Last weekend, Sky Mall was transformed into the Barbados Entrepreneurship Foundation’s $20 Challenge Student Market. It was almost like seeing my baby come of age, from the time I helped to set it up several years ago to now. I was very pleased to see the diversity of product offerings, some of which were very innovative, as well as the different schools that were involved.
I was particularly impressed with the products made from recycled materials. There were Christmas decorations made from spray painted newspapers. Not only were they very well made and attractive, but the use of newspapers as a raw material was great. I was ready to offload all my old newspapers on the group.
Another innovative group made handbags and shopping bags from plastic bags which they somehow recycled and dyed to make different colours. One student took driftwood and other waste pieces of wood and cut out cylinders and put in small candles to make very creative and rustic candle holders.
Other groups offered beauty products, like foot scrubs, facial clay and lip scrubs, all well labeled and in attractive jars. The foot scrubs were made of Epsom salts with other additives to enhance the foot treatment. I was very impressed with the product knowledge of these groups and the confidence they showed in explaining and selling their products.
Then, of course, we had a number of students with cupcakes and coconut bread which I assume they made themselves, although some of the cupcakes looked as if they had been bought to resell. I have to admit that while I applauded all the students for getting involved and coming out to sell their products, I was less interested in the usual food items than I was in the creative products.
I am always asking start-up and potential entrepreneurs that I work with: “What will make your product or service different?” Even the approach to selling the product can make a difference. In my journey around the mall, I had walked by about four tables with students selling coconut bread and cupcakes without stopping to buy any. Then one very petite but bold student waylaid me and asked me which was my favourite type of cupcake. Right away, she had my attention. As soon as I told her chocolate, she closed the sale by offering me one of the chocolate cupcakes that they were selling. How could I say no to that? I had passed many chocolate cupcakes, but no-one with that sales ability.
I am sure that the entrepreneurs who had the more innovative products or the best sales approach made the most money. In some cases, I literally presented myself at a table and had to invite the students to sell me their products. In other cases, I didn’t have to do that, as the students were well able to sell their product and offer me various alternatives and make suggestions. That clearly showed (and I know it well) that creating your product is one thing, but being able to market it and sell it is another matter. For some students, I bought products because I felt sorry for them, but in the real world no one buys because they feel sorry for you.
The Student Market clarified for me once again what is an entrepreneur. I see all of the students who took the risk to create products and go to Sky Mall to try and sell them as entrepreneurs. The ones who made products from recycled material or who created unique and innovative products stood out as super entrepreneurs.
An analogy I can think of is like the Olympic 100 metres race. All of the men in the race are runners but there will be the Bolts who will be out front. In the same way, all of the students are entrepreneurs, but it is simply that some are of a different calibre. In the world of business, there is a tendency to refer to the superstars as entrepreneurs and everyone else as business owners or self-employed, but really they are all entrepreneurs, simply operating at different levels.
In the same way that I walked past many of the tables with similar things, buyers will do that. So we need to find ways to differentiate our businesses and services and also our tourism product. If every Caribbean island can offer sea and sand, we have to offer something that will make a tourist “stop at our table”. Barbados has to become known for something, whether it’s our heritage, or healthcare or something.
We have so many doctors in Barbados, we should be training them in niche areas so that Barbados becomes known for those particular areas of expertise and people come to the island specifically for that branch of medicine.
In all, the $20 Challenge is doing a great job to encourage students to run businesses, and I believe special prizes are given for the most innovative product. This is a step in the right direction and I hope that events like the Student Market help students to recognize the businesses which are doing well and why. Hopefully not only students, but budding entrepreneurs, grasp this and find innovative and creative ways to stay ahead of the pack.