December 17, 2008 | Myrna Anderson

At the beginning of the fall semester, Nehemiah Chu and Eric Nondahl started a company. At the end of fall semester— two weeks ago, to be exact—that company broke even.

At the beginning of the fall semester, Nehemiah Chu and Eric Nondahl started a company. At the end of fall semester— two weeks ago, to be exact—that company broke even.

“In one semester, being full-time students, we managed to start a company and break it even—which I’m proud of,” said Chu, 21, a communication arts and sciences and religion major and co-owner of Kalvin Kulture.

The Facebook market

Kalvin Kulture is a t-shirt company whose products are marketed almost entirely through its Facebook presence. “Our company’s Web sites are all on Facebook because our market is on Facebook,” Chu said.

The company produces t-shirts, soccer jerseys and hoodies featuring Calvin themes: the women’s soccer t-shirt, the men’s rugby t-shirt and a “Beat Hope” t-shirt among them. “The ‘Beat Hope’ ones are the most popular,” Chu confessed.

A lot of Kalvin Kulture’s business comes in the form of “dormware” and “floorware”— t-shirts featuring customized logos for various residence halls and the levels in those residence halls—and shirts for student organizations like Dance Guild.

Purveyors of dormware

“We've manufactured the floorwear for first Beets—I also designed it— third Beets (the floor I used to live on), second Veenstra and third Veenstra. We're currently working on projects with other floors and dorms,” Chu said. “The goal is to offer our services to every single floor and dorm on campus.”

Chu, Nondahl and Jacob Johnson, who works on distribution, are involved in every aspect of production: “We handle the t-shirt from start to finish … We design it. We consult. We make it. We take orders online through our e-commerce system. We market it, deliver it and then conduct surveys on how our whole process went,” Chu said.

The student entrepreneurs conceived the Kalvin Kulture concept last summer. At the time, Chu was freelancing as a Web and graphic designer, and Nondahl was working for the physical plant department at Calvin. On the recommendation of a professor, they read Leadership Jazz and Leadership is an Art by Max Depree, former CEO of Herman Miller.

Doing the content

“I read those books, and I realized that the only way to really learn the content was to do it,” said Chu. He pitched that concept to Nondahl, who had already quit his Calvin job. Chu also proposed that the two start a company together:

“We both had significant technology skills—production media. So I said, let’s keep it simple. Let’s do a t-shirt company,” he recalled. Inspired by the Hovercraft Collective, a group of Calvin students which, in 2006, sold enough custom t-shirts to buy a Hovercraft, the pair decided to produce Calvin-themed clothing.

“Cheesey” promotion

To promote their new company, the pair collaborated with the local New 2 You Shoppe, which gave them $50 gift certificate to distribute to Calvin students. To that incentive, Chu and Nondahl added a rare offer: a chance to win one of five limited edition t-shirts decorated with a Chu-designed graphic of “The Cheese,” an on-campus sculpture by professor of art emeritus Robin Jensen. (The actual name of The Cheese is “Jaunt.”)

The tradeoff for these prizes was access to students’ Facebook accounts. “We got over 200 people on our Facebook group,” Chu said. “We can directly message them.”  Via this strategy, Kalvin Kulture has to date sold 461 units of product. Soon, its owners hope to sell their clothing through the Calvin campus store. They would also like to amass enough capital to produce some of their as-yet unproduced designs, such as the t-shirt featuring a graphic of the Hekman Library and the slogan: “I study 24/6.”

Learning by doing

Nondahl values the practical experience of running an actual company: “For a while, I was doing accounting for Kalvin Kulture, and I was learning managerial accounting in class,” he said. “So what I was learning in class, I just applied to our company, and it made it great for both places.”

Chu agreed: “We have learned so much in the past four months.” He is eager for Kalvin Kulture to inspire and cultivate other student entrepreneurs. “I’d like to start a business incubator at Calvin,” he said.

Norm Zylstra, the Calvin coordinator of student and young alumni programs, is impressed by the success of Kalvin Kulture: “It’s a group of students celebrating the best things about culture outside the institutional culture of Calvin,” Zylstra said. “Their entire clientele is Calvin, and by that I mean students, alumni, faculty and staff. They want to market the best things that they see in Calvin and celebrate that with a business plan … . When they promote their company, they promote our institution.”

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