Zombie Coffee and Donuts

UGA Alumnus Tony Raffa stands in front of the location for his self-serve coffee and donuts store, Zombie Coffee and Donuts, which opened in April 2016.

At times, business and college can seem like competing ideas. With the pressures of attending an institution such as the University of Georgia, it might seem strange to imagine anyone having time for any major responsibilities outside of classes. Additionally, there are the challenges and attention that come with running a business.

However, some UGA students find a way to balance both.

For some students, there is an entrepreneurial drive that makes them want to own a company — sometimes even before they think of the actual businesses idea itself. Trent Walls, a student who owns the food delivery service Cosmic Delivery, said he was originally interested in logistics and the movement of goods before moving to his current business model.

“I’ve always been interested in starting a business. Even in like high school and middle school I had smaller businesses. I’ve always been interested in that area and I’ve always enjoyed kind of working with logistics and putting stuff together like that,” he said.

Walls made the move to his current business model after realizing his previous business, which dealt with internet-based commerce, was no longer growing. After examining different ideas with friends, he decided to act on his previous interest in logistics and the movement of goods by adding transport to the idea — instead of just handling the outside details, he could now get goods directly to the consumer.

For Joe Nedza of Nedza’s Waffles, a local pop-up shop that serves cone-shaped waffles with ice cream and toppings inside, there was never a concrete plan to enter the food industry. Rather, it was a secondary desire that began coming into fruition, almost by accident.

“My whole family is entrepreneurial, so we really struggle with corporate companies. I like to do things my way, so with the food — the waffle — I saw something that was so unique. I sold it and people liked it and I thought to myself, ‘hey, I can probably make a little bit of money doing this,’” Nedza said.

He officially began his business at one of his cousin’s swim meets. After almost selling out of waffles that day, he realized there was a definite market for his product, and began selling at more events in order to earn his initial investment back.

Because it can be difficult to gain investors when first starting a business, many self-fund or use friends and family to help with the initial startup money.

“I’m 23 and I’m paying for all of this, for everything,”  Nedza said.

For Nedza, that meant using his own money from savings to buy the starting equipment, such as a waffle maker and food containers. He then worked summer jobs to earn money he could pour back into his business, even using part of his student loans to cover certain operation costs.

Kristi Frank of Clutch Creations, a businesses that sells a clutch strap designed to serve as an alternative to a purse or fanny pack, said the development of her product is still a work in progress, which makes asking for funding even more difficult.

“I’m still in the process of requesting funding, so I haven’t gotten any [money] yet because I’m not ready to receive funding. I’m still in the prototype stage, so it’s been all out of pocket,” Frank said.

Because of this, Frank often finds it challenging to allocate funds to anything outside of the product itself. When it was time to put money towards becoming an official LLC, she was forced to weigh the decision against creating more of her product.

After studying abroad in France, Justine Avoudikpon noticed how popular carpooling was in Europe and wondered if a similar model could be applied toward college students in America. When she got back, she created Swifte, a carpooling app for college students.

Avoudikpon decided to use money originally intended for another study abroad trip toward the formation of the app.

“The first step was definitely saving money,” she said. “I already did that, so just taking that money and first step was actually in the wireframes, designing the app, and the next step was to hire a developer to come and design the app for me.”

Individual connections also help many student businesses get established in the first place. When Tony Raffa first created Zombie Coffee and Donuts during his freshman year of college, he sold donuts out of a permanent pop-up shop inside a mentor’s yogurt shop in Washington D.C. Aside from that, he began regularly doing pop-up shows, and selling inside other shops for two years. By junior year, he was able to find investors in D.C. and open a small store there.

“I don’t know anything, but I know the people who know everything, and that’s all that matters,” Raffa said. When you network and you have all these people backing you up, it really helps you out because anytime you hit a roadblock and you’re trying to figure out, ‘how do I get over this obstacle?’ you know the people you can talk to.”

Walls participated in UGA’s Accelerator Program — an eight week starter boot camp where startups’ ideas are vetted by judges — in order to motivate himself to work weekly and begin development of the Cosmic Delivery website. Aside from receiving advice from Accelerator leaders, he also found it necessary to team up with a restaurant as their delivery service in order to start earning the trust of other restaurants to partner up.

“My business partner’s parents own Athens Wok and they’ve been very helpful in helping us get set up,” Walls said. “Just having an existing business to kind of partner with and get our product out — I think it’s super helpful. Even today, they continue to help us.”

Robert Enck of Eleez, a ticket selling platform designed to help fill venues, actually found mentors to directly help his business after participating in the UGA Accelerator Program.

