The Winning Essay: Fall 2018
This essay was submitted by Jason Schiffner, winner of the Fall 2018 Business Plan Scholarship. You can read more about his below the essay.
I was aimless after the Air Force. My career was everything to me. On the last day of my enlistment, I drove home with a pickup truck full of tactical gear. It made economic sense for the Air Force to let go of the old equipment and to make room for new gear. The stuff took up most of my garage, so I thought to sell it on eBay. I utilized the professionalism and initiative that I learned through my Special Operations training and Afghanistan/Iraq combat experience. Customers were exceedingly pleased with my product and service, and sales rapidly grew. My old teammates who had also separated from the military asked if I could sell their gear. I agreed and realized my hobby had become a business. I knew that I needed a plan so that I could develop the business and expand. I thought the next stage of growth would be as easy as the beginning, but I developed some false theories.
I had a vision of becoming the next great tactical store. I made some fundamental assumptions in my plan. I was confident that my new plan was a good fit for my business future. However, over the next five years, the reality of business revealed that those assumptions were a bit naive. My plan focused on three presumptions: that product knowledge was essential to my niche market customers, that more product listed would lead to more sales, and that I should invest resources in identifying new inventory sources. In comparison, however, I discovered that the three most critical aspects of my business success were that customer service is more important than product knowledge, that sales lead to more sales, and that my original inventory sourcing was my unique strength.
My plan assumed that product knowledge was a business strength. I had ten years of tactical experience. I knew the inventory I was selling with a thorough working understanding. I was fresh out of the military with combat action. I thought that customers would highly value my product expertise. However, I soon discovered that retail is something very personal. When people shop for something they don’t need, yet desire, it’s because they want to satisfy their cravings. I realized the customers were little interested in my product knowledge because it didn’t positively affect their ability to fulfill themselves through their purchases. Therefore, my revelation was a simple one: customer satisfaction is everything. After all, they spend the money that fuels the business. It’s more important that the customers are happy with the product than if they understand everything the product can do for them.
My business plan assumed that I should provide a vast product array. I primarily sold e-commerce, and 90% of that was through eBay. I thought that if I had hundreds of items listed that it would create a wide funnel to channel customers into my store. That plan didn’t work, however, because the enormous amount of product listings led to customer confusion, it took attention away from my profitable products, and caused eBay to penalize my search rankings. Therefore, I chose to limit my product listings to merchandise that I knew would move quickly. I even sold at a loss so that items would not stagnate. My discovery was simplistic: sales lead to more sales. I realized that it’s most critical to make deals even if I take a loss. It turns out that eBay and other marketplaces like to boost the winners and movers.
My business plan assumed that a single inventory source might be a problem. I wanted more control over my product selection. The gear was consistent between my old comrades that I purchased from, and I quickly became familiar with that market niche. However, when it came time to write my plan I feared that that inventory source would dry up. Therefore, I planned to find unique product sources. I concluded that buying bulk military surplus was a suitable method of sourcing. However, this resulted in new problems. The bulk military surplus was expensive to buy, costly to ship, and I didn’t have enough room for it all. Also, even though the gear seemed like the original equipment, it was still different enough to fall under a different niche. I didn’t have experience in the new niche market, and my sales were weak. My plan didn’t consider such a subtle shift in the market categories. I realized my unique business strength was an inside angle on sourcing rare products at low prices from former teammates. Therefore, I shifted my strategy to source from their network of old teammates by offering commissions for referrals. That worked. Although the business then had a measure of success, it was time for me to move on.
I moved to California to be near family and pursue my new-found dream of completing my education in music education. Music was crucial for my military-related Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) recovery. Therefore, I chose to sell the business. After five years of operation, I still had a perfect 100% feedback rating. I spent many nights at that store, and I prioritized customer experience and satisfaction. I shipped every package with care, thinking, “he is really going to love this!” The store was very special to me, and it felt like a child leaving home for college. It was a bittersweet success. The store was more than a business to me, and I chose to donate the profits from its’ sale. But I kept hold of the most valuable asset: my lessons.
