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In the Spotlight: John Castle and Creating a Company

John Castle

John Castle

Every 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. (Read below for photos and memories of some of the course’s most memorable products.)

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.

Castle (mostly) lets the students’ imaginations run wild as they come up with company concepts, secure funding from the Foster School, and develop their product or service over the course of about six months. Here are some of the notable products devised by Castle’s enterprising students.

MS Children's Book

MS Children’s Book

MS Children’s Book

William Khazaal came up with the idea for a children’s book about multiple sclerosis after being diagnosed with the disease in 2009 and struggling with how to tell his son. So he opted to collaborate with writer Zac Raasch and illustrator Amy Donohoe for his project, MS Children’s Book.

Khazaal partnered with nonprofits and sold the book at regional multiple sclerosis charity events – all to great success. Khazaal earned $12,000 in profits, returning $2,000 to the Foster School and donating $10,000 to charity. “It’s a marvelous product,” Castle said. “It was a remarkable success story.”

UW montage poster

UW montage poster

University of Washington montage poster

The poster, created in 2002, remains a memorable project for Castle. “This was sort of one of the greatest successes and one of the greatest failures,” he said. “As a product it’s one of the best ever produced in the class.”

The students were gifted the rights to the photos and printed about 300 posters. The poster went on sale in the University Book Store, and the team members sold them to friends and family. But, according to Castle, they didn’t put in much effort beyond the initial push. “In the end, they just did a very poor job of selling,” Castle said. “We had a lot of them left.”

Journey Maps motorcycle route maps

Journey Maps motorcycle route maps

Journey Maps motorcycle maps

“It seemed like a very good idea,” said Castle of the two-sided fold-out map of motorcycle routes throughout Washington. Western Washington routes adorned one side, with eastern Washington routes on the other; the map also included insets listing restaurants, gas stations and lodging resources.

The plan was to get motorcycle accessory shops to sell the maps to their customers. “In the end, the bike shops really didn’t want very many of them,” Castle said. They printed 3,000 maps and ended up with several boxes’ worth of leftovers. “This was the biggest financial disaster we had,” he said.

S'more Amor

S’more Amor

S’More Amor

Castle’s students devised an idea to sell s’mores ingredients, but the idea never caught fire. For starters, the ingredients were initially all packaged together; the marshmallow moisture turned the graham crackers into soggy messes before long.

The students responded by packaging each of the items separately; sales never met expectations, but Castle admired the students’ resolve. “Trying to get five dollars for a couple of marshmallows is tough to do,” he said. “But they figured out how to do it, put the work into it, and were passionate about it. I think they did a good job.”

Courage Cake

Courage Cakes

Courage Cakes

The idea behind Courage Cakes was simple: Someone could open the jar of cake mix, add water, microwave the contents, and wind up with a miniature cake. The students created the cakes thinking that buyers could send them to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“They did okay,” Castle said. “It never really caught on. You’d think something like this would catch people’s eyes, but they were a little skeptical of it. I don’t think, in the end, they knew why they didn’t do better. But they did okay.”

Bar Blitz

Bar Blitz

Bar Blitz

The students made deals with four bars and became designated drivers for busloads of students. “They barhopped in a bus,” Castle said. “They were quite successful. The students liked going.”

“The idea, when they got into it, was that they were going to basically have a big party once a week, paid for by us or their ticket buyers. In the end, what they discovered is that they were cleaning the vomit out of the bus. The students were doing exactly what they expected. They were getting drunk, they knew they had a ride home, they were raucous, they were a pain in the ass. So the big party they had turned out to be a real job for them.”


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