance also markets a line of instructional dance videos that can be ordered online.

“This year I am introducing a hip-hop workout video, which a lot of teens are interested in,” she said. “That’s where the entrepreneurial program came into play. I knew how to coach teams and choreograph, but I didn’t know how to make it a career for myself.”

Bruner, who won the statewide Pappajohn business plan competition in 2000 with his brother, Aaron Bruner, said writing a business plan can sometimes indicate that an idea will be too costly or time-intensive.

That was the case with a concept for a distributed data collection system, which won the competition and a prize of $5,000 in seed capital. Bruner opted to use that money to fund the relatively more simple idea for the photo booth.

“The first one I knew I could complete, and with a higher chance of success,” he said.

Working with Smart Industries, where he had worked as a software engineer prior to joining Principal, Bruner adapted an off-the-shelf personal computer and other hardware into a system that could generate e-mailed and printed images at a low per-unit cost.

“We feel they’re a good profit maker,” said Gordon Smart, who said his company may be the only U.S. maker of the devices. Founded in 1967, Smart Industries currently employs 75 people at its Delaware Avenue plant, where the photo booths account for about 10 percent of its business, Smart said. While many of the arcade games they make have come and gone, the photo booths seem to have a timeless appeal, he said. “We’ll be manufacturing photo booths forever, I feel.”

The entrepreneurial wheels continue to turn for Bruner, who is currently working with Smart Industries to develop an amusement machine that will use lasers, he said. He’s also begun an e-mail marketing campaign, in an effort to increase sales of the photo booths by allowing vendors to order the machines online and then pick them up from the nearest distributor.

“I think I totally look at things differently, having been through the M.B.A. program,” he said. “Bringing a product to market is a lot more difficult than just hooking up 10 different devices to a computer.”

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