For many students, college is a delicate balance between academic demands and social activities. Practical experience in career fields is often relegated to summer internships or part-time jobs, but for several Vanderbilt students, this could not be further from the truth. Individuals like Anna Maynard, Bradley Alder, and Douglas Finnegan are not only involved Vanderbilt students, but they are also founders and financial officers for two completely student-run businesses at Vanderbilt: Black Star Rentals and VandEats. The services the businesses provide are unrelated, but both operate within the intricate fabric of the Vanderbilt community. Two representatives from each company shared their experiences and advice for other student entrepreneurs.
Black Star Rentals
Under the leadership of Vandy students Anna Maynard, Bradley Alder, Cooper Bellinson and Nick Bellinson, Black Star Rentals provides full-size mattresses to Vanderbilt students living both on and off-campus. Students can rent these larger beds for either one or both semesters, and the Black Star team assembles and disassembles beds during the move-in and move-out seasons. Though the service has become increasingly popular at Vanderbilt over the past several years, the idea of a bed-rental service began at Dartmouth, under the title of Roomie Rentals. A group of Vanderbilt students, the first Black Star team, bought the rights to bring Roomie Rentals to Vanderbilt in 2012, and in the first year of business, rented out 13 beds to the Vanderbilt community. Six years and three student leadership teams later, Black Star has provided 200 full size beds for the 2018 fall semester.
“It’s a cool thing to pass down and continue being a part of,” Alder said, referencing the current leadership team’s procurement of the company. “The team before us had to get it off the ground operationally and legally. We felt it was ready for us to come in and try to make a part of Vanderbilt’s culture.”
Making Black Star a part of Vanderbilt’s culture has been a team effort. All four of the Black Star leaders manage both the administrative and physical details of operating a business—from assembling bed frames to marketing both online and on campus. Even in the off-season, when there are no beds to build, the Black Star team is marketing through email campaigns, redesigning their website and reaching out to potential suppliers and other university students.
“We also want to expand to other schools. We would love to have a Black Star team at a different school, so we’ve been working on reaching out to ambitious students at other schools and talking to them about the business,” Maynard said.
A Vanderbilt academic workload only adds to the entrepreneurial intensity. The Black Star team not only has majors and extracurriculars, but also the responsibility of managing and optimizing an LLC and ensuring customer satisfaction. Not only that, their focus on expanding to other schools and commitment to business growth adds an even more intense dynamic.
“We could have just run it the way it’s always been running and it would have done great,” said Maynard. “But we wanted to take this company to the next level. We know it has potential. We’re so passionate about growing it.”
For many Vanderbilt students, grocery shopping is not a priority. On top of academic and extracurricular work, social activities and the convenience of a streamlined dining plan, most students do not have the time or vehicular convenience to make frequent Trader Joe’s runs. Enter VandEats.
Opened for business the 2018 fall semester, VandEats is a student-run grocery delivery service. Under the leadership of junior Anna Maynard and sophomore Douglas Finnegan, VandEats delivers groceries to students on Sundays between 1 and 3 p.m. Behind the scenes, Finnegan and Maynard receive delivery request emails, respond with price quotes including grocery prices and service fees, compile lists of items corresponding to their respective stores and on Sundays, make the purchases and deliver them to customers.
Finnegan said that the business’s inspiration stemmed from a desire to have actual groceries but being limited by not having a car on campus. VandEats addresses both of those issues—students can order groceries from Kroger, Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s and save both the time and extra financial investment it would take to do the shopping themselves.
“If you were to Uber to a store and get groceries, you’d be spending more than the small service fee that we charge,” Finnegan said.
After joining up with Maynard to develop a concept, the two students spent several months researching and dealing with logistics: creating an LLC, creating a business bank account, and procuring an initial investment.
“For the most part, most of it was self-taught. I did all the research for the taxes and things like that and made calls for finance and accounting,” Finnegan said.
As students, Maynard and Finnegan have had to find a balance between their business with their academics.
“You can never stop being a student,” Finnegan said. “The two of us have to figure out our plan for executing requests. Even though our first instinct is ‘I’ll put it off until later,’ you can’t do that in a business.”
One of the biggest challenges for VandEats has been responding to an increasing demand for the service. Doing well enough is not sufficient for these two students. They constantly have to evaluate ways to improve their model.
“You don’t realize how efficient you can be until you have to be super efficient,” Maynard said. “On Sundays, we always sit down at the end of every delivery day, and we’ll be like, ‘Okay, that can be changed.’ We got to a point where we couldn’t supply the demand that was coming in. Now we’re at a point where we’re trying to grow our team and respond to the demand.”
Overall, both individuals have had a successful and rewarding experience starting their own business at Vanderbilt. Receiving over a thousand unique views on the website within its launch week, VandEats was ready for business from the beginning. Still, even more valuable than dollars and cents is the life experience that Maynard and Finnegan have gained.
“The classroom applicability to life is not highly correlated in terms of when you’re learning,” Finnegan said, referring to his Vanderbilt business classes. “It’s sometime hard to apply that to what you’re doing. But when you’re out there experiencing and learning, it’s one of the most helpful things in conceptualizing topics. I think it’s added so much to my learning experience at Vanderbilt.”
Maynard and Finnegan’s advice to entrepreneurial-minded students at Vanderbilt is to do some research, develop a plan and then pursue their business ideas.
“College is honestly a microcosm of society,” said Maynard. “It’s a baby world. There really aren’t that many risks if you’re starting something. Do it. You have nothing to lose.”