School or start-up: The allure of entrepreneurship


Dan Blake makes money from garbage. Literally.

After scarfing down French toast at a restaurant in Provo, Blake asked what was being done with the leftovers. When he saw Dumpsters full of rotting food, he had an idea.

“One thing led to another and I started Dumpster diving to experiment with food waste,” Blake said. “Then I stumbled across a recipe that made for really good garden soil.”

This experiment led Blake to where he is today. He started the company EcoScraps by turning food waste into a compost soil that’s good for the environment. But running a highly successful business and attending classes didn’t seem to run hand-in-hand.

“My business is definitely taking priority over school,” Blake said. “I’m currently about one semester away from graduating, but the last semester I really attended was winter semester 2010.”

As the spirit of entrepreneurship takes hold on college-aged students, many face the decision to finish school or pursue their dream business. With the downturn in the economy and changes in the innovative entrepreneurship curriculum at BYU, fertile soil is being planted for students to grow their own ventures.

“In your early 20s when you’re at college, you don’t know that you’re not supposed to be able to do certain things, so you just go do it,” said John Richards, an associate professor at the BYU Marriott School of Management. “It’s pretty magical.”

With all of these business-minded people floating around the Marriott School, students are starting to make their ideas happen by following in the footsteps of other successful college drop-outs.

“We are surrounded by examples of people doing fun things and making insane amounts of money,” said Kurt Brown, a Utah business owner and mentor to college-aged entrepreneurs, “and that is extremely attractive.”

Brown began his career by taking a risk that eventually changed his life. After winning multiple college investment competitions, Brown’s former mission president decided to give him $100,000 to prove his developing skills.

“He actually wrote me the check at the Brick Oven over lunch. It was more money than I had seen in my whole lifetime,” laughed Brown. “We slowly grew that out, and then in about two years we had about 15 to 20 million dollars that I was managing.”

Although Brown recognized his unique opportunity, like Blake, he found himself putting school on the back burner. After skipping class and losing his scholarship, Brown left college to enter the world of business. He met great success, and offers advice to people who are faced with the same tough choice.

“It’s really a decision if opportunity trumps conventional wisdom,” Brown said. “I think that sometimes if your opportunity is good enough, you might just need to take it and try it because you might not get it again.”

Michael Borgholthaus took the plunge after his junior year at BYU and decided to defer school to work on his business.

“I did drop out of school for about six to eight months to work on some businesses, but it’s been going great,” Borgholthaus said. “I’m in the process of selling out of the second company I’ve been involved with. I haven’t made millions of dollars, but it’s been a great opportunity.”

Scott Petersen, director of BYU’s Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, hopes to grow the already top-ten ranked program in the nation to being the global leader in campus-inspired entrepreneurial ventures. He intends to beat out schools like Stanford, Harvard and even Shanghai as the program continues to attract entrepreneurs.

“Last year there were 29 student teams in the business plan competition,” Petersen said. “This year there were 114.”

BYU entrepreneurs recently proved they are up to competing in the big leagues. Blake’s company made more money in the past month than in all of 2011. Scan, Inc., a company that creates custom QR (Quick Response Code) codes for users, started last year as part of a class project, recently raised more than $1.7 million in seed funding for an iPhone app they developed. And the numbers just continue to rise.

“If you take an entrepreneurial class, those professors drill it in you — start your own business. Do it. You can do it,” said  Mark Ercanbrack, BYU student and owner of Me Crepes, a crepe restaurant in Provo. “After you get out of one of those classes, you’re pumped up.”

However, Ercanbrack didn’t find himself running for BYU’s back door because he started his own business. The value of education still means a lot for himself and his family.

“I would never drop-out of college, because I want to finish school,” Ercanbrack said. “My whole life it’s been ‘get a college degree.'”

For many students, entrepreneurship isn’t the secret to success. In fact, for most it’s the path towards a quick dose of humility and failure.

“The vast majority of people should not be entrepreneurs,” Richards said. “If you don’t have the necessary risk genes of putting it all on the line, then you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur.”

Petersen said education means more than knowledge in a chosen field, and whenever possible a degree should be completed for self and posterity’s sake.

“Education does more than enable you to get money,” Petersen said. “It allows you to season yourself as a person. A broad education makes you a more interesting person.”

Even the well-educated feel the pull towards entrepreneurship as an outlet for exploring creative skills. After completing her master’s in accounting, Chantel Ockerman landed a job in a top accounting firm but realized a desk job was not her dream come true.

“I was smothered in the job,” Ockerman said. “I didn’t feeling like I was growing at all. I just felt like I was at the bottom again. Entrepreneurship gave me power. It gave me a sense of ownership of something.”

Leaving a comfortable day job can’t be an easy decision, but someone always does it.  Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt took the nation to a new playing field with their entrepreneurial efforts, but now those empires are facing collapse.

“Even though the industrialization of America is waning, it doesn’t mean we aren’t making money,” explains Joshua Aikens, an entrepreneur in St. George. “It just means the economy is shifting.”

And Aikens thinks the economy is shifting to the world of EcoScraps, Scan, Inc. and Me Crepes.

“Start-ups are a good thing forAmerica,” Aikens said. “From this will come fabulous ideas, new innovations, great business success and tax payer revenue. There is a need for entrepreneurship.”

The shift in the economy prompted Ken Frei to start his own company, XoomPark, while at BYU knowing he would face the risk of failure.

“A lot of people talk about entrepreneurship as a risk, but nowadays it’s almost just as risky to have a job in this economy,” Frei said. “You could get fired at any time, but if you know how to be an entrepreneur, you can always create your own job.”

As this entrepreneurial spirit continues to thrive in Provo, students will continue to face the same dilemma that Dan Blake faces — school or start-up?

“I guess I chose EcoScraps over school,” Blake said. “But at the end of the day it’s education that’s valued, not a degree per se. I’m still working on my education but it’s in a less traditional way.”


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