The most important thing that I learned about my business plan assumptions is that flexibility is the key to success. I chose to adjust to my circumstances and update my plan as I learned from my failures. Those failures turned into victories and have become the fuel for my challenging new adventure in music education.
Fall 2018 – Jason Schiffner of San Jose State University
Spring 2018 – Kaylin Squyres of University of Arizona – Eller College of Management
Fall 2017 – Natalie Sullivan of University of Massachusetts – Boston
Spring 2017 – Daybelis Gonzalez of Loyola University (Chicago)
Fall 2016 – Karys Rowe of Belmont University
Spring 2016 – Tina Nguyen of Johns Hopkins University
Fall 2015 – Evan Morgan of Dartmouth College
Spring 2015 – Jake Berry of Western Washington University
Fall 2014 – Taylor Standford of University of Nebraska – Lincoln
Spring 2018 Winner
Kaylin Squyres is an student at the University of Arizona – Eller College of Management.
Anticipated Major: MBA with a focus in marketing
Except from Essay:
By making the assumption that the company upheld certain ethical values, I was able to implement a strategy that I could actually get behind. There is sometimes an association with business-people as purely capital-driven. As I will soon begin my graduate education that will prepare me to become a young businesswoman, I am proud that I entered the field maintaining the integrity that I plan to uphold in my career.
Fall 2017 Winner
Natalie Sullivan is a student at the University of Massachusetts – Boston.
Anticipated Major: Applied Linguistics
Except from Essay:
When I signed up to teach a Business English class to students who were learning English as a second language, I realized I needed a better background in some business concepts myself. How could I teach my students the difference between profit and revenue if I didn’t fully understand it myself? To remedy the situation, I enrolled in an entry-level business class, which was designed to convey the basic aspects of finance, accounting, management, and advertising, among other things. For our final project, we had to design a business plan to introduce a new technological product in a developing country.
Encouraged by my ESL students, many of whom were from Spanish-speaking countries, I chose to write a plan to sell an English language-learning product in Nicaragua. The first challenge I faced was finding reliable market data. Many of the statistics I found online were outdated or inaccurate, and finding population counts of potential customers in a developing country proved to be even more challenging, because the government didn’t always keep up-to-date census counts or records. I had to delve deep into researching the demographics and economy of Nicaragua in order to properly define my location and market share. The next challenge was writing a financial summary. I had never calculated a business’s cash flow or considered funding sources before, so writing it all down made me face the reality of how hard it would be to remain financially solvent and find financial support. I had to be precise in how I defined my terms — money wouldn’t just fall out of the sky, so I had to crunch the numbers and show exactly where it would come from. I realized that trying to appeal to potential investors would require even more money and hard work than I had planned. This made me appreciate the simplicity and elegance of the math behind the business — the numbers wouldn’t lie: If expenses were larger than revenue, I was sunk.
Spring 2017 Winner
Daybelis Gonzalez is a student at Loyola University (Chicago).
Anticipated Major: Business Management
Excerpt from Essay:
The most challenging part about creating a business plan was researching the terminology and the different aspects of forming a business. I never heard of terms such as SWOT analysis, pricing strategy, or that I needed to include as many figures or elaborate on long-term and short-term goals. Because I was unfamiliar with these concepts, I had to use online resources to become knowledgeable on the subject. The SWOT analysis provided perspective on the opportunities for growth as well as the threats that competitors can pose. Using these concepts resulted in adjustments to the original plan. When it was finished, I was able to fill in any gaps or loopholes that could be detrimental to the business.
Fall 2016 Winner
Karys Rowe is a student at Belmont University.
