When senior music business majors Courtney Wosick and Paige Norris submitted their idea for a mobile music-book rebinding service to the Fowler Business Concept Challenge, they didn't expect to gain entry let alone take third runner-up and "best presentation" honors at the annual competition.
"We kind of felt like the underdogs because everybody was either a business or entrepreneurship student. We figured that just putting together our submission would be a good learning experience and thought, 'This will be fun.' Then we got the call that we got in," Norris said.
Her partner, Wosick, agreed: "I knew we had a good idea and that we had a good strategy, but I assumed that the entrepreneurship majors would be chosen. I was ecstatic and felt honored when I heard the news that we made it. Since we were the outsiders we definitely felt quite a bit of pressure. We knew we needed to represent our department well so we worked day and night for about two weeks straight perfecting our business concept and presentation. We wanted to make the Music Department proud and to show the rest of campus what we could do."
St. Thomas music business professor Steve Cole, however, believes music and entrepreneurship are a natural combination, though the two disciplines are seldom linked. "Musicians are always on the edge of success and failure, and we become accustomed to that kind of pressure. We're accustomed to taking risks, knowing that we're always vulnerable. But we do it anyway. And that's a hallmark of great entrepreneurs," he said.
Perfect-bound books hit the wrong note
Norris and Wosick's concept, a service they dubbed PlayFlat, takes music books – which customarily are published perfect-bound (pages and cover glued together at the spine) – and replaces the binding with spiral binding so the book lies flat and stays open, allowing musicians to easily turn the pages and keep their place.
"We saw in ourselves and other musicians this struggle to have their books stay open on stands, but the glue binding doesn’t allow for it," said Norris, who has been a vocalist since she was 6 years old. "You have to either weight them down or break the binding or get some sort of clip, which is not a very good alternative."
Norris and Wosick's idea is to perform the service themselves out of a van. "The turnkey of our service is to have a van – like a mobile bindery – that would allow us to go from location to location binding large collections of music books inside the van and/or taking our equipment into the school," Norris explained.
"Having our equipment (commercial cutter binding equipment, consumables and a worktable) in a van, being able to go to studios that have hundreds of books and do as many books on site means the customer wouldn't have to bring their books to Kinkos, explain what they want, wait, come back … . We offer an all-in-one service without hassle."
Norris believes the concept is a feasible goal: "The profit margin is pretty good, so it could work. Fingers crossed. Even if we do it in our spare time in one of our basements as a hobby," she said. "We’ll can charge between five and six dollars per book, and it costs between 15 and 30 cents to do a book. We can do 50 books in an hour, so that’s a pretty good turnaround rate."
In their research, they took a music book to Kinko's to be spiral bound. The results were disappointing and reinforced to them the need for a service like PlayFlat. "They ended up cutting part of the music off, which renders the book unusable," Norris recalled. "I mean the book no longer had any value, which is disappointing because music books are expensive. So we thought with these materials, which are similar to places like Kinko’s, and with our experience with music and musical texts, we could find a way to rebind them spirally that wouldn’t damage the books."
Their concept also provides options for labeling the book spines at a small surcharge.
The pair have in mind to tap Twin Cities' schools initially – Norris noted that ACTC schools alone employ 156 music faculty. If all goes well, they will consider expanding their reach geographically and to private studios, then possibly delving into secondary markets, including cookbooks and even chemistry books.
A musical match
In addition to their Powerpoint presentation, Norris and Wosick performed their own self-described "spoofy, Saturday Night Live-inspired" version of John Lennon's "Imagine." Their performance – Norris on vocals; Wosick, guitar – earned praise, and "best presentation" honors, from the judges for being the first group in the challenge's history to sing.
They asked Dr. Jay Ebben (for whose class, "Entrepreneurial Financial Resource Management," they were required to submit to Fowler) for permission to perform live as part of their presentation as neither had ever presented a business concept in a high-caliber setting. They worried they wouldn't be taken seriously. Fortunately, Ebben loved the idea and encouraged them to pursue it.
"We both get very nervous talking in front of people, and it was very nerve wracking having to present in front of CEOs of companies. These are people who have invented billion-dollar concepts; it's really intimidating. So we decided to start our presentation with something we know right off the bat to calm our nerves," Norris said.
Woscik attributes their effectiveness as a team to their complementary strengths and weaknesses. She also noted that "the process taught us what it meant to work as a team and how to collaborate ideas. I think the greatest part about PlayFlat is that we are the target market. As musicians we deal with this problem on a daily basis and really understand our customer base as well as the scope of the issue."
Prior to the Fowler challenge, Norris and Wosick took advantage of another opportunity to shake off some of their jitters. The pair, at Cole's invitation, presented – and performed – their pitch to one of his classes in advance of the real competition, held this past October, for which they received an enthusiastic thumbs up from the crowd.
Norris and Wosick hope to bring PlayFlat to fruition after graduation.