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Editor's Note: This story is part of Bloomberg Businessweek's occasional series on the world of startups. The series focuses on MBAs and undergraduate business students who developed their ideas or launched their businesses while still in school, and the many ways their schools helped them get their new ventures off the ground. For a look at some business students trying to build their own businesses, check out our slide show.
At the beginning of each semester at the University of Virginia, Darden School of Business (Darden Full-Time MBA Profile) professor Saras Sarasvathy tells her Starting New Ventures class the same thing: "The next seven weeks will be the first seven weeks of your life as an entrepreneur," she says. "It doesn't matter if that is the only seven weeks, but get started on something doable and worth doing." When Sarasvathy gave the familiar lecture in the spring of 2009, Brett Nicol and Nathan Tan were listening.
At the time, the two were in the midst of on-campus job interviews. After each interview it was common courtesy to send the interviewer a note thanking him or her for the interview opportunity. As they met with more and more potential employers, the list of required thank-you notes grew. "My first thought was 'Mom would be so disappointed in me,' " Nicol says of having a stack of half-written notes on his desk at home. "My second thought was 'There must be a better way.' "
Using Sarasvathy's "seven weeks" lecture as a pep talk, Nicol and Tan started developing an idea for a high-end line of stationery tailor-made for men. They designed a set of cards, found a local printer, and ordered the first round of 50 sets. To ensure the stationery would be masculine enough, they drove to every cigar store in Charlottesville, Washington, and Baltimore, and bought the stores' leftover wooden cigar boxes to use as holders. They called their venture Forgetful Gentleman.
According to Sarasvathy, whose research of expert entrepreneurs inspired her hands-on teaching style, the best way to start a business is to just start selling. So Nicol and Tan set up a table in the main hallway at Darden and sold to classmates and faculty. Later they sold the sets at the Charlottesville Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings.
Sarasvathy was an early supporter of Forgetful Gentleman. "I truly loved the idea because it was so doable," she says. "I knew from the first moment they walked in with the product that it would work."
In spring 2009, the two applied to the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership/Batten Institute at Darden and by that summer they were part of the 10-week incubator program. The incubator provided office space and equipment, and that summer Forgetful Gentleman officially formed as an LLC.
Darden also provides companies in the incubator with grants to help start the business. Nicol and Tan received a $1,700-per-month stipend for three months and an $8,100 expense budget. With that funding, the company was able to expand nationally, and in November 2009 the e-commerce store officially launched.
The biggest challenge, according to the co-founders, has been finding quality suppliers that meet their expectations for the product. A Forgetful Gentleman stationery set—ranging in price from $35 to $75—includes 12 letterpress-printed cards made out of 100 percent cotton paper, 12 envelopes on paper from the same 15th century Italian paper mill used by Napoleon and Picasso, and four pre-stamped envelopes, all encased in a heat-branded hardwood box with a velvet interior that is modeled after authentic cigar boxes.
Additionally, each set comes with access to an online personal reminder system with customizable text-message and e-mail reminders, and a copy of A Forgetful Gentleman's Guide to Articulate Writing. The book uses a fill-in-the-blank format to make writing notes as easy as possible.
Neiman Marcus began carrying the line in May and the set was selected as a "Top Gift for Him" for the 2010 holiday season. The Forgetful Gentleman stationery is sold in 62 stores, both department stores and specialty boutiques, across 22 states.
In 2010, the first full year of operation, Forgetful Gentleman—still a two-man operation—expects to earn $100,000 in revenue. Nicol and Tan are planning to expand the brand to include men's clothing, accessories, video tutorials, a gift-giving service, and an e-magazine. They have also started writing a book. Needless to say, they have great expectations for the company. Says Tan: "We envision Forgetful Gentleman eventually providing a product, service, or educational tool to help bridge the gap between good intentions and action in any area of a man's life."