February 12, 2007

For One Student Business, Profits Serve a Higher Cause

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This is the first in a series of articles about Cornell entrepreneurs. Each article will profile a Cornell student or recent alumnus who is making strides in business.

Justin Dorman ’06 was used to taking classes where the first question the professor asked was, “who here runs their own business?” After repeatedly seeing “a good number of kids raise their hands,” he decided, over the past summer, to begin his own venture.

“I was in TJ Maxx, and I saw this pillow that played music from an iPod. I always try to wear headphones while I’m sleeping, and it’s really uncomfortable,” said Dorman.

A couple of weeks later, he found a set of headphones and decided to place them inside of an old stuffed animal. “My brother walked by and said people would buy them. I thought it would be a really good opportunity.”

From this, Sound Teddies was born. “They’re just portable speakers. They’re functional art. Each bear has a speaker in its stomach,” he said. “You can leave them by your bed when you’re not using them. And girls love teddy bears.”

In the fall semester Dorman sold 50 or 60 bears for between $20 and $30.
But Dorman is not hoping to raise funds for a tropical vacation or a new car. He plans to contribute half of the profits he earns to the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance.

Eventually, Dorman personally handled a $300 check to the IBCA, a local group that provides support for women with breast and gynecological cancers. “[The bears] aren’t that special,” said Dorman, “but they’re a special product because the money’s going to charity.”

“Even though it’s just a stuffed animal with speakers, it requires business mode,” said Dorman. His entrepreneurial foray required a detailed written business plan and a marketing strategy.

“I asked myself ‘how am I going to get to all the students?’”
Initially, he believed that he could create a buzz with quarter cards, a website and tabling at Willard Straight. He eventually wound up going room-to-room in sorority houses and lowering his prices.

Dorman’s efforts have taught him the importance of being open-minded and flexible. “What works one day might not work the next,” he said of marketing, the field he wants to go into.

Eventually, he said, he realized that his target audience was not college-age women but children.

Dorman believes he is different from other student entrepreneurs. “When you look at a lot of student businesses, they’re often services. They have no overhead. I stick out because I have a product.”

Even with little knowledge of electrical engineering, Dorman hand-makes each of his bears. They cost about $15 to assemble and come in white bags with pink breast cancer ribbons painted on one side and the Sound Teddies logo on the other.

Dorman is inspired by people who “don’t just talk about helping people, but actually do it.” He does not want to remain one of those people who have, as he put it, “the whole I’m too young, I’m a student, I have too much work thing.”

“This wasn’t as successful as I wanted it to be. But it’s still something I’m proud of,” said Dorman. “Going to such a prestigious school, I was just surrounded by motivated people. It is a good place to [sell the bears] because people appreciate it, they appreciate people working hard.”