Lindsay Topmiller – College of Arts & Sciences
Six weeks into his first semester, serial entrepreneur Caleb Koke dropped out of college. It wasn’t for him, he said, but chose to give it a shout out of respect for his father who was always big on college education. But Koke had no intention of applying to college, nor did he even plan on waiting for a high-school diploma to do what he really wanted to do – own a business.
Why am I writing about a highly successful business man who skipped the whole college thing in a college magazine? Simple. If he can do it, so can you.
The act of doing. It’s a critical condition to becoming success in business, according to Koke. He says schooling is, of course, a great resource. He doesn’t deny that obtaining a degree is advantageous and will help open opportunistic doors and network channels.
However, in this economy, it is no longer just about what you know, it’s about what you have done and can do.
No doubt, college can teach you some of what you need to know in order to do the doing. But no college course or textbook can provide you with the essential knowledge that comes from doing. The kind of knowledge that will permit you to walk through those open doors.
“You’re not going to learn business through books. Business is much more than books. The only way you’re actually going to learn business, is by just doing it. What you learn from books is theory until it is applied in reality,” Koke says.
Just by doing it — what in the world does that even mean?
Let’s ask Caleb Koke as a kid. He was doing it at 5.
Koke rented out his toys to his friends for nickels and dimes. He bought and sold Costco candy throughout high school. He worked odd-end jobs around his neighborhood mowing lawns, washing garbage cans and walking dogs. He worked part-time jobs from waiting tables to driving pedicabs.
So here’s the principle of the matter — he didn’t wait for those jobs to present themselves at his doorstep. He presented himself, at each doorstep, asking what could be done. And he did them.
And he cashed in thousands.
Long before his high-school graduation in 2006, Koke already had a clear idea of what he wanted to do as a young business man. He incorporated his own personal values of nutrition and health into a business plan to launch a local smoothie shop. At the time, there was really only one company with the market share of smoothies in Albuquerque. His plan was to compete against it.
“Sunset Smoothies,” he was going to call it. Koke had been in touch with a restaurant that was currently residing in a La Cueva shopping-center store on Paseo and Wyoming and planning on leaving the spot. He had already found two investors that would allow him to lease the space and open up shop after high school.
Everything was going in the right direction before Keva Juice managed to sneak into the space while Koke was out of town. Though he was tremendously disappointed by the news at the time, looking back, he says he’s actually glad it didn’t work out. He believes it wasn’t the best way he could have utilized his time and money.
“I’m a people person. I love working with people, which would have made Sunset Smoothies fun but I would have been stuck inside all day. Most small businesses that people start, mine included, are actually jobs we create for ourselves. When starting Sunset Smoothies, I was actually creating myself a job, not a business. Now I try to build a business that can grow and operate on its own.”
As a high-school graduate with no smoothie shop – you know, like the rest of us – Koke took it upon himself to learn the business of entrepreneurship. He did enroll in college for a few weeks, but decided to check out after discovering that the textbook for one of his entrepreneurship courses was one out of about fifty books he had already read over the summer.
At the age of 19, Koke was already too energized and ambitious to wait four to six years for college professors to teach him what he believed he could actively learn on his own.
He took the time to read and research, but beyond business books, Koke says he learned most by simply observing others and identifying what worked with them.
“One of the best, most overlooked resources is other people. Every single day there’s people out there doing things differently. If you can identify those people and see what they are doing right or wrong, don’t reinvent the wheel. Just do what works. Whatever endeavor you’re pursuing, go find the most successful person doing it. Learn everything they’ve done right, learn everything they’ve done wrong. Do what they do right, and don’t do what they did wrong.”
To find these people, Koke didn’t power on his computer and type “successful business people in Albuquerque” into the Google search box. He actively sought them out, walked through front doors and talked to people face-to-face.
The merit of networking – and no, I don‘t mean LinkedIn and Twitter – can‘t be stressed enough. Progressing as a business person starts with connecting with business educators and leaders in the community. Koke located these people by asking his friends and family who they knew. He made phone calls to local businesses. He walked into offices. He met people. He asked questions. Even to this day, with every business he steps into, he asks to meet the owner or manager to just to chat, learn and network.
We forget the positive impact of face-to-face networking when we are relying more and more on social media outlets and professional network websites to connect us virtually to other people.
