Growing number of students in Columbia launch businesses while still in school

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 | 2:15 p.m. CDT; updated 7:57 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 26, 2013
Lauren Rundquist uses Etsy to sell customized shoes that she paints herself.

COLUMBIA — Lauren Rundquist transforms shoes into art with every stroke of her paintbrush.

In the past year, Rundquist, 21, has sold almost 300 pairs of her painted shoes through LaQuist, a custom, hand-painted shoe business she operates on Etsy, the artisan website.

She produces her wares in her bedroom, sitting cross-legged on her bed to paint shoes on a grubby towel. Red, blue, green, black paint splatters on the towel, indicating the messiness of the process.

Rundquist picks up a white TOMS canvas shoe. Applying a few quick strokes with no hesitation, she swishes blue paint all over the canvas. There is no going back now.

"I've ruined a lot of comforters in the process," she said with a smile.

The business model

Rundquist, a junior at MU, is one of a growing number of student entrepreneurs in Columbia who launch businesses while still in college. This year, Columbia was ranked No. 2 among small cities as one of the best places for young entrepreneurs by Under30CEO.

Rundquist launched her business a year ago. Her custom-painted shoes range in price from about $85 to $125 on her Etsy page, with most falling between $100 and $110. They are also available for custom order locally at Elly's Couture in downtown Columbia.

"I never expected it would take off," she said, considering how she has never paid for advertising or promotions.

She describes her hand-painted shoes as "wearable art."

The process begins when a customer sends her a message on her Etsy page with an original idea or one from sketches on her page. Rundquist uses TOMS, Converse and Keds because of the generous surface area.

It is important to her that with every pair of TOMS she purchases, the company donates a pair of shoes to a child in need.

"I love the idea of being able to combine charity with business," Rundquist said.

Once she receives the shoes, she gets to work with designing and painting. She uses flexible, permanent, waterproof and high-quality paint. She also puts a sealant on top of the paint in order to make the shoes more durable.

After she finishes painting the shoes, she signs her initials on the back of the shoes. She then packages the shoes in a box including care instructions and ties the box with a bow. Now the shoes are ready to ship.

She has painted nature-themed shoes for a woman who got married in the woods, color-coordinating shoes for a bridal party and American flag shoes that a deployed solider sent to his wife for Valentine's Day.

"My favorite things are the stories that go behind the shoes," Rundquist said. "It's always fun to hear why people are ordering."

Other students in business

Ashley Fisher, a senior at Columbia College, is another student entrepreneur. She founded her own DJ company, Sweet Beats Entertainment, in November 2011. Fisher believes it's important to not be discouraged when you start out.

"There will be a thousand people that tell you you can't, but you have to be the one person who believes you can," Fisher said. "You have to have that confidence in yourself that you can achieve success."

Angela Houston, a senior at Columbia College, started a consulting business, Visionality Consulting, in January. She encourages business startups while students are in school because of the resources available.

"When you're a student, people are so willing to help and give you advice," she said.

Students are able to receive encouragement from fellow entrepreneurs by being involved in the entrepreneurial community.

"You've got this whole group of people here who are going through the same experiences," Rundquist said. "It's a good support system."

Success takes persistence and dedication, she said.

"The amount of time we devote to our businesses is more than we would put into a normal job," she said.

Rundquist said starting a business provides students with a valuable part of their education.

"It gives someone an experience that I don't think you will be able to get elsewhere," she said.

Mentors provide backup

Rundquist belongs to the Entrepreneurship Alliance within the Trulaske College of Business at MU.

The alliance takes entrepreneurship education outside the classroom and teaches students leadership, self-confidence and risk-taking skills, according to Greg Bier, director of the Entrepreneurship Alliance.

"Outside the classroom, they are actually experiencing entrepreneurship rather than reading about it in a textbook," Bier said.

Sean Siebert, founder and CEO of Invent Yourself LLC, mentors student entrepreneurs as an adjunct professor of business administration at Columbia College.

"There's this myth in the world that you have to be substantially experienced and established to be a CEO or do something important," Siebert said.

Rundquist believes youth is actually beneficial when starting a business.

"People should just realize they are able to accomplish big things when they're young," she said.

This past April, she won the #BOOM Bounce Competition and trademarked LaQuist with some of the $5000 prize money she received.

Business experience

Originally from St. Louis, Rundquist has always considered herself an entrepreneur. Ever since she was in grade school, she has been making and selling things.

She made bookmarks and jewelry and sold them to people in the community. Every Christmas, she would donate the money she raised.

In high school, Rundquist sold custom-made jewelry to five boutiques in St. Louis. When she moved to Columbia, she decided to take her business idea in a new direction.

She began painting shoes for free if people were willing to provide her the pair of shoes in order to build up her gallery of artwork. She was able to increase prices with demand. Now she is working on expanding her brand to heels and bags.

Future of LaQuist

Rundquist hopes to continue painting shoes and her business, LaQuist, throughout college at least.

"I'm not going to be painting shoes the rest of my life, but I know this is my starting point," she said.

While painting shoes may not be forever for Rundquist, it is for right now.

"It's fun, and I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't love it," she said.

Rundquist picks up a pink and purple toddler-sized TOMS with hand-painted lyrics on top of the shoe.

She swirls a thin paintbrush over the Velcro strap to create a gold, concentric spiral. Rundquist dots the tiny shoes with Swarovski jewels until the shoes are gleaming and glowing.

She returns the jeweled toddler shoes to their box and ties the box with her signature bow and care instructions. They are ready to ship to a young girl to wear for her baptism.

"There's always a pair of shoes to paint for someone else," she said.

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