Dwight B. Anderson ’11 came to St. Thomas as an undergraduate, thinking he was going to be a lawyer, not an entrepreneur.
But an online platform he built with fellow students for an entrepreneurship class set him on a different trajectory. Today he is CEO of Design Task Group, a virtual graphic design firm on a membership model. The Los Angeles-based company recently passed a thousand members and counts well-known companies like American Airlines, Edward Jones, and Chevrolet among its clients.
Anderson said that the University of St. Thomas has been critical to his success, both for that hands-on experience building a start-up and the lessons he learned as a young African American man on a campus that was less diverse than it is today. And even though he now lives thousands of miles away, he credits the Tommie network with continuing to fuel his success.
A native of Indiana, Anderson moved to the Brooklyn Park area of Minnesota with his parents when he was about eight years old. He played football at Osseo High School and dreamed of becoming a business lawyer.
“I watched a lot of Matlock as a kid,” he recalls. When it came time to choose a college, he wanted to stay close to home. St. Thomas was the only Minnesota school to offer a legal studies major, and the reputation of Opus College of Business made it an easy choice.
Around the same time, online platforms like Facebook, created by “kids in hoodies and flip-flops,” as he put it, were changing the world, and he wanted to be part of that. By his senior year, he had an idea of his own – an online marketplace where students at St. Thomas and other private schools could exchange books and other stuff they didn’t need anymore. He bounced the idea off a new buddy from his entrepreneurship class, Hudson Brothen ’10.
Anderson had been selling books on Amazon, but back then, dealing with strangers online struck Brothen – and many others – as risky.
“We wanted to deal with like-minded people,” Brothen recalled, and the easiest way to do that was to restrict access to the site to folks with a .edu email address. The result was TheCollegeJunk.com, sort of a Craigslist with guardrails.
While Anderson was learning how to build the online platform, Brothen got to work. His role? “Initially, it was scrounging up enough money, as poor college students, to try to figure out how to build a brand and build a website,” he said. Later, he worked on the sales side. A third partner, Matt Griswold ’11, focused on marketing. They spread the word on Facebook and through friends at nearby colleges.
And it worked. “We had 10,000 views on the site within the first couple weeks,” Anderson recalled. There were a few issues, however. They had not set up the platform in a way that could track how many goods were actually moving through the site. And although Brothen was able to secure some sponsorships, the site itself did not generate much money.
All this was happening when Anderson was taking more than a full course load, serving as undergraduate student body president and a resident assistant, fulfilling his volunteer commitment as a Page Scholar, and working a job in the evenings at a program for convicted juveniles. He jokes now that his entrepreneurship professor, Michael Sarafolean, “is going to remember me sleeping in class a whole lot.”
His professor laughed at the memory. An entrepreneur himself who has been teaching as an adjunct professor at St. Thomas for two decades, Sarafolean has seen a number of businesses that started in St. Thomas classrooms take off – Love Your Melon is a well-known example – but that is not the norm, he said.
TheCollegeJunk.com did well, Sarafolean said, in just demonstrating that the idea had some traction – an important first step, even if its founders were not able to monetize it. “But to get their hands dirty, right from the beginning, and to start thinking about and practicing the skills, is really what we’re hoping students walk away with,” he said.
The venture had enough momentum that the St. Thomas partners continued it after graduation, and for Anderson, through one year of law school at St. Thomas. After more than a year of working on the business after school and then staying up late to prepare for class the next day, he realized, “I didn’t want to practice law. I wanted to build tech.”
By then TheCollegeJunk.com was beginning to fizzle. Griswold had moved on, and Brothen was beginning to make inroads in his commercial real estate career. Anderson sold the business to a private buyer and decided to make a fresh start in Texas, where his parents had retired.
In Fort Worth, he started a creative services company called Dwight Benjamin. Pretty soon, he said, “I was working a hundred hours a week. I was getting to the point where I needed to scale.” He noticed that graphic design took the least amount of work, but still allowed him to bill at a high enough margin. So, he decided to eliminate all the other lines of business and rebrand the company as Design Task Group, building the virtual design company without any outside investors.
He came up with the idea of operating on a subscription model to avoid the hassles of billing for each task. “We were one of the first” graphic design companies to use a subscription model, he said, adding that a lot of his competitors today “are hiring overseas at a very cheap rate.” He didn’t want to do that. The company only hires designers with at least five years of experience and a bachelor’s degree, to meet the expectations of his clients.
Design Task Group specializes in what Anderson calls “everyday graphics” – handouts, case studies, materials for a trade show. Nothing too complicated, like a website or an app. And that’s exactly what RenPSG, a philanthropic financial services company, needed, according to Aaron Moncreiff, a senior marketing manager there. The company’s work involves branding or co-branding a lot of forms, often as fillable PDFs, from standard templates.
“We use Design Task Group to adjust this template so that it’s perfect for every single client,” Moncreiff said, adding that even at $3,000 a month – Design Task Group’s top tier – it is cheaper than hiring an in-house designer or a freelancer.
Anderson has used the relationships he nurtured at St. Thomas to help build his company. He can name six brands that came to him through the Tommie network that were among Design Task Group’s first subscribers. Even out on the West Coast, he finds connections. “We’re everywhere!” he said.
Recently, he got a lead on new business from a Tommie alumnus at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and another from someone now working in Laguna who was a resident when Anderson was a resident adviser. The network is a two-way street, he said. If anyone from St. Thomas reaches out to him for advice, he said, “I’ll always give them at least an hour of my time.”
Anderson said his experiences as a young African American on campus helped shape him into the person he is today. Becoming friends and competing with white students in the classroom, including some from wealthy backgrounds, gave him confidence, he said. He learned, “These are regular people, who are learning, just like you, and you can do it too.” That self-assurance has helped him in dealing with CEOs and other business leaders, he added. Navigating successfully in a mostly white culture, “that’s what taught me to be an effective business leader – how not to be intimidated, how to go in a room where no one looks like me and feel like I belong.”