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How to run a successful college business

Alan Ringvald and Assaf Swissa started College Bellhop as college sophomores in 2002.
Alan Ringvald and Assaf Swissa started College Bellhop as college sophomores in 2002.
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We can just see it--that messy college apartment, complete with dirty clothes on the floor and a kitchen so raunchy that people can smell it out in the hallway. Wouldn't it be nice to get other people to clean it--and hey, could they do the laundry, too? Those are the kinds of questions college service businesses answer. These student-run companies can do just about anything, from delivering food to doing laundry to cleaning your average dorm room/biohazard.

Just ask Alan Ringvald and Assaf Swissa about the response students had to their company, College Bellhop.

"It's been overwhelming," says Ringvald, 23. "[Students] like how affordable we are." He and Swissa, also 23, started the business as college sophomores in 2002 (Ringvald at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and Swissa at Boston University). Ringvald remembers calling a cleaning service for his apartment and learning that the cleaning companies in his area charged much more than he could afford. Knowing other students would be willing to pay for an affordable cleaning service inspired the pair to start up (they charge about $60 to clean a three-person suite). Initially, they were the only cleaners--but as word-of-mouth grew, so did demand, so they had to hire staff. Says Ringvald, "By the time I graduated, we had 300 customers."

And who better to know what types of services college students are looking for than college students themselves, says John Castle, lecturer in entrepreneurship at the University of Washington Business School in Seattle. The key to gauging what'll be hot in your area? Ask your peers what they want. "Look around at the things that students complain about," says Castle. "[Perhaps] there's some indication that you could make money if you can provide them a way to get it on a different basis." Services that drive students to weekend ski hangouts or sell food outside fraternity and sorority houses between midnight and 2 a.m. are just a few of the businesses Castle has seen in the Seattle area. He encourages entrepreneurs to ask around their local schools to solidify the price and specific offerings the market wants.

College Bellhop was on top of that focus-group mentality--it added both laundry and food-delivery services to its repertoire after students clamored for them. The move helped Ringvald and Swissa expand the business to colleges throughout the Boston area and grow 2005 sales to a projected $1 million.

Conducting market research and writing a solid business plan can help your college service business become successful, says Castle. Knowledge of the college market helped Spencer Lewin start Soapy Joe's Laundry Service LLC, a business that does laundry for both Georgetown and George Washington University students. Lewin launched the Washington, DC, business in 2003, right before his graduation from GWU, and began building relationships with the universities. Now he has a revenue-sharing model, where the universities allow him to operate on campus and get a cut whenever he provides services to their students. "It works for everyone," says Lewin, 24. He plans to grow sales, which are currently well into the six figures, more than twofold in 2005. Service never sounded so sweet.