OLEAN — Daniel Crum and his classmates found themselves Thursday in a scene right out of “Shark Tank,” albeit one with an Olean twist.
The Olean High School seniors were asked to pitch a business venture not only worthy of selection by a panel of mock investors, but also one that could thrive in the Olean area.
Their answer: Remodeling the long-vacant Kmart building on Route 417 in Allegany into a one-stop shop for local outdoors enthusiasts to purchase brand-name hunting and fishing equipment, practice their aim in a shooting and bow range and even get their game butchered.
“We were just thinking of what we needed in Olean,” Crum explained. “ … It’s a town that needs different businesses in it to keep it going.”
That’s the mentality OHS and Olean Business Development Corp. was hoping to foster with their second annual “Squirrel Tank” competition, inspired by ABC’s hit entrepreneurial-themed reality show “Shark Tank.”
About 60 OHS economic students working both alone and in groups created a total of 24 business proposals over the last month. Students then voted last week to select the top five proposals, which were then presented to a panel of local business officials Thursday morning at Jamestown Community College’s Cattaraugus County Campus.
Another 60 OHS seniors will compete in the competition in the spring, as economics is a one-semester course.
“I’m trying to get them to really think realistically about their futures: What is it you want to do with your life? And also how do you make Olean a better place?” said economics teacher Katie Wolfgang, who created the competition last year. “Every year I hear the students complaining like a typical teenager, ‘Olean is so boring, there’s nothing to do.’ This is where I say, ‘Hey, let’s do something. What would you do to make Olean a better place to live?’”
The competition fits right in line with OBD’s goal of promoting entrepreneurship in the city, particularly amongst young people who might look to move elsewhere, said OBD President Larry Sorokes.
“Retention of young people, making sure young people feel engaged in the community is important,” he said. “Listening to their ideas, hearing about what they think is important to them if they were to stay here and start a business here.”
Students were tasked with answering many of the questions Sorokes and OBD would ask an actual entrepreneur looking for guidance on how to start a business in the city.
They researched a local property to base their business out of; determined their startup costs and how much they would pay their employees; and some even created a snappy slogan.
Crum, Cole Butterbaugh, Steven Isenberg and Dezmine Adams, whose “American Range: Where the hunt begins” store won first place, estimated it’d likely cost them $4 million to start the business — $1.5 million to purchase the old Kmart building, $2 million to renovate it and $500,000 to build up their stock.
They said they’d pay employees minimum wage with a 50-cent increase every year and hire one of their brothers, who goes to college for finance, to be the store manager. He’d get paid two dollars above the minimum wage with a dollar increase every year.
“The biggest takeaway I got was it’s actually a lot of work to even think about starting a business,” Crum said, “and it would take a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of people just to start off with. To even get to where we profit, it would probably take a couple years.”
OHS senior Korry Keis, whose odd jobs business proposal won second place, also said the competition made him better appreciate the difficulties of starting a business.
“There were definitely things that you wouldn’t think about that you have to do, like just paying people,” he said. “You have to think how much are you charging so you can pay the people who actually did the work, but you also want to make profits. There’s a lot of things like that that probably a lot of us didn’t realize before doing this.”
As for whether they’d actually consider staying in Olean and starting their own business after graduation, Crum and his team members gave an emphatic yes.
“Olean has lost so many people over the years that I believe that if we just get better businesses more people will come back,” he said. “You never know. It could be a nice little town.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)