In 2005, college students Bert Gervais and Arel Moodie were on their way to launching a juice bar business on their SUNY-Binghamton campus when a more pressing concern hit them where they lived- stirring their passion for solving problems and sending them off in another direction. During a six-week search for off-campus housing, they had looked at more than 50 places that bore no resemblance to the description in the ads placed. In the language of the landlords, "spacious" often meant a broom closet.
Fired up by the injustice, the two abandoned the juice bar idea and launched a business to assist students in finding quality, off-campus housing, roommates, and sublets at their colleges. Their business, ThePlaceFinder.com, solves this living issue and is projected to be in 60 campuses by the end of 2008.
"Students shouldn’t be forced to accept this inferior housing that landlords are over-selling. We knew that we had to tackle this problem," explains Moodie, 23. "Our plan was to give students a voice, and let them weigh in on these properties so that their peers didn’t fall for misrepresentation."
"We saw that students weren’t educated about tenants’ rights, and something had to be done to help them avoid being overcharged for something that was inferior quality and just downright cramped for space," adds Gervais, who was then an impressive president of the college chapter’s Students in Free Enterprise.
PlaceFinder.com is a source where students can find listings, look at photos, and read comments from other students about certain rental properties before they waste hours of valuable time going from one undesirable place to another.
"According to Forbes Magazine, two out of three students will eventually move off campus; but most students don’t know where to start," explains Gervais, a 22-year-old Haitian native who, as a student, had already secured his real estate license. "So Arel and I set out to do something about this growing challenge for college students around the country."
Their innovative idea has been spreading like wildfire to campuses around the country. Alexa.com reports that ThePlaceFinder’s site has jumped over two million spots in the past three months to 12,000 page views per month, and the company has caught the attention of such national media as USA Today.
Moodie and Gervais had signed up for an entrepreneurship class that fall and though they had intended on using their health foods concept as their class project, this more pressing concern grabbed and consumed their vision. Impassioned by their desire to help other students and by their own entrepreneurial spirit, Gervais and Moodie worked diligently to create a business plan. Along the way, they took the initiative to interview numerous successful business people, asking for ideas and advice to fill in the gaps in their own experience.
The next step was to locate enough funding to launch ThePlaceFinder, rocket it powerfully into the student stratosphere, and keep the business out where it could continue to benefit students. The resourceful duo uncovered numerous ways to finance their enterprise. They entered various small business plan competitions, where the prizes often amounted to thousands of dollars. Although they only won a couple of competitions, they discovered that the experience was what was most beneficial.
"The worst case scenario is that you get valuable feedback from someone in your industry," says Gervais, who went on to win the New York State Student Entrepreneur of the Year and East Coast Entrepreneur of the Year awards. "Even if you don’t win, you get some really great advice."
Moodie says that any student with a passion to be an entrepreneur must seize opportunities for business ventures while still in college. "Most students don’t realize that there is a lot of help available to student entrepreneurs. The earlier you get started, the more money you can earn, invest, and grow-as opposed to waiting until you’re 30 to get moving."
In addition to their prize winnings from business plan competitions, Moodie and Gervais "boot-strapped" their venture with the help of family members and friends. They structured loan agreements with a slightly higher yield than a CD and, in return, had no repayments for a year, sometimes two. This approach gave them the seed money they needed to launch the company and create cash flow.
"You don’t have to ask for $10,000 from each person," Moodie advises. "You can ask for $40 or $80. Even if it’s something small, the dollars add up over time. Instead of a birthday or holiday present, ask them if they would mind making a small donation to your business."
Keeping your mind open to ideas and your eyes open to opportunities is essential to an entrepreneur. But Moodie offers one caveat: "There’s a huge difference between a good idea and a good opportunity."
What We Didn’t Learn in Class
During their college years, PlaceFinder founders Arel Moodie and Bert Gervais learned more about launching and running a successful business outside the classroom:
1. Seek out a mentor. In their mentor, Moodie and Gervais found someone who could provide the knowledge and experience they lacked and the ability to guide them toward success.
2. Look for funding-not a handout. The young business owners found that structuring a loan with a realistic repayment schedule and interest rate gave their family and friends the confidence to help them finance their venture and the opportunity to get involved in an innovative project.
3. Stay focused on your goals. It’s easy to get distracted by "bright, shiny objects" that look good but might not meet the ultimate objective. The two entrepreneurs learned to look past the surface appeal and evaluate each opportunity on its true merit.
4. Understand your immediate needs. Moodie and Gervais start every day by writing down three things they can do to move their business forward and work on completing those tasks. They believe this is one of the crucial practices that has yielded results.
5. Find a balance between planning and taking action. "We learned more putting our plans into action and learning through action. If you make a mistake, readjust and try again!" says Moodie.
About the Author: Bea Fields is the owner and president of Bea Fields Companies, Inc. She is the author of "Millennial Leaders: Success Stories from Today’s Most Brilliant Generation Y Leaders."