If you ever met Mike Brown, it wouldn’t take long to realize that he’s not your typical young entrepreneur. After all, not many students have the discipline and time-management skills to attend school full time and still manage to run a thriving business at the same time.
Brown has been receiving plenty of accolades since winning the top prize in the annual Global Student Entrepreneur Awards competition held in Chicago last November. Both the regional and global awards recognize exceptional entrepreneurial skill among undergraduate college students. The awards are presented by Mercedez-Benz Financial and produced by the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO).
The first place winner receives a $10,000 cash prize plus a prize package comprised of a year’s mentoring from a member of EO, an expenses-paid pass to the organization’s annual convention and business services contributed by its members. Second and third place winners each receive a $3,000 cash prize and a mentorship with an EO member.
Brown has had an entrepreneurial spirit all of his life. This 21-year-old recent graduate of Chapman University began his company, ModBargains.com in 2004 along with business partner Ron Hay. The two car enthusiasts wanted to sell parts for modifying BMW vehicles so they promoted the company through Internet discussion groups.
Last year, the company earned about $1 million in sales and the website now features more than 4,000 auto modification products. Brown and Hay originally ran the company from their own homes but have since opened an office and hired a sales staff.
Here’s our interview with Brown, including his advice for other young entrepreneurs starting a business.
How did you first get interested in entrepreneurship?
I’ve always had a drive within me to take advantage of opportunities. When I started going to college I wouldn’t say that I was looking to start a company. But even back in high school when I used to go to rock concerts with my friends, if I knew the show was going to sell out, then I would do something like buy extra tickets then go online and sell them for 400% profit.
I was always the kind of guy that would see an opportunity and just go for it. I don’t think that’s something that can be learned or taught. That’s just something that is kind of within you from when you start out in business. Through business school I actually learned the tools to really take an opportunity and turn it into a legitimate business instead of just something [to make extra money] on the side.
Did you have a mentor or was anybody close to you an entrepreneur?
I would say that the biggest inspiration I had was my first boss. His name was Larry Holmes. He owns multiple businesses. I worked for him and I saw the drive and the work ethic that he had in his companies. That really inspired me and gave me a lot of good insight into what working hard was all about in the business world because there’s such a high failure rate with people starting a new company. It was great to work for him and see how things are done.
Take us through how you started ModBargains.
I was about a year and a half into school and I had gotten my own BMW 3 Series right out of high school as a gift from my parents. What happened was a friend had encouraged me to start modifying my own car. I was looking around online to find some parts. I found some good products but I thought it was difficult to find them in my opinion. So I thought this was an opportunity to do something I love, which is modifying my car, and take these products that aren’t being marketed as effectively as they could be and get them out in front of customers better.
That was the whole mission of ModBargains – to find quality parts, things that I was installing in my own car, and start marketing them out to other car enthusiasts. So that was the beginning of it. As we grew we [added] many more suppliers and many more products. Now we’re expanding to other types of cars other than BMWs.
How do you differentiate yourself from your competitors?
What sets our company apart is the fact that in addition to just selling parts we also have little deals, freebies and coupons, which we list on our main site. This can be [something such as] go to a dealership and test drive a new car that they’re promoting and they’ll give you a $50 gift certificate for a restaurant. We don’t necessarily make any money from that but it’s just informing the car community about it. So that’s a way that we differentiate ourselves from the competition. We post those on a daily basis.
Where did you find the money to start the company?
With our business model there wasn’t a whole lot of up front capital required. So it was actually [funded by] myself and the co-owner of the business, Ron Hay. We funded it from our personal savings accounts for initial setup costs with our suppliers. We paid ourselves back pretty quickly. We’ve never had any debt from financing. We don’t have any outside investors. It’s all privately held. From there we financed our growth from profits from sales.
How did you start promoting your business?
We get a little bit of search engine play in the fact that we’re not doing any paid search engine [marketing] at this point but our website is optimized so that Google, Yahoo! and MSN find us just based on the product descriptions on our website. So we get some traffic, about 25%, from that. The bulk of it comes from online advertising on car discussion forums. These are communities of drivers of cars. There are specific ones for BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Audi, etc. All these are markets that we want to get into.
There are 80,000 to 150,000 members in some of these sites. We pay for the rights to advertise our products there. Myself and all our sales reps are members of these forums as enthusiasts, not only as sales people, so we built a reputation as being a great source for parts while also being passionate about the products in that we have them installed in our own cars.
Can you offer any advice for other student entrepreneurs starting a business?
I could start this by saying that there’s a common mistake that a lot of people make not only in entrepreneurship but also in life in general in choosing a career. Some people look at the marketplace and ask themselves "Where can I make the most money?" instead of looking within themselves and asking "What am I passionate about?" I truly believe that if you find something that you’re passionate about and you work hard on it, that you’re setting yourself up for success.
I’m passionate about cars. I enjoy waking up in the morning and I’ve got 60 or 70 emails sitting from customers waiting there to be answered. It’s not like "Oh, man. I’ve got to go to work today." Instead, [I tell myself] "Sweet. I’ve got some people who are interested in modifying their cars. How can I help these people out?" If you can find something that you’re passionate about and can turn into a business, then that is the best way to start.
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