Tag Archives: creating a company

In the spotlight: John Castle and Creating a Company

Guest post by Matt Wastradowski, Communications & Media Editor, Alumni Relations, UW Alumni Association

JohnCastleEvery year, Creating a Company, as the course is dubbed, becomes less a class than a crash course in entrepreneurship. Groups of eager students team up, form a company, apply for a $1,000-$2,000 loan from the Foster School of Business, and spend the next few months hawking their product or service to the wider world.

Past companies have sold goods ranging from Husky apparel to glass jars of cake mix; other companies have launched art galleries and driven students to the mountain passes for a day on the slopes.

At the heart of it all is lecturer John Castle, who has taught the class for the past 12 years – and who will retire at year’s end.

In 2001, Castle had stepped down as CEO from Cantametrix, a music software company he helped found, when a neighbor and former UW professor approached him about inheriting the Creating a Company course. With more than 40 years of business acumen, Castle didn’t lack experience: Before joining the UW, he had served as CEO of Hamilton-Thorn, a medical electronics and diagnostics company; cofounded Seragen, a biotechnology company; and was a partner in Washington Biotechnology Funding, a seed venture capital fund specializing in medical technologies.

Since then, he’s drawn on that extensive experience as would-be CEOS have created and developed dozens of companies. Castle’s only rule in approving companies and dispersing loans is “Do no harm,” meaning that students can’t, say, promote underage drinking by selling shot glasses to fraternities and sororities on campus. (This actually happened.)

When the class ends, students return any profits to the Foster School and can buy their company for $1 to keep it going. Few companies have outlived their academic years, but Castle knows the experience will remain long after grades are posted. “Whether or not they learn how to do it well, they will learn whether or not they want to start their own business.” Castle said. “This is as realistic of an experience of entrepreneurship as we can make it.”

Read on for a look back at some of the most memorable products and services offered by students during Castle’s tenure.

Keeping it real

Simulated businesses with make-believe P&L statements have no place in Professor John Castle’s “Creating a Company” course at the UW Foster Business School. Here, student businesses are awarded real money and expected to turn a profit in 10 weeks. There’s no text book or PowerPoint lectures. The emphasis is on relentless question and answer, to promote “on your feet” thinking—a necessity for young entrepreneurs.

That’s how Castle likes it. Over the duration of the two-quarter sequence, student teams write a business plan, meet with investors to obtain in-house funding, run the business and then exit the firm at the end of the second quarter. All profits are returned to the fund, which has become self-sustaining over time. Though profitability of the company is a major criterion for grading, the ability of the team to deal with the unexpected is considered more important.

The next Google is not a hoped-for endpoint of this entrepreneurship course, but personal enlightenment and growth certainly is. Castle tells students, “You may or may not learn to be a good entrepreneur here, but you will find out whether you want to be one.” Students learn by starting companies that, among other ideas, sell clothing, promote music events or serve a real and immediate need, as in the case of the MS Children’s Book.

The book was the inspiration of William Khazaal, father of two, who returned to the UW Foster School for his BA at age 33. In 2009 Khazaal was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Those with this devastating disease have good days and days when their energy is sapped. On bad days, Khazaal’s kids would be scared and confused, with no resources to help them understand what was happening with their dad. Like any good entrepreneur, Khazaal created one. His team, which included Molly Massena, Zac Raasch, Eugene Kim and Adam Greenberg, produced, printed and sold and donated more than 2,000 copies of MS Children’s Book, a 50-page picture book. The team also generated $12,000—the largest profit in class history.

While Khazaal’s story is uncommon, the take-home message of the course was. “My experience demonstrated the value of working as a team and letting my team members take more of the initiative. I learned how to plan events to get the results I wanted, rather than just jumping into things,” Khazaal reflected.

The book is only the beginning of the story. Khazaal plans to continue the effort past his graduation this fall, with more events to raise money for MS awareness and research.

Creating a company one t-shirt at a time

Jeff BeckerLook around any college campus today and you’ll find something arguably even more prolific than cell phones and iPods. Greek system T-shirts. And if you’re on the University of Washington campus, chances are those T-shirts are from a UW start-up, Kotis Design, a company that has recently made the Puget Sound Business Journal’s list of 100 Fastest Growing Washington Companies for the third year in a row.

As a freshman, Jeff Becker (BA 2003) started making T-shirts for his fraternity’s dances. “One day a light bulb went off,” he said. “No one was making T-shirts that anyone really liked. So my goal became to sell a T-shirt to every Greek student here.” During his junior year, Becker took a pivotal class—Creating a Company. “My advice for any student is to take this class. You learn from doing. You actually run a company and do what a real business does: work with other people, have disagreements, experience the exciting times together. That was the most positive experience for me.”

Becker competed in the Business Plan Competition three times while at the UW, making it to the semi-final Sweet 16 all three times. He first entered the competition with HuSKIbus, a collaboration with Stevens Pass, The Ram, and Helly Hansen, which he developed in the Creating a Company class. His second and third entries were Kotis Design. While he didn’t win, he did see tremendous value in competing. “It really pushes you to think about the process behind starting a company. You might have a great idea but don’t know where to begin, so [the competition] is good practice.”

Today, Kotis provides customers with everything from design services and online storefronts, to packaging and fulfillment services. Becker emphasizes that in addition to the quality of the products, it’s the overall customer experience that keeps campus organizations and businesses around the country coming back again and again. The strong focus on customers has lead to a growth rate of roughly 50% every year. As Becker explains it, “We’ve experienced solid, steady growth because we have great people who are hard working, efficient and forward-thinking.”