UTAH TECH UNIVERSITY'S STUDENT NEWS SOURCE | April 18, 2024

Student entrepreneurs offer insight to their success

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Students on and off campus are seeking a more hands-on approach to their majors through establishing their own businesses.

Mike Ropelato, a Dixie State University alumni who graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in integrated studies is a co-founder of social media marketing agency Social Paragon.

“My business partners and I noticed a problem when it comes to small businesses and their marketing needs,” Ropelato said. “Each of us, having worked for different marketing agencies in the past, recognized a similar pattern — only the larger businesses could afford marketing which left out the thousands of other smaller businesses who never had a chance to compete. We created Social Paragon to help give small businesses a marketing team at a fraction of the cost that it would take to hire an employee plus [give] them a marketing budget.”

Ropelato said he was able to earn a higher GPA with his business mindset because he didn’t care whether the class adhered to his major and took on each course as if it was his area of study.

“The thing I loved most about having an entrepreneurial mindset is that I knew I had to learn as much as I could in fields other than my own,” Ropelato said. “Most people tend to only focus on what their degree is in and forget about everything else.”

Wyatt Branch, a sophomore business administration major from Stansbury Park, founded the apparel company Live.Die.Sports while flying home from Africa four months ago.

“All my life I have always appreciated fashion, and how it reflects your inner you, and being an avid sports fan, and former baseball player for DSU, the idea was born,” Branch said. “The biggest hardship that I have faced, and what all new [businesses] face, is getting our name out there. Marketing is the most important tool to having a successful business and, even more importantly, having a successful clothing brand.”

The most helpful technique Branch used to manage time was to keep a journal or calendar, he said.

“I have trained myself to never start the day without having [a] well-thought-out list of meaningful goals, strategically planned out throughout the day, month and even year, to be fulfilled,” Branch said.

Perhaps one of the most well-known entrepreneurs to have attended DSU is Don Watkins, who has retired as mayor of Alpine and returned to DSU as the entrepreneur in residence. As entrepreneur in residence, Watkins is creating his own program with the help of DSU administrators which would allow students with no prior business prerequisites to obtain an entrepreneurial certificate.

Watkins and his family sold their home to purchase a motor home in 1983. They parked behind churches and in state parks while his wife, Peggy, taught their children. He drove his car around each of the cities to sell his products. Their nomadic business slowly turned into American Covers, Inc. Watkins and his partner sold their company in 2016 to Energizer Holdings, Inc. after more than 33 years.

“The first years were very difficult generating enough sales to pay the bills,” Watkins said. “In the first year, our biggest account went bankrupt, and we didn’t know if we would survive. But we did.”

American Covers, Inc. became one of the key suppliers to retailers such as Staples, Radio Shack, CompUSA, Target and Kmart. His company produced accessories such as mouse-pads, CD sleeves and wallets, document holders and much more.

“My biggest supporters by far [were] my wife, Peggy, and business partner, Gary Deaton,” Watkins said. “Can you imagine Peggy leaving a nice home and living out of a motor home for months teaching children while I was out selling products?”

All three businessmen agreed their decision to start down the entrepreneurial path began at a young age.

“As a young boy I sold Christmas cards door to door,” Watkins said.

Regardless of the time they started, each vendor had similar advice for those who want to start their own businesses.

“No matter how many books you read, advice you receive from other entrepreneurs, or lessons you learn in school, nothing will ever teach you everything you need to know about entrepreneurship until you just jump in and do it,” Ropelato said. “My advice to those looking to take a similar path would be [three] things: patience; refusing to give up; and always, always believing in yourself.”