Bikes, Beds, and Bling: Oh My!

Dart Dorm, a bed and futon rental company, is one of Dartmouth's many student-run businesses.

Dart Dorm, a bed and futon rental company, is one of Dartmouth’s many student-run businesses.

Dartmouth students have always been problem solvers, which seems fitting given the strong focus on critical thinking that befits the liberal arts education. For some, this ability extends outside of the classroom into broader campus matters. In recent times, students have taken upon themselves to solve campus problems with brave business ventures, a phenomenon very much alive on campus today. These students saw the possibility to not only improve the lives of fellow classmates, but to also benefit financially from doing so.

The first recorded of such companies, Vox Sportswear, saw in 1994 the need for a custom clothing service to satisfy a campus with so many different student organizations and traditions. There are over 160 student organized groups and clubs on campus, and each one is in need of t-shirts and jackets for promotional purposes. Noticing this trend, students saw it fit to create a custom gear supplier that deals directly with local wholesalers and printers in order to guarantee the lowest prices. Their service meets the needs of a variety of different groups on campus from Greek organizations to club sports teams and everyone in between. Their name resounds throughout campus as they frequently advertise their products over Listserv. The company also efficiently splits up the work by having each customer meet up with one of the owners to walk them through the process. Ben Wilson ‘18 went through his weekly commitment to the company: “About an hour every day doing specific orders. Some days can obviously be more than an hour if I am working extensively with the designers to put together something that matches what the customer wants – the back and forth is a long process – but on average an hour is about right. We also meet as a team a few days a week, so that adds time as well.”

Vox’s ability to bypass expensive custom clothing designers has been the key to their success in becoming a brand name on campus. However, the simplicity of being able to complete an order online without any personal interaction is a source of competition. As Wilson mentions, “Vox Sportswear operates primarily in Hanover and has been since 1994, so here on campus competition is not a huge issue. Outside of Dartmouth, other wholesale heavyweights drown out the market. Like I mentioned before, CustomInk is massive. For customers, it saves time to cut the corner, pay some extra cash, and use manufacturers like CustomInk who have a relatively painless online ordering process. We have plans for expansion, but obviously the stiff competition means we will have to be efficient, creative, and most importantly, accessible for our customers.” Like many of the other companies on campus, Vox Sportswear has nearly a dozen equal equity owners, and has been traditionally passed down from graduating classes to underclassmen for a modest price. In a broader discussion pertaining to business as a whole at Dartmouth, Wilson ‘18 said that Dartmouth entrepreneurial spirit has influenced him as a  business owner: “Being around people that are creative and inspired to go out into the world and leave a mark will always rub off on you. Last year I went to a program at the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN), which had speakers – Dartmouth grads – from all over New England speak extensively about owning a business. They dissected the ownership process into something that was tangible and engaging. DEN offers great insight, but the school still could do more to encourage entrepreneurship. Seminars, panels, workshops – there are plenty of ways to encourage not only students to be thinkers, but encourage thinkers to go out and actually make a change.”

Dart Dorm, the premier futon and bed rental service on campus, was started by a group of ‘11s who knew there was an alternative to rigid dorm furniture and narrow beds. The group capitalized on the obvious need to make dorm rooms a more livable environment and have been met with high demand. Tiger Henderson ‘18, one of the twelve owners of the company, said that “Because we already have the size and brand recognition we normally sell out every term.” Dart Dorm rents out both futons from their own inventory, and full size beds which they actually rent through suppliers. The owners move the furniture in and out of the dorms in the first three days of each term, which is typically their most time consuming contribution to the company each term aside from a few meetings. Although all twelve owners split up the logistical and financial aspects of the company, each of them has an equal say in operations, which includes inventory growth and contact relations, two of the company’s primary concerns.

Tiger is part of the third generation of owners who were selected in an application put out by the previous owners of the company. “It will potentially be sold off our junior spring but there’s no contract that says that has to happen. If we think we’re doing well or we see a nice avenue for growth we might keep on till senior spring. But traditionally the last two owners sell in their junior spring and buy in their freshmen spring,” he said when asked about his plans to sell the company. The company has provided him with not only a cash flow in college but also real world business experience. Tiger commented on the aspect of the business that challenged him the most: “Learning how to deal with people and individual complaints and solving something as soon as it comes up has been more of a challenge.”

A recent entrant into the student business sector is DartBike. Founder Dartmouth ‘16 Eric Nordahl’s personal experience during freshmen year catalyzed the creations of his company: “It was actually a personal frustration, I was having a lot of trouble juggling a lot of activities freshmen year – tennis, classes –  and with my commute and schedule, I wasted almost an hour a day and the logical answer was a bike.” But when he ran the idea by his fellow classmates, they stated the obvious alternative of just buying a bike at Walmart. However, Nordahl acknowledged their criticism but knew that there was still a market for bike rentals: “Why would anyone rent a bike when they can just go to Walmart, but our bikes are much higher quality and you find that most of the students that choose Walmart have a bike for a term and then end up tossing it. The other options in the area could cost you close to $1000 for a bike.” Transmitting his idea into a business would prove far more intensive than he first imagined.

When Eric started the business, he devoted much of his free time to the company: “To get it up I would often spend my 10 PM to 2 AM time, which was normally free, learning new things about web development, ecommerce, liability, as well as learning a little bit more about the industry in general as far as bikes and other rental companies.” And his hard work paid off as students warmed up to the idea of renting instead of buying. As Nordahl recounts, “Initially [bringing on people] was more of an effort to build up our team as the operations became more and more difficult for me to handle on my own, with each term pushing between 50 and 100 bikes which is a lot for one guy to handle.” DartBike is unique because they accommodate different D-Plans, allowing students to easily rent bikes for only a term and return them during off terms or when wintry conditions render bikes useless.

With the company growing and his time at Dartmouth coming to an end, Nordahl decided to follow in the footsteps of other student run companies and pass it down to a group of underclassmen who he believes have a good vision for the company. In his parting words he shared some of the most important lessons he learned while working at DartBike: ”I’m definitely still learning every day and a business’ different stages will teach you different things. At the end of the day the most important thing I’ve learned is that if you really take pride in a high quality product or service, your customers will reward you. Also, things seem easier in theory than the effort that they take to implement.” Nordahl’s experience building a company from the ground up embodies the problem solving spirit of Dartmouth students to take it upon themselves to improve the lives of their classmates.

The success of these student business ventures in relation to DEN brings up the age old question of correlation versus causation. While DEN has made a genuine effort to encourage student entrepreneurship through general advice and meet and greets with alumni, it is unlikely these activities alone are enough to truly make an appreciable difference in Dartmouth’s startup culture. The administration has put considerable resources in the hands of leaders in entrepreneurial spaces who have very little experience, which may be troublesome. Dartmouth alumni have raised money for DEN with the vision of an incubator that would foster startups, yet DEN has tried to shut down thriving student ventures like DartBike for their independent status. DEN’s incubators have not played tangible roles in helping student startups grow through mentorship and establishing connections in the way that similar entrepreneurial spaces at peer institutions have. Instead, much of DEN’s funds have been used for extravagant trips to New York City to visit different startups and for maintaining the building’s notoriously large snack and drink bar.

Given the limited role that DEN has played in our campus’s most successful student ventures, it is commendable that Dartmouth students have taken it upon themselves to solve campus solutions. Even if Dartmouth’s current entrepreneurial resources lack legitimacy, its student organizations certainly do not.