Aztec Entrepreneurs Launch Successful Company as SDSU Students
While many of the almost 10,000 new alumni who graduated from SDSU last month are busy these days polishing resumes and looking for jobs, Kevin Gelfand and Martin Reiman aren’t worried about finding work. Instead, they’re focused on determining the next great location to expand their growing company.
New SDSU alumnus and Shake Smart co-founder Kevin Gelfand is the company's president.
Gelfand, 22, from Santa Clarita and Reiman, a 23-year-old New Jersey native, are the founders of Shake Smart, a food stand specializing in protein shakes and smoothies. As business students and avid workout junkies, the Sigma Chi fraternity brothers hatched the idea of placing a kiosk near enough to the campus fitness center to meet gym goers’ nutritional needs within 30 minutes of a hard workout.
"One of the most important things is getting protein very soon after your workout,” explains Gelfand, Shake Smart’s president. “It takes longer than 30 minutes to get back to my house from campus after my last set and the idea was, 'Wouldn’t it be cool to do a protein shake shop in front of the ARC (Aztec Recreation Center)?' So we looked and there was an open spot and it kind of all just started falling into place."
With the January 2011 opening of their first location just outside the ARC across from the west entrance of Viejas Arena, Shake Smart became the first permanent student-run business in San Diego State history. With help from campus administrators, the company’s products were accepted as part of the student meal plan and business took off.
Shake Smart co-founder and recent SDSU graduate Martin Reiman is the company's vice president.
“It took a lot of consumer feedback to see what people want and what people don’t really like,” says Reiman who, along with Gelfand, comprised a two-man research and development team that tested new recipes on friends and fellow students. “So we've cut a few things out and we've added a bunch of things that people really like."
“DESIRE WITH A CAPITAL D”
Having fine-tuned their products, the young entrepreneurs opened a second location a little more than a month ago in downtown San Diego’s Horton Plaza. It is also near a fitness center.
“Once the campus location was going it was, like, ’We have capitalized on this niche market,’ says Reiman. “’Let's find more of them.'"
The partners are now scouting several new sites and say they want to have at least 10 or 15 locations before they entertain the notion of franchising. Their aspirations come as no surprise to SDSU Entrepreneurial Management Center Director Bernhard Schroeder, a mentor to Gelfand and Reiman who taught the class where the young entrepreneurs initially presented their business plan.
Nutritious protein shakes that taste good are at the center of the Shake Smart business model.
"They are desire with a capital D,” says Schroeder. “They didn't have any money. They went out and got an SBA (Small Business Administration) loan. They worked their way through all of the university bureaucracy to get on the campus and then also to get located where they are. It was a myriad of potholes they could have fallen into and said, 'Aw, this sucks,' but they never did and that's the difference. They refused to quit. They just kept moving forward and it's very impressive what they're doing."
FUELING THE FIRE
What Gelfand and Reiman are doing has impressed others as well with the two leading a team representing SDSU in several business plan competitions. Late last year at the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards in New York, the team finished fourth in an event that began with more than 2,000 individuals from 28 countries participating. The competition recognizes outstanding for-profit student-owned businesses that are evaluated in categories such as leadership, innovation and overcoming obstacles.
At the prestigious Texas Venture Labs Competition in Austin last month, the team made it all the way to the finals before being disqualified for failing to read the fine print in the rules. The competition required teams to include more graduate students than undergraduates.
“We have a graduate representative because these are graduate-level competitions and in all the other ones you have to have just one graduate student, but this one had a rule that we had overlooked,” Reiman explains. “We were too young.”
A team from Northwestern University that the Aztecs had defeated in an earlier round took their spot in the finals and went on to win the $135,000 championship prize.
Shake Smart's original SDSU campus location outside the Aztec Recreation Center.
“We're still a little angry about it, but we've moved on,” Reiman insists.
“Looking at it in the broader sense, two undergraduates - because the graduate is not really on our team - went into this grad school competition, made it to the finals and beat the team that ended up winning the whole thing and then got kicked out. That's just a cool way to look at it," Gelfand philosophizes. "For me it's just kind of like fueling the fire.”
As if this over-achieving pair needs more fuel for their fire. Reiman and Gelfand estimate they have each put in between 60 and 80 hours of work each week for the past year and a half building a company that now has 26 employees – mostly SDSU students.
A BALANCING ACT
Considering all the time they spend together working and all the stresses that come with running a business, don’t the friends argue or get sick of one another?
"Yeah, all the time,” Reiman laughs, “but we're comfortable calling each other out and setting things straight when there are issues that can hurt work."
He says that since the two first met as pledges and then worked together as fraternity officers, they have learned to balance a friendship with a professional relationship built on respecting separate strengths, a shared work ethic and trust.
"We both have that kind of accepting mentality and I think both of us really trust each other,” says Gelfand.
“Having a business partner you can trust is unbelievably helpful,” Reiman agrees.
“And we both have the same goals in mind,” adds Gelfand. “Our goal is to build this company and the ultimate goal is to be, I guess, the leader in the blended drink industry.”
Shake Smart's second location in downtown San Diego's Horton Plaza.
That goal may seem audacious, but mentor Schroeder, for one, isn’t betting against the dynamic duo.
“I believe, this whole experience is setting them up for the rest of their lives in terms of a mentality that says, 'I can achieve whatever I want,'” he observes. “They now have seen that if you focus and work really, really hard and never quit, you will earn a place in the marketplace and I don't think they'll ever work for anyone ever in their lives.”
No matter where their venture takes them, the two young Aztec alumni say they’re grateful for the chance and will never forget how it all started.
"None of this would have been possible without the university giving us the opportunity,” says Gelfand. "The people who believed in us from the beginning let us take the risk and they took risk and, hopefully, it's been good for everybody."
"Absolutely," Reiman agrees. “Giving two 20-year-old guys a spot to open a business on campus, you know, we really took that to heart and understood the risk they were taking and turned it into something great for all of us