June 30, 2020

In an entrepreneurship class at Hampden-Sydney last semester, Ben Skinner ’23 developed a plan to open a boat dealership near his hometown on the Chesapeake Bay. COVID-19 had other plans for the enterprising student, however. Facing a dwindling pool of investors, Ben pivoted within the boating industry to provide critical services to existing boat owners without the significant overhead expenses of a dealership.

By Andrew King

Ben Skinner detailing the exterior of a boatEntering the spring 2020 semester, Ben Skinner ’23 and his classmates in Hampden-Sydney’s Entrepreneurial Thinking course never could have predicted the chaos that was about to unfold. The changes wrought by COVID-19 hurled H-SC students—and all of us—into a realm full of unknowns. But some of these enterprising students, working with the College’s Flemming Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, leveraged their new knowledge about building businesses to successfully launch their own ventures amidst the reeling economy.

As part of the College’s Compass experiential learning program, BUSN 223: Entrepreneurial Thinking focuses on practicing the many activities that founders must undertake to prototype and validate innovative new ventures. After planning and testing business models that they develop using entrepreneurial mindset methods, students evolve into founders as they learn skills ranging from identifying solvable problems and rapid prototyping to the nuts and bolts of bookkeeping and managing day-to-day operations. The class condenses the start-up process—which can take years depending on the business’s complexity—into three months underpinned by the frameworks that serial entrepreneurs have used to launch the most successful organizations.

Among the many principles that the students learn as they built their ventures is to “make lemonade out of lemons.” Expert entrepreneurs employ this concept to keep moving forward when unexpected circumstances derail their plans. It’s easy to interpret the COVID-19 pandemic that slowed the world to a crawl as a rather impressively-sized lemon for last semester’s students, who were in the initial stages of prototyping their venture models when the virus hit.

Several students quickly realized that their chances of successfully testing ventures were cut practically to nil in the new environment of social distancing and cracking supply chains. Ben had used the first few weeks of class to lay out his plans for building a full-service recreational boat dealership on the Chesapeake Bay near his home. His financial model made sense and he was working on fundraising when spring break—and the coronavirus—arrived in mid-March. As quarantine restrictions and business closures loomed, Ben realized that winning investors in such times was a long shot. Ben says, “At first I thought I wanted to sell boats, but I quickly realized that that wasn’t something I could do with the resources available to me.”

students cleaning and detailing a boat Instead of holding on to his dealership dreams and tinkering with his plans, he pivoted to a new business model anchored in his skills, network, and pure gumption to take advantage of the unexpected opportunity that being at home near the water offered. He explains, “I scaled my idea down to something I could start right away, which was detailing boats. This service was not extremely expensive to start but is a necessity for boat owners. Most boat owners pay a lot of money to have their boats detailed, so I knew that if I could get the price lower than most companies, I could earn their business. Detailing a boat can be expensive, but based on my prior experience, I knew there was an opportunity for me to disrupt the current business models out there.” 

Ben founded Yorktown Boat Care LLC to serve boat owners prepping for the coming boating season. An avid boater himself, Ben knew the headaches that often pop up when prepping a boat that has sat idle over the winter months. After serving a few clients, Ben quickly hired schoolmates, who were also homebound, and created teams that could clean boats around Hampton Roads. Within weeks, the newly launched company had already served several dozen clients, and Ben was looking forward to a strong first summer season in business.

One of the most important things about entrepreneurship is getting out and actually implementing your ideas. This summer, I plan to use the skills that I learned in my entrepreneurship class at Hampden-Sydney to help me further develop my business opportunities.

Ben Skinner '23

Reflecting on the start-up process, Ben says, “One of the most important things about entrepreneurship is getting out and actually implementing your ideas. I knew that I couldn’t go out and sell boats because I couldn’t afford the overhead costs like setting up a dealership and purchasing inventory. However, I could afford to purchase the materials needed to detail boats.” And he is innovating his business model on the fly. “This summer, I plan to use the skills that I learned in my entrepreneurship class at Hampden-Sydney to help me further develop my business opportunities,” Ben explains. “Knowing that a large-scale boat cleaning is usually purchased only once or twice a season, I plan to offer weekly boat cleaning services to develop recurring revenue opportunities that offset the nature of running a seasonal business.”

Like a seasoned entrepreneur, Ben is mixing clever proactive and reactive action to turn challenging situations into valuable opportunities. First-time entrepreneurs often struggle with pivoting their initial ventures when their customers' needs change, but Ben understood that selling boats in an economic downturn would be challenging and stretch his resources. Instead of pushing ahead with the wrong idea or giving up, Ben pressed on with what he can do right now.

The Flemming Center at H-SC directly supports students like Ben on their entrepreneurial journey. You can support the Center’s activities by mentoring students as they start-up in various industries. You can also participate in a summer webinar series that introduces the entrepreneurial mindset and how to match your resources with valuable and solvable customer problems. For more details, check out the Flemming Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation website and follow us on Facebook

Andrew King has been the director of Hampden-Sydney’s Flemming Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation since 2019. King earned his B.A. from Sewanee, his M.S. from Oxford Brookes, and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He worked at Darden for 12 years, where he studied entrepreneurial methods and co-authored the book Solving Problems with Design Thinking.

The Compass Program

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