Brandon is bottom-left in photo.
The Butler University bookstore sells its mascot on coffee mugs, Mason jars and shot glasses. It hawks the Butler Bulldog on earrings, scarves, T-shirts and seat cushions. It boasts bulldog stickers for your face, for your car and for your wall.
And of course the bookstore has snuggly stuffed animal bulldogs by the bucketful.
But what the bookstore didn’t sell, students noticed, was anything like a Pillow Pet, a popular plush toy that lies flat as a pillow or folds up into a stuffed animal.
An idea for a class project — and a retail business — was born.
A team of Butler students created the Butler Bed Buddy, a jersey-wearing bulldog pillow modeled after the university’s former beloved mascot Blue II.
Steep learning curve
“I’ve never written a business plan before,” said sophomore Michael Mueller, 19.
But the Butler Bed Buddy project meant they needed to come up with one in a single semester — finances, marketing, logistics, everything.
They pitched it in a required introductory class for business students, called Real Business Experience. As its straightforward name suggests, the class has all business students launch their own startup.
“I didn’t know where to start,” said sophomore Emily Sparrow, 19.
They brainstormed a plan and turned to Google to find a manufacturer. Proposal in hand, they asked the school for a small loan and placed an order in China.
“It was a big shot in the dark,” Mueller said.
“What if it was wrong?” Sparrow said.
But the samples showed exactly what they wanted: a light-colored bulldog sporting a blue jersey, complete with the official Butler University logo. He lies flat in a square on his tummy or folds up onto four legs with a strap. His eyebrow can flip up or down, making the huggable plush look fierce to some and friendly to others.
The students had to get licensing permission to use the Butler logo and were careful not to infringe on the trademarked “Pillow Pet” name. Butler vets the business class proposals, which operate under the school’s insurance and tax umbrellas.
By the time the first shipment arrived, the students had presold enough Bed Buddies to cover their costs.
“Word spread. It was nuts,” Mueller said.
They sold dozens to their friends and families and made sure Butler President Jim Danko had one, too.
The cuddly pillows became one of new mascot Blue III’s favorite toys, along with basketballs and cardboard boxes. He lunges for the pillows and likes to chew on them.
“He thinks all the Butler Bed Buddies belong to him,” said Blue III’s caretaker, Michael Kaltenmark.
The students hit another surge of sales when they started tying pink, blue and basketball-patterned ribbons around the cuddly animals.
“If you know someone who likes Butler or went to Butler, it’s automatic,” Sparrow said.
Learning by doing
Still, there were plenty of tough business lessons, such as how long it takes a shipment to travel overseas and how expensive it is to send items from Chicago to Indianapolis.
Marketing, the four students agreed, became the greatest challenge. How do you sell to students on limited budgets, and how do you get the word out to Butler fans outside campus?
“It really was a roller coaster,” Mueller said.
They’re still thinking up ways to plug their product, including, perhaps, sending one to former Bulldogs basketball coach Brad Stevens, who now coaches the Celtics in Boston.
Anne Clark, an Indianapolis pediatric eye doctor who mentors the students, pointed to their collaborative spirit and perseverance as a key to their successes.
“It all sounds really good on paper, but when they begin executing it, it doesn’t always work out,” she said. “They work really hard at it.”
Real Business Experience is a “learn-by-doing” program in which sophomores get a hands-on introduction to business.
“They come out with a much broader understanding of how a business operates from a cultural side, as well as a procedural side,” said lecturer Dick Halstead, who coordinates the program. “They’re not there to study marketing or accounting, but where the strategies intersect. That’s how businesses run. You can’t teach that stuff. It’s a much stronger learning model.”
Other projects over the years have included a photo booth, barbecue sauce and environmentally friendly laundry detergent. Students have provided technology support to retirement communities and sold hot dogs out of a renovated trailer.
They aren’t graded on how much they sell, whether they are approved for school loans or whether they win business competitions. Success, Halstead said, can be measured by the strength of a plan or the students’ development as they go through the process.
Still, the Bed Buddy project has churned out big numbers: After almost two semesters of running the business, the students have sold hundreds of Bed Buddies and stand to take home more than $10,000 in profits.
They did so well that other students whispered rumors that their project banked astronomical profits last semester. They did so well that other students in the Real Business Experience classes are looking to them for tips.
“They come to us and say, ‘Can you help us?’ ” Sparrow said. “It feels good to be able to give advice, because we asked for a lot.”
“Entrepreneurship sounds so fancy,” Mueller said. “It’s such a romantic word. But it’s literally just hard work and grit.”
“We just started building a company,” said junior Sarah Grace, 21. “Not many college grads will be able to say that.”
The next step
Now the Bed Buddy is at a critical juncture. Along with partner Brandon Shannon, a 19-year-old sophomore, the students could scale the business, extending it to other schools too small to have an official brand-name Pillow Pet. They could continue the business, which is run out of a small “war room” on campus.
Or they could sell it — to another student group, to another business or to the school bookstore.
“It would be really cool to come back to Butler as an alumni and see it being sold in bookstores,” Sparrow said.
But it’s not an easy decision.
“It’s like we gotta send it off to college,” she said, with a tinge of sadness and a hint of pride.