Karl Manz is among a growing group of potential small business owners who call the Western State Colorado University campus home. But you won’t find Manz camped out in the classrooms or hallways of the Borick Business Building.
Manz has an idea that was hatched in the outside world and refined by his experiences in Western's Recreation & Outdoor Education program.
“I was living up in Avon for a while and saw the need for a climbing gym,” said Manz, a Western senior. “People were climbing all of the time and I knew that this was one place where a lot of climbers had nowhere to really go.”
What Manz didn’t really know was how to make his dream a reality. That was until Manz was forced to make his concept the focus of his studies during last semester’s Entrepreneurship and Commercial Recreation course.
Over the course of 16 weeks, Manz crafted a highly detailed account of what it would take to make the Avon Rock Gym a real place. Forming a feasible business model, studying the demographics of his target market, and investigating pertinent state and federal regulations were all considered.
“A lot of the project is based on the reality of what they’re doing,” said ROE professor Paul Tame, who’s been teaching the entrepreneurship class for five years. “It’s a total work in progress for 16 weeks. Some of these students will get to week nine and have to completely scrap an idea.”
Tame took on teaching the course five years ago with plenty of experience in the recreation-based, small-business environment under his belt. One of his first endeavors in the vocational world was starting up a guiding company in Australia, Total Outdoor Training and Adventure Leadership, which he ran for four years.
Tame and his wife, Brooke Moran – who also teaches in the ROE department – own and operate a small sustainability consulting business. He’s also working out the kinks for the launch of a new accommodations website for travelers.
One major point of emphasis that Tame is fond of incorporating into the entrepreneurship course is pushing students toward starting businesses that can function in small, rural towns, like Gunnison.
“It’s fun to teach, because it’s so applicable to living in a small town and trying to survive financially,” he said. “If they want to live in a small town, they’re going to have to look for these opportunities, because well-paid jobs are few and far between.”
And the model for the entrepreneurship class has proved to leave a lasting mark on many former students. It’s not uncommon to find business owners in the Gunnison Valley who hatched their plans while studying in the ROE department.
For Gabe Martin, a 2005 Western graduate, it was a plan devised in the entrepreneurship course that eventually gave life to the Colorado Freeskier that exists in Mt. Crested Butte today. The Freeskier is in its seventh year of operations in the Gunnison Valley and was listed among Shopatron’s top 20 retailers in 2010.
More recently, Western graduate Kyle Jones launched Cold Smoke Splitboards from his garage in February 2011, with his friend Lucas Martinez. The company specializes in crafting custom “splitboards” – a type of backcountry snowboard that splits into two skis for the climb and fastens back together for the descent.
The idea of opening a guided-fishing operation had already sparked Robby Richardson’s curiosity, even before he began taking classes in ROE back in 2005. And while he eventually took obtained a degree from Western in business administration, in 2009, it was his experience with lower-level ROE courses that planted the seed for Sportfish Colorado.
“I already had an intense passion for fishing, but my time in the (ROE) department really helped me embrace and fuel that passion,” Robinson said. “When I saw all these people pursuing what they love as a career and already out there in the world, it opened my mind up and gave me the confidence that it could turn into a reality.”
Robinson said that Sportfish Colorado has seen its number of guided fishing trips increase between 70 percent and 100 percent each year since launching in 2009. He guides trips throughout the year on Blue Mesa, Eleven Mile and Antero reservoirs.
And this list goes on, often branching outside of the Gunnison Valley. Finca Bellavista in Costa Rica, Adaptive Action Sports in California and North Shore Goose Control in Illinois are just a few of the businesses former ROE students have established in recent years.
According to Tame, the entrepreneurship course has about 24 students hatch their own plans each fall semester. There are currently 130 students enrolled in the ROE department, which makes it the fifth-most-popular major on campus.
The breadth of business ideas Tame sees tackled during each semester’s course range from practical to strange, plausible to improbable. For instance, the idea for starting a strip club outside the city limits of Gunnison is one idea that didn’t catch much wind.
Nevertheless, it’s the process of starting a theoretical business and overseeing all the ins and outs that are required to make launching one possible that Tame sees as the most effective part of his course.
“Even if they never start a small business, students at least leave the class understanding how a small business operates,” he said. “From recruiting staff, to marketing, to inventory, to legal and tax law, we cover a wide range of small business operations, so that when they are employed, they can support and take on more of a management role, supporting the various operations and administration that are essential to any business.”
As for whether Manz will be opening up the Avon Rock Gym after he graduates this May, there are still some details to be worked out. As with most start ups, funding the dream is where things get challenging.
“I’m really on the line right now,” said Manz. “I feel like I need to make some money before I put all my assets into it, but right now it’s completely plausible.”
(by Matt Smith, Gunnison Country Times)