Last month, Newsleader recognized Darden First Year Andrew Robertson and Nick Blanton for the five year anniversary of their store The Split Banana, a gelato shop known for its creative flavors and use of local ingredients. They opened the store amidst the financial crisis in 2008 in downtown Staunton, Virginia. Andrew, who created the store’s business plan and lined up their startup financing, continues to work behind-the-scenes at The Split Banana while he pursues his full-time MBA at Darden.
In this guest blog post, Andrew elaborates upon his role at The Split Banana, discusses how Darden influences how he thinks about business and gives advice to budding entrepreneurs interested in starting their own business:
Andrew Robertson, Class of 2014 (front row, left) and his business partner Nick Blanton (front row, right), pictured with their staff at The Split Banana.
Since The Split Banana’s inception, I have always been the “silent partner” – contributing what I can off-site while pursuing separate full-time commitments at the same time (for years I was a financial analyst; now I’m a student). Ever since we got the business up and running, my responsibilities have included doing all of our bookkeeping, interfacing with our accountant and lawyer to manage our accounting and legal requirements, managing our assets and working capital, monitoring daily sales figures to make sure we are hitting profitability targets, collaborating on various marketing and operational projects, and checking in with my partner regularly to confirm that things are running smoothly.
Darden has impacted the way we do business tremendously. In almost every single class session, we cover new concepts and tools that I can now use to improve the business. I have spent hours outside class brainstorming improvement ideas with professors (particularly Professor Tim Kraft from First Year Operations, whose research focus and personal passion happens to be small business inventory management) as well as classmates with functional expertise in areas I haven’t been exposed to (MAJOR thanks to Amber Sharif, Class of 2014 for her marketing advice). I am blown away by the expertise that is available at my fingertips as well as the Darden community’s incredible generosity with their time and open willingness to help.
The Split Banana, a gelato store in downtown Staunton, Virginia
These discussions have made me so excited about improving the business that I have decided to spend next summer focusing my full-time attention on the store to implement the new systems and practices that we need. I’m going to be using knowledge from the Darden core curriculum: operations to revamp our inventory system; marketing to perform customer research (in fact, over Spring Break I developed, distributed and collected about 330 customer surveys applying concepts learned at Darden that I can now analyze to do customer segmentation and targeting, positioning and brand building); and strategy to analyze potential new markets for entry and general feasibility of possibly expanding our business. The list goes on and on, but I will certainly find applications for data analytics, leading organizations, financial management and policies, management communication, and yes, even ethics.
If you’re thinking about starting your own business, my advice is don’t do it alone. Find a partner, or at the very least, advisors, whom you can trust and whose abilities complement yours, and lean on each other for support. I can’t tell you how critical it is to be on the right team with the right people with the right competencies and personalities. Also, don’t be afraid to take risks, but don’t be reckless either. You don’t need a polished, formal business plan necessarily, but make sure your ideas are well thought-out and that you haven’t overlooked any major complications. Finally, take small bets. If there’s anything you can do to test new markets or new ideas with low-cost experiments, do that before committing lots of resources (at Darden we call this “de-risking” your business).
Seeing the positive impact that The Split Banana has had on my home community is part of what inspired me to come to Darden. If I can find a way to support myself with a full-time career working in small businesses, either as a serial entrepreneur or as a community development professional or consultant, I think I would do something along those lines. At the very least, I want to use what I’ve learned at Darden to get the most out of The Split Banana, regardless of where my future career path takes me.
Visit the Darden website for more information on the core curriculum and entrepreneurship at Darden.