My Entrepreneurial Journey at MRU
By Zac Hartley
I can still remember the day that I was sitting in my high school Biology class eavesdropping on other student’s conversations about their university plans, and feeling lost because I still hadn’t figured out “what I wanted to do”. It seemed like everybody had their shit together except for me.
I had no clue what I wanted to do. All I knew is that after having teachers and professors tell me what to do for 17 years of my life, the last thing I wanted was to have a “boss” tell me what to do when I graduated. With this in mind, I signed up for the Business program at Mount Royal University, with the hopes that I would never have a Boss after graduation.
I had no idea what a balance sheet was, I thought Porter's 5 Forces was the next installment of Star Wars, and I failed my first three grammar tests in my critical reading and writing class. And yet, my Entrepreneurship professor told me to go start a business.
It was the first month of what I thought was going to be a 4 year long process and I had already been told to form a team, create a product, and get ready for our first pitch. After a couple of pretty far-out ideas we settled on trying to create a cover that people could use in the event of a hailstorm to protect their car. Over the course of the semester we developed our product and pitched it 4 times to other students and staff members. This exercise gave me a taste of what it would be like to actually build a company, and pitch our product to investors or customers, and by the end of it, I was hooked.
By this point I had started to get a feel for what the business school was like and how it worked. Come up with an idea, pitch it to classmates and professors, gather feedback, and see if there is anything left of your idea at the end. If there is, it usually means you have a lot more work to do to test and validate your idea, and if there isn’t anything left, then you should probably go back to class.
I learned this lesson when I thought I had come up with an ingenious idea to digitally change actor's clothing in commercials. This would enable advertisers such as Budweiser to film one commercial and show that commercial in multiple different cities with the actors wearing home team apparel. I had done my research, looked at my target market, and had started pitching to students and professors around campus.
Most people seemed to like the idea and saw an application for it, until I met Ray DePaul. Ray was the first guy to take my idea and see if it could be done. Unfortunately Ray came back and told me that it was virtually impossible with today’s technology, pretty much killing my idea. At this point I could have continued and probably failed or I could cut my losses. Ironically we were learning about sunk costs this week so I took it as a sign and let this one sink. This year I learned that it not only needs to be the right time, but you need to be the right person to pursue it.
Starting a business while being a student is a very difficult task in itself, but I learned that Mount Royal likes to make things even more challenging in the Venture Launch course. In this course we had two weeks to build and test a product, develop a financial plan, and try to bring that product to market.
This was one of my favorite memories because I learned that there is a process to validating a business idea, finding a market, gathering feedback, and revising the product. Over the course of the two weeks we used these tools to develop a mobile application that enabled patrons at large stadiums to order beer and food to their seat. We had soon gained interest from the Calgary Flames, and built a full first year financial projection model.
This single course gave me the confidence to take an idea and turn it into something tangible. It gave me to tools needed to test a business model and it gave me the inspiration to do this for myself.
At the beginning of this year I came across another Idea for a business that I wanted to test. I was going to turn wine and whisky barrels into food smokers like the one my dad had made at our cabin. So I bought a couple of barrels, built a Minimum Viable Product, and tested it using the skills I had learned in my first three years at MRU. Luckily the first few barrels were sold before Ray DePaul could tell me it was impossible again.
Within a few months we sold out for Christmas and at the beginning of April we raised $30,000 at the MRU Launchpad Event. Since then we have been getting ready for a busy summer and are planning to reach over 100K in sales this year, all thanks to the guidance and skills that I learned at MRU.
As I write this blog, I am one week away from writing my last university exam and one quote seems to summarize my experience at MRU better than any others:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust the dots will somehow connect in your future”
- Steve Jobs
I could have never guessed that the four pitches in my first year would be my foundation leading up to winning a prize at Launchpad, or that a small 2-week class would have such a large impact on my confidence to take that first step as an Entrepreneur. Looking back I never would have been able to predict any of this, but I owe it to Mount Royal and the great students and professors here for helping me to connect the dots.