In August 2011, Sweet Briar students Allissa Abdelwahed ’14 and Anna Richards ’14 formed a business partnership that is starting to make waves.
They are calling it Sweet Drivers, and it all began last summer when Abdelwahed, an international affairs and philosophy major and business minor, was learning to drive. Abdelwahed’s mother, concerned for her safety on the congested streets of Houston, suggested she use a magnet to let other drivers know she was a learner. They had seen student driver magnets and plates while living and traveling in Europe.
They placed a homemade black-and-white magnet on Abdelwahed’s car, and the results were instant.
“Other drivers were more patient with me,” Abdelwahed said. “When I drove without it, drivers would tailgate and get easily irritated. … As soon as they noticed the magnet, they backed off.”
It made her feel safer.
“As a student driver, I felt more relaxed because instead of honking or trying to make me go faster — over the speed limit — they would pass me or slow down to speed limit,” she said.
Seeing how effective her magnet was, Abdelwahed thought other beginning drivers might benefit from it, as well. However, magnets already on the market — stark black and white or black and yellow — seemed designed to turn drivers off from using them. The answer was clear: Abdelwahed was going to create a magnet that would appeal to teenagers, parents and grandparents alike — something ‘learners’ would want to put on their cars.
She asked Richards, an anthropology major at Sweet Briar, to be her business partner. The two enlisted assistant professor of business Tom Loftus, who agreed to help as part of a directed studies course on entrepreneurship. They met weekly to discuss their progress, brainstorm design ideas, and set goals and a timeline.
Their product research was encouraging. They wrote a paper for the course, citing a recent Austrian study which found that “young drivers who use L-plates to warn other drivers had 15% [fewer] accidents than the ones who chose to learn how to drive without a student driver magnet or an L-plate.”
Loftus says the project also is a good example of the business department’s multidisciplinary approach to learning, and of the collaboration that happens at Sweet Briar.
“There’s so much energy here. Our department is very liberal arts because we’re so well connected with other departments. That’s what makes it exciting for faculty and students.”
Not surprisingly, support for the project quickly spread beyond the business department. Tom Marcais, academic technology trainer and consultant at Sweet Briar, helped Abdelwahed and Richards by explaining the costs and logistics involved in designing a website. He also talked to them about their sales strategy.
“I think that Anna and Allissa have come up with an excellent product concept,” said Marcais, who runs his own e-commerce business selling vintage advertisements at vintagepaperads.com.
“There doesn’t seem to be much existing competition, and I could see their magnets as being popular with parents, insurance companies and the student drivers themselves.”
Marcais said he was glad to share his own experiences.
“There’s a lot that goes into running an online business, and lots of expenses that can add up quickly,” he said.
“On the e-commerce side, we’ve talked about things such as registering a domain name, shopping cart software, payment gateways, credit card merchant accounts, shipping and banner advertising revenue. We’ve also had some discussions about social-media marketing with things like Google Adsense, Blogger blogs, Facebook and Twitter.”
More help came from Michael Brunelle, Abdelwahed’s Spanish instructor. Before coming to Sweet Briar, Brunelle worked as a graphic designer, first in New York City and later in Virginia. He helped the sophomores with technical and conceptual aspects of the design process.
“The design was already there, but we went back and forth on the colors, and I enjoyed a ‘teaching moment’ where I was able to explain and show them how backgrounds of different colors affect the perception of the color of an object.” Brunelle said.
“It is fun to see how they are progressing with their business — maybe it will inspire more students to see how far they can take their ideas.”
This spring, the two students are undertaking a marketing practicum with Loftus and a one-credit independent study course taught by Brunelle and Marcais. “Graphic Design for Business Entrepreneurs” includes an introduction to the fundamental concepts of graphic design and features lessons in Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Dreamweaver.
“They’ve been doing a great job learning these programs, and are currently using Illustrator to design a logo concept for their business,” Marcais said.
To ensure that the magnets appeal to their target audience, Abdelwahed and Richards informally surveyed first-year students at Sweet Briar and presented the project to 30 students and faculty members. They used the feedback when editing their design. Some first-year students who were learning to drive bought the first-edition magnet (a hand-drawn version of the current edition) before Christmas break.
Abdelwahed and Richards are reaching out to the local community, as well. In December, they consulted Amherst County High School driving instructors, Larry Thomas and Chad Bryan, who thought the magnets were “an excellent idea,” Thomas said.
“We … support their project very much. These [magnets] are great to put on vehicles that new drivers are training in when not in an official driver’s ed car.”
In January, Sweet Drivers became an official partnership. Magnets can be purchased at the campus bookshop, through their blog, on Amazon, and via emailed order requests, which allow Abdelwahed and Richards to send invoices through Google checkout. So far, business has been slow, but the two are confident it will pick up soon.
“Founding Sweet Drivers has been an incredible learning experience,” Abdelwahed said.
“Anna and I are both confident that we will be able to launch our product successfully and increase awareness of new drivers on the road because we have a great support system.”
They do. Loftus purchased several magnets for his son, who started driving recently.
“Brian says that people seem to stay further away from him,” he said, adding that it makes him feel better as a parent, too.
His son also likes the look of it, which is what Abdelwahed and Richards were going for. After all, a student driver magnet is only useful if it’s actually being used.
“I think it’s fulfilling their goals,” Loftus said.
Next, the two entrepreneurs will present the magnets to students at Amherst County High School. Once Sweet Drivers takes off, they plan to donate 15 percent of their revenue to The Partnership for Safe Driving, a non-profit organization.
For more information about this project, visit Sweet Drivers on Facebook or follow them on Twitter (@SweetDrivers).
Contact: Janika Carey