DENVER, Iowa — Brianna Farley’s entrepreneurial spirit started with some help from her family and a love for Christmas.
“When I was around 12 or 13, I saw the Extreme Christmas Light Show. I thought it was really cool and I had an obsession with Christmas lights. I think they brighten the season and it makes it more joyful when you have a nice display,” Farley said.
Though hanging Christmas lights started as an annual family tradition for Farley, she quickly transformed the practice into a business called Brianna’s Bright Lights.
Farley established the business, which she runs herself, in 2011, when she was a junior at Columbus High. During Thanksgiving break, she hangs lights for customers in California while she stays with relatives there and hangs them for customers near her home in Hudson during winter break.
“When I first had this idea, I didn’t think it was going to be anything big,” Farley said. “I just thought, ‘I’ll put up some people’s Christmas lights and that’s it.’”
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However, Farley made a profit both years she has run her business. Last Christmas season, Farley made $600 and spent less than $400 for auxiliary items, such as ladders, transportation and “a pair of sturdy shoes.”
“My friends thought it was crazy,” Farley said. “They’re like, ‘You put those up for that much money?’ But people really like it. And I’m going out to college but I’m planning on still serving the customers.”
Recently, Farley won the statewide entrepreneurial Quick Pitch Biz Competition, which requested an entrepreneurial idea from Iowa high school students across the state during both the fall and spring semesters. Finalists from each semester were invited to enter the statewide entrepreneurial competition.
“The first time I entered in the fall, I was like, ‘Ah, why not? It’s money; it could help,’” Farley said. “Even if I hadn’t had won it, at least I tried. So, I tried to see if it was something people would put their money into and buy. If someone’s willing to give you money, you can stand out from competitors.”
After having fine-tuned her Christmas lights business, Farley impressed the judges and won the statewide competition, as well as $2,000.
Farley also will travel to Kansas City to spend time with other entrepreneurs.
Dawn Bowlus, director of the University of Iowa’s Jacobson Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship, a co-sponsor of the competition, said Farley’s enthusiasm and passion won the judges over.
“What really took us when we were listening to her, was her,” Bowlus said. “She’s truly an entrepreneurial spirit, and my guess is she will successfully run her Christmas lights stringing business for as long as she wants to, and my guess is she will have another great idea and she will be successful at it.”
Bowlus said there is a shift in entrepreneurial education across Iowa. Instead of students learning business only from a textbook, Bowlus said Iowa business programs and schools are encouraging students like Farley to create their own businesses.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on the importance of moving away from teaching a student how to write a business plan, and the nuts and bolts of writing a business plan, to how do you create a business and inspire an economy in our state that has a go for it attitude, where young people are growing up in here and actually seeing they have opportunities and they can create their futures for what they would like to see in the state?” Bowlus said.
Bowlus hopes high school students involved in the Quick Pitch Biz Competition learn that, at any age, they can create their own future.
“It’s getting young people to feel they have something to contribute, and they have value and having them to realize they have the ability to go for it and do something with their ideas,” Bowlus said.
Katherine Cota-Uyar, associate director and instructor of entrepreneurship at the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at the University of Northern Iowa, said it’s advantageous to see K-12 students aspire to be entrepreneurs, since they don’t see limitations.
“The world is open to them, and it’s full of possibilities and that’s what I love,” Cota-Uyar said, noting that she encourages students to dive into entrepreneurial endeavors. She said that the Pappajohn centers across Iowa are available to help students.
“Do it, don’t talk about it,” Cota-Uyar said. “For K-12, you don’t have a spouse, you don’t have a home or mortgage to pay off, you don’t have children to worry about. It’s a much less risky time in their lives to go and give it a try.”
As Farley prepares to attend Kirkwood Community College this fall to study at their pre-medical and biology department, she plans on continuing her light hanging business and expand in the next few years to decorating weddings. In the meantime, she encourages all students who are interested in entrepreneurship to go for it.
“Don’t give up,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter what age you are, because no one expects a girl who wants a Christmas light business to actually make it work and have a future, so I would say go out there and do it.”