CEDAR FALLS — T.J. Nissen had a product he was ready to sell after five years of creating online and role-playing games.
The University of Northern Iowa freshman gained little traction, though, as he peddled the homemade-looking books and other gaming items produced through his business, Network Nirvana. During a chance encounter while selling the games at a convention, Nissen learned about the R.J. McElroy Student Business Incubator at UNI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center. A month later, in April 2015, he became a tenant with his own office.
Now a junior, the Evansdale native has launched three fee-based online game worlds and recently announced his latest creations, all built on the Minecraft platform. He counts 40 to 50 “consistent users” of the game worlds, many of whom access it for free through computers at the Cedar Falls Public Library — which is Nissen’s biggest subscriber.
“I learned a lot about business and what people will and won’t buy,” he said during the first year. In addition, the office space has “established a lot more credibility than being in my parents’ basement.”
On the second floor of the Business and Community Services building, the incubator offers 10 office suites to budding entrepreneurs, plus a co-working space. Students who are researching or developing a business idea can apply for the office space. Laurie Watje, manager of the incubator, said those chosen pay no rent, but “they need to be engaged in the program, they need to show progress in the business” to keep the space.
Nissen received assistance at the incubator in connecting with people who helped improve the presentation of Network Nirvana products. He hired professional artists to create many of the graphics in the games as well as in an updated version of their companion book.
Nissen was pushed to expand the company’s offerings last spring after making a connection with the Cedar Falls library director. She was interested in bringing his online games to library patrons.
He has no plans to stop creating new game worlds and expanding the existing ones. “I have about eight years of content ready to be further developed,” said Nissen.
It’s that kind of entrepreneurial spirit that helps students keep their offices at the incubator.
“We set goals for them,” Watje explained, including business-development activities that earn the students points. “They have to work with me on a regular basis. There’s a certain amount of points they have to earn each month to maintain their space.”
The incubator is open to students in any UNI program or major. Some who don’t receive their own office become affiliates and share the co-working space. Others may meet with staff to discuss a business idea or what it means to be an entrepreneur.
In the early stages, students work through a process to determine if they have a good business model or a financially viable idea, guided by staff. Those who want to take a more academic approach can earn a certificate in entrepreneurship and, starting next fall, will be able to minor in the subject.
“We really are a learning lab,” said Watje. “We just really want to inspire the best practices of entrepreneurship.”
The Pappajohn Center has gotten noticed by the International Business Innovation Association for its efforts with the incubator. “We were recognized this (past) year as the best student entrepreneurship organization,” said Watje.
Joel Allison found the entrepreneurial community through UNI Entrepreneurs, a club he learned about while visiting the university as a high school student.
“When I got to campus, one of the first things I did was join the club right away,” said the junior from Des Moines. “I like the feel of the community. Everybody is there to help you to try to succeed.”
He attended networking events, the club’s annual Chicago trip and a start-up weekend event in Des Moines. “That was kind of the tipping point,” said Allison, noting he was “all in” from then on. He is now vice president of the club and leading it in a new venture — managing a start-up business in the community.
He is project manager of The GameLiner, a mobile video game theater and event space, overseeing student marketing, social media, and communications teams. “We want to help other businesses and entrepreneurial people to build their businesses,” said Allison. Operating from the co-working space at the incubator, he deals directly with a founder of the business and is currently rebuilding its web site.
“This is kind of the career path for me,” said Allison, noting he wants to work for a start-up company. “Hopefully, I can use these same skills to help a business later on.”
Scott Burak’s start-up company is well on its way. He is co-founder of AdFly, a digital marketing company. The business uses search engine marketing and search engine optimization to provide a cost-efficient advertising model for its clients, which have largely been contractors at this point.
With the company’s help, the contractors show up near the top of internet searches for the locations where they work. When the link to the contractor’s web site is clicked on, it leads right to a phone number or email address where the customer can request an estimate.
The junior from Allison was just beginning to implement the business model when he came to the incubator in November 2015. Prior to that, the business focused on buying space on celebrity fan Facebook and Twitter accounts to place ads for their clients.
AdFly isn’t the only business that does this, Burak admitted. “What we really distinguish ourselves with is our experience in the contractors’ market.”
He emphasized how much the incubator staff helps students through their advice, accountability measures and networking opportunities. Being surrounded by a supportive community of student entrepreneurs is an essential component, as well.
“You can learn from others’ successes and their failures — without doing it yourself,” he said.