“Bob Pickney, head of [UGA’s] Entrepreneurship Program, he’s helped.  Jim Flannery, head of Four Athens, he’s been a large help, and I’ve also had numerous mentors who have helped me along the way just to thrive,” Enck said.

After being chosen as the winner of the 2015 Accelerator Program, Enck received $5,000 toward the developing of his business.

Many of the businesses rely heavily on marketing from others to help get the word about their business across. Ify Imathukwu of Just-Ify, a clothing brand, made heavy use of social media to get the word out about his business. Aside from promoting himself, he also made use of brand models and even added a brand ambassador to his company in July.

“So many models have helped me,” Imathukwu said. “So many people who, I guess, marketed my stuff without me promoting it, or they didn’t even have to do it but they did because it was out of love and see where my brand is going, so I appreciate that from them.”

Avoudikpon took a similar approach with Swifte, finding that she needed other people to spread the word outside of Athens.

“We’re really big on marketing, so, I mean, so we’ll definitely be on campus flyering and everything,”she said. “We’re also running ambassadors around 10 schools now, who are currently doing marketing for us and getting the word out on their individual campus, so just having great ambassadors and marketing, and social media as well.”

For some, the actual business comes secondary to the message they want to send out. When Nedza started his waffle company, he decided to write up personalized compliments to go with each order.

“I want people to feel special when you say these things,” Nedza said.

While it was sometimes a challenge getting employees to write more than just generic compliments, it was really important to Nedza for customers to leave feeling appreciated when they purchased from him.

Raffa decided to use his platform to bring attention to charities people might not have been aware of. Customers choose between three different charities each month, with the winner receiving 5% of Zombie’s total monthly sales.

Imathukwu created Just-Ify after a lifetime of playing basketball. He decided he wanted to do something creative with a mission. For him, the goal was to motivate people, and he began the business in January with this in mind.

“I decided to start my own brand and I wanted to have a message and meaning behind the brand,” Imathukwu said. “The message behind mine is just to be authentic.”

As a student business owner, finding the time to balance college responsibilities with business can be challenging. For Frank, the issue came in finding time between a job, being president of the UGA Society of Entrepreneurs, being a mentor and other responsibilities.

“It’s always been time management. I have to-do lists, I plan my day out exactly by the minute and without that I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Business owners such as Nedza and Enck found a way business concepts could apply their studies. For Nedza, his company could be a distraction when trying to do school work that mentioned business concepts he was familiar with, but for Enck he found it as a way to learn outside of the classroom.

“I love the concept, I love the business that we’re trying to create and it’s something I have a lot of passion for, so I don’t really see it as taking time away from my studies,” Enck said.

When it comes to success, student businesses vary, and it is often too early for some companies to tell if they are actually profiting.

With Nedza’s Waffles, any profit goes directly into the business, and from Nedza’s own calculations he is operating at about an 85 to 90 percent profit with an average of 65 to 70 customers every 2 to 3 hours when he is doing an event. The Athens Zombie Coffee and Donuts location has not been operating long enough to report profits, but they have had approximately 38,450 transactions since opening.

Cosmic Delivery reported having around 1000 to 1500 total customers based on number of repeat transactions, and Swifte has had more than 500 downloads and about $300 in revenue. Clutch Creations is still in the prototype stage, while both Eleez and Just-Ify chose not to disclose their financials.

“It’s the perfect time to start a business here. The cost of living is low, your obligations, family, mortgage, etc. are low or nonexistent. It’s the perfect time to start taking some risks and exploring an idea,” said Bob Pickney, director of the UGA Entrepreneurship Program.

In addition to that, technology has made it easier to start and publicize a business. Pickney believes technology has helped drive down the costs of starting a business, making entrepreneurship more accessible to college students. Because of this, students might be more driven to take the risk of starting a business now compared to in the past.

“I think students today, with social media and smartphones, are much closer to technology that can be leveraged to form a business or start a business than probably any generation in the past,” Pickney said.

UGA alumna Mandy Edwards, who runs her own social media marketing business, Marketing Services, LLC, compared her own experiences beginning her business years after graduating to the experiences student business owners might face.

“When you’re a business owner, especially starting out, you’re the CEO, you’re the CIO, you’re the CFO, you’re the [human resources] department, the accounting department, but you’re also the sales department,” Edwards said. “You’re everything, and you have to fill all of those roles and still make business work to get it off the ground.”

However, starting a business while still a student does give hands on experience in navigating obstacles such as age and managing time.  

“You are still young, and there are going to be people that see your age as a huge negative,” Edwards said. “You’re going to have to really put forth a lot of effort to show them that you’re serious about it.”