By Natalie Butz
Somewhere between the pull of academics and the lure of parties, freshman Taylor LeBaron, sophomore Shannon Kirby and junior Leland Fiegel have managed to establish and maintain their own businesses.
LeBaron is the author of Cutting Myself in Half: 150 Pounds Lost, One Byte at a Time, a book detailing the computer simulation game he used to lose over 150 pounds while he was still a young teen. Since the book’s publication, Taylor has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, WebMD and many other national programs.
Fiegel is the Founder and CEO of Theme Lab, a web development company. The website gets about 3,000 hits a day, Fiegel’s @ThemeLab Twitter account has 4,000 followers and he has written for or been featured in “Smashing Magazine,” “WP Candy,” and “Mashable,” among others.
Although Kirby is not yet commanding the attention of national magazines and news stations, she has taken the Washington College campus by storm this semester. Over the summer, Kirby turned her long-time love of photography into a lucrative business.
“It started when I took engagement photos of my best friend and her fiancé as an engagement gift to them,” said Kirby. “I put the photos up on my photography Facebook page. That’s when people started to take notice of the business aspect.”
Since then, Kirby has done photo shoots depicting everything from graduation to engagements and small businesses to expectant mothers. Her schedule has filled up, and she’s constantly in demand.
In the next two weeks alone, she has six photo shoots.
Kirby credits word of mouth and social networking sites with her newfound success.
“In high school, I took a photography class on a whim, loved it and kept taking it. I wasn’t into the typical ‘artsy’ pictures of flowers that everyone else did. I loved doing photo shoots with people because I think portraits tell a story,” said Kirby.
Fiegel also turned what was originally a hobby into a paying business.
“I was really interested in computers as a kid,” he said. “One day, my older cousin made me a website and that’s probably what piqued my interest. When I was about 10 years old, I made my first webpage that was published online called ‘Leland’s Basketball Page.’ I realize that sounds super lame, but keep in mind I was in 4th grade at the time. Then, I just made these other little websites for fun for the next few years. But when I got to high school, it hit me that I could actually make real money off of this.”
Taylor’s idea started as just a plan for himself after a painful revelation.
“I was 14. I hopped on the scale and it said 297. I was all alone and I panicked. I thought to myself, ‘you need to do something or in a few years, you’ll either be immobile or six feet under,’” said LeBaron.
LeBaron combined his ardent love of video games with his desire to be healthy in order to make weight loss fun for him. But it was his grandmother who first encouraged him to write down his experiences and publicize his unique approach to weight loss.
“My grandmother’s a professional writer who has published over 13 books. She was the one who said, ‘you’ve really got something here.’ At first, I was a little taken aback because, I was 15 ½ when she proposed it. But I toyed with the idea for a few days. Then, every day after school, I would come home and start writing my life story. It quickly became not only about my personal story and the method I had used, but also what I learned along the way.”
The more Lebaron wrote, the more he realized that his book was unique.
“What I found out as I was writing the book was that there really wasn’t something like this on the market. There were weight loss books by celebrities and Ph.D.’s, but not someone who had had so dramatic a transformation so young,” he said.
Kirby’s business arose from a similar fusing of ideas.
“My father is an artist, and from a young age he’s always pushed me to draw, to paint, and to create. My mother, however, is a business woman. In a way, I’m taking my father’s creativity and my mother’s realistic business plans and coupling them together into what is now my own photography business,” said Kirby.
Fiegel’s business grew out of seemingly small but notable decisions.
“I started off by buying domain names and selling them for a profit. Then I realized that it was easier to sell a domain name if you had a website attached to it. I started getting these odd jobs tweaking web pages for people. I was introduced to WordPress in 2007 and it was love at first sight. Anything I could think of, I could do pretty easily [with this program]. WordPress was really the key because of how in demand those skills are right now, and it’s only getting more popular,” said Fiegel.
Kirby also thinks that for a small business that deals directly with people, a college campus offers the ideal opportunity for self-promotion and marketing.
“I think if I were out of college it would be harder. On a college campus, there are clients wherever you go, business spreads through word of mouth since it is such a small community. College also offers classes, and you can be featured in galleries,” said Kirby.
However, the demands of college can be a detriment as well.
“Being in college limits my business. My top priority right now is academics, so Theme Lab takes a back seat. On the one hand, I was already established enough when I came to college that I had the freedom to take a few months off and people were very supportive. But momentum is important,” said Fiegel.
For LeBaron however, going to college was never up for debate.
“I feel like you can’t go far in the world without a college degree. College is a huge part of a person’s life, not only the social aspects but what you can learn by being in this environment,” he said.