During the last six months of his senior year of high school, Koke conducted his own thesis study at the suggestion of his father. He chose twenty individuals at twenty different businesses and industries, and shadowed them. He followed them on the job, interviewed them, talked to them about their work and lifestyle, and simply observed. From there, he was able to paint a picture of what he wanted his own professional life to look like.
“Truly successful people are very willing to help other people grow and succeed. They want to give back as much as they can. Granted, these people are usually very busy, but from my experience, I’ve found that successful people are likely to help those who help themselves. They are also the first to say that they learned most by doing, and not waiting for open doors or handouts.”
After reading up on his business books and soaking in all the information he could gather from influencedpeople, he was ready and anxious to set out on his own. But his head wasn’t high in the clouds of immediate success. He was unsure what kind of business he wanted to enter or start up, but he knew he wanted to be his own boss and have multiple income streams to make a living.
Koke’s first venture was selling cell phone accessories in 2007. At the same time, he started working with a multi-level marketing company that operated as a reseller of phone services. Although it wasn’t his own product or service, the learning experience gave him a real-world insight of the challenges associated with owning and operating one’s own business.
But it also helped establish him as a business man. Multi-level marketing companies provide a product or service for you to sell at your own pace and rigor and allows you to see what it’s like being in business for yourself.
Most of Koke’s future business ideas and endeavors developed from his recognition of the existence of “nitch” needs. Koke looked at what Albuquerque didn’t have and figured out how he could create or work with a business to serve that need.
It wasn’t until the last year or two when Koke really started to understand the different dynamics of entrepreneurship. In the early days of his entrepreneurial pursuits, he simply wanted to do something that worked and provided an income. He had no intention of growing businesses to sell or to run themselves. He hadn’t yet visualized the word “serial” in front of his title.
But that is who he is today.
Koke’s current business, Professional Radon and Scoping Services (PRSS), is a local company that provides highly specialized air duct repairs for the residential real estate market. There are less than 20 companies like it in the country and PRSS is the largest of them all.
But behind the scenes, Koke is in the business of building companies capable of running themselves or fitting to be sold.. He considers himself an “serial/parallel entrepreneur artist,” founding and investing in business start ups such as cell phone accessories, Dupont Detailing (mobile auto detailing), day trading stocks, vending machine routes, private investments and a Hawaiian shaved ice business called Snoasis.
He found that starting a business can be very difficult because there is no guaranteed right or wrong way. He knew there are many different avenues to make it work, but the trick is knowing which avenue is the smartest and fastest. And that is where experiences come in play.
Koke managed to make it work with Snoasis. The business came about as a way for him to get back on his feet after a bad investment in one of the largest Ponzi schemes in New Mexico several years ago – Doug Vaughan and his real estate company.
After a successful Snoasis, and renewed financial stability, Koke began to apply tighter criteria to his investments and business decisions.
Three of his current, core criteria are:
1. The presence of a “true need” in a niche market for which he could fill.
2. Limited competition.
3. A high-cost barrier to market entry.
Koke seems very happy with the direction he took. Although Albuquerque would have loved a “Sunset Smoothie“, Koke loves the flexibility of his current business and lifestyle.
Despite his success without a degree, he still strongly encourages students to stay in school.
He applauds those who have the discipline and drive to attend college, but urges them to do as much as they can while earning a degree.
It’s important to remember the outcome of the 2008 recession. The college-graduate generation is having the toughest time securing employment. Although employers may require or prefer a degree, sometimes in anything, they are still looking for those who stand out among other graduates. They are looking for those can bring learned experience, not just head knowledge, to the table.
“If you want to separate yourself from all of the other millions of students that are now graduating with the same degrees, competing for the same jobs, you have to do more. Some people think that means getting a masters [degree], and further education – which wouldn’t hurt. But really separating yourself and standing out would be from that experience. What can you actually do to make this organization better? What can you do differently than anybody else in the class or country? I highly stress to college students - what they can do, not what they know.”
What can you do now? Koke suggests a few things.
First, bring in what money you can and save it. Work part-time jobs while you’re in school and full time jobs in the summer. Maybe rent out your toys and sell candy to your buddies.
Second, learn from professionals, not just professors. Read success stories. Walk in to front doors and talk to successful business people in your community. Take the time to observe and learn from them. Use this as a time of self-discovery to figure out what you want in career as well.
Third, be willing to work for free in exchange for experience. Those with the humility and willingness to work for free will be the first ones considered above those with a simply degree rolled up in their back pocket.
Fourth, remember the American dream and live it out.