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UIX: College entrepreneurs can find funding and more through CampusStarter

Matt Larson & Thomas Coke

Finding the funds to start a business when you're an undergrad isn't always easy. CampusStarter, led by Thomas Coke and Matt Larson, hopes to help, connecting college entrepreneurs to the resources they need most.
There are challenges to starting any new business. Add to that the limited access to capital and networking a college student has, and the task seems nearly impossible.
CampusStarter, led by Thomas Coke and Matt Larson, hopes to help by connecting college entrepreneurs to the funding and resources they need most. The company is based on crowdfunding, exclusively for entrepreneurs in undergraduate programs. Coke, an expert on crowdfunding, says this model allows ideas to develop into businesses without the constriction of looming debt, lack of capital, or extravagant pitches to angel investors.
The opportunity to raise funds in time to launch a business is incredibly valuable, but entrepreneurs can find even more in the CampusStarter site itself. It's run on the SocialEngine platform, which allows CampusStarter to function as a social network. Users can connect with other entrepreneurs at any level of scale. 
"Maybe a cofounder of a company at Grand Valley State University meets a founder from Miami of Ohio, or San Diego State. They get together to start a business, and we can help them with support services," Coke says. "Our accounting partnerships and legal partnerships will help these entrepreneurs, so they're not just building an idea, they're building a real business."  
Thomas Coke
Coke has a strong background in crowdfunding and economics, as well as a law degree, making him especially valuable to young entrepreneurs as a source of knowledge. His professional experience has even established him as a speaker on crowdfunding on a national scale. Larson has startup experience, too, with companies in the fields of bookkeeping and technology, among others. His role concentrates on operations with a financial focus. Together, they have a lot to offer, just as advisors, which helps CampusStarter clients and prepares them for the next steps. The organization has several other successful advisors signed on to assist entrepreneurs, as well as support from technology incubator and SmartZone office GR Current.
CampusStarter was launched in the Xcelerate program in the GR Current building. Xcelerate and GR Current are sister programs under the umbrella of eMerge of West Michigan. According to Adam Fox, Startup Mentor at GR Current, "The Xcelerate program has a defined 6 month time period and a curriculum that they follow, along with a list of 'products' and services that they get, including a $20,000 investment." 
Other than that initial investment, Coke says, CampusStarter has been bootstrapped the entire way. Coke and Larson launched their company with around $50,000. 
"Matt and I feel there's too much emphasis to get raises from large investors," he says. "We feel passionate that if we can't build this on our own with a little more than $50,000, that's probably an indication that the idea doesn't have a good foundation."
To make a return on this investment, Campus Starter collects 4 percent fee only from the projects that succeed in meeting their funding goals. 
"Theres a company at Grand Valley that makes an adjustable heel for women's shoes. They're out trying to raise money right now and their goal is $10,000," Coke says. "If they hit their goal, we get our 4 percent and they get their portion. If they don't hit their goal, they don't pay anything."
The program is just for college entrepreneurs, many in their 20s, who probably don't have a lot of money, Coke says. And  by offering help in the form of advice or funding and networking opportunities, CampusStarter is insuring its own investment.
"We're invested in them and we want to give them the tools to succeed, so it's not just about offering money," Coke says. "That's something that appeals to a lot of people who have maybe tried to help out an entrepreneur in the past and they just wrote a check."
Coke says there are a lot of crowdfunding platforms on the internet, and some people after an experience may have been turned off to the idea. The fact that projects run through a CampusStarter campaign are being meticulously researched and planned out, though, offers contrast.
Coke's experience in crowdfunding is essentially the history of crowdfunding itself. Coke worked for the State of Michigan as a securities regulator when the JOBS Act passed, which directly deals with crowdfunding. Title III of the JOBs Act is also called the “Capital Raising Online While Deterring Fraud and Unethical Non-Disclosure Act of 2012” or the CROWDFUND Act.
Matt Larson
"At the time, Michigan was in a pretty depressed economic situation, so crowdfunding was something I was excited about," he says. "For small businesses, it puts them in a position to become successful and raise the capital they need."
Eventually landing at CrowdFund Connect, building crowdfunding sites for large companies, Coke became an expert in the field and traveled the country on speaking tours.
"I found myself speaking on college campuses a lot of the time, and talking to college students," Coke says. "The more I began to talk to college entrepreneurs and the more I spoke to professors in the entrepreneurship programs, I began to realize that crowdfunding is a great tool for finding capital and support in that environment."
Crowdfunding offers a more inclusive approach to starting a business, Coke says.
"It's a way for everybody to get involved. It's not just for the high network elite individuals," he says. "Anyone can contribute to these crowdfunding campaigns."
Coke and Larson have connections in other markets around the U.S. and plan to expand CampusStarter to schools on both the east and west coasts in the future. For now, the company is concentrating on supporting and bringing success to businesses in West Michigan.
For more information on CampusStarter, visit http://www.campusstarter.co/

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.

Photography by Steph Harding 
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