Anticipated Major: Marketing and Music Business
Excerpt from Essay:
This past semester I created a marketing and business plan based upon the idea of introducing a new product to a developing country. Going into this project, I knew that I wanted to create a plan for a product that would not only sell but also assist in the development of the country’s population. I chose the country of Indonesia. This country represents the economic center of Southeast Asia while its capital, Jakarta, acts as the industrial center of Indonesia. Despite these accolades, more than 1/10 of the Indonesian population is still under the poverty line and almost 20% of children under the age of 5 are underweight due to malnutrition. After seeing such tragic statistics, I knew that I wanted to create a company and product that would could potentially alleviate this issue.
Handing in the finalized business plan, I felt more accomplished than I had ever in my undergraduate career. I had worked for several weeks and gave my professor something that I was proud of. It taught me how to apply classroom concepts to a real-life situation and to be innovative in order to help solve a problem. This project forced me to really focus on getting organized and pay attention to detail, analyzing every piece of demographic information and statistic. Finally, this project gave me the confidence I was lacking to pursue my research and take on large projects despite the challenges I face because of my learning disability.
Spring 2016 Winner
Tina Nguyen is a student at John Hopkins University.
Anticipated Major: Physics & Pre-Med
Excerpt from the Essay:
Through writing this business plan, I became better at setting goals, because I knew how to lay out the specifics of how to get to the end. I learned how to think for the future and was able to set down goals that would be impossible at the moment but plausible later on.
It gave me a sense of confidence and a burning desire to work as hard as I could to make sure things went accordingly. During my first year as captain, the team went on to win an award for overcoming obstacles and an even gender ratio at the Silicon Valley Regions, and during my second and last year as captain, we had qualified for the World Championships and was able to raise money for the cost of going within a week after our regional competition.
Fall 2015 Winner
Evan Morgan is a student at Dartmouth College.
Anticipated Major: Quantitative Social Science
Excerpt from Essay:
The financial summary section of the business plan steered my initial financial idealism toward reality. When Roughrider Racing was just an idea, I had envisioned plentiful school funding and a well-stocked workshop equipped with all the tools and materials we would need to engineer a high-performance car. . . School administration quickly nixed any possibility of official funding, forcing me to consider options I had deemed less important. Financial support, I realized, would have to come from personal donations and corporate sponsorships, not from the school. The team would need to work hard to minimize expenses and strive to secure community support.
This section transitioned naturally to the marketing part of the business plan, something I had not even considered when I began the writing process. In this section, I outlined an incentive plan for our sponsors, whose donations would earn them prominent spots on our RC car (just like a real stock car) as well as on our web page. And I proposed marketing ideas which we would implement throughout the year in order to spread the word about Roughrider Racing: posters, fliers, business cards, etcetera. As I considered the marketing possibilities for our team, it became obvious that we would have to stress the charitable nature of donors’ contributions. Their generous donations to our team would help promote lifelong STEM learning, leadership, and individual initiative among our team members.
Spring 2015 Winner
Anticipated Major: Marketing
Excerpt From Essay:
Creating a business plan to start a sports nutrition website was actually pretty difficult. The market is saturated with inaccurate research, useless supplementation information, and dangerous products that could actually do more harm than good. In order to share proper information, I would have to dig much deeper into how companies worked and why they would promote things that had no benefit at all.
Winter 2015 Winner
Taylor Stanford is duel enrolled at Indiana River State College and University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
Anticipated Major: Elementary Education
Excerpts From Essay:
When I wrote my first business plan I was a fifteen year old fashion blogger. Now the idea of a fashion blogger isn’t too far out on left field, but the thought of a fifteen year old fashion blogger thats a little crazy. The fashion blogging industry is pretty cut throat, so getting businesses to trust that a fifteen year old girl will use their investment to further her internet blogging is a little crazy. So one day I wrote a business plan, and started providing it to companies who wanted to know exactly where their products or compensation would fit into my blog. It was so time consuming but I did it. To my surprise I actually learned a lot from it. I learned that to create a business plan I needed to be organized. I learned that to successfully follow a business plan I was going to need magnificent time management skills. Another thing I learned was that was writing a business plan creates a stronger thinker within.