January 7, 2011


When I Realized  to Give Up on My Crazy Business Idea 

By Vivian Duong, currently an undergraduate at Brown University.

Meeting Amanda Martin and participating in the Academy of Business Leadership’s Summer Business Institute really inspired me to start a business in the summer of 2009.  I was but a recent high school graduate and figured that the worst that could happen is that I fail and learn a lot. Other people put a lot more into businesses and if theirs fails, they could lose their livelihood. I’m guaranteed a roof over my head and food on my table.[1]

I thought about what I was good at. I’m really good at studying. I have spent many hours and countless nights studying for tests. Then I asked myself what I could do with that skill for which others would pay. Eureka: I could sell the (dreaded) outlines my Advanced Placement United States History teacher assigned to me.

I didn’t think it would be that hard. I would just need to edit it a bit—but it was difficult. It was unbelievably time-consuming especially after I realized I had burned all my homework a while ago. [2] I asked my friends for their outlines but the best ones were handwritten, ironically, and not everybody kept every single outline for every section of the course. Therefore, I would have to type out every outline in addition to editing AND I would need to create more outlines myself. You would think that this was where I decided to quit but I didn’t.

I found out somebody already banked on that idea: Course-Notes. Course-Notes was a business that posted outlines online at course-notes.org[3] for textbooks most used in AP courses. Many students found them useful because my AP US History Teacher, like many other AP US History teachers, tested students out of the textbook. Not all the outlines were that great but they seemed to be the only site with that many outlines. The site has been a success by making money off of advertising. It has over 90,000 registered users. I was late by about six years: It started in 2002 and I thought of that idea in 2008. I continued anyway and made a business plan.

I even talked to one of my friends at Brown University after that summer. They asked me questions that I couldn’t answer such as “Why haven’t the textbook companies made outlines for these courses?” and “How will people trust you if you’re not Kaplan, McDougell Littell, or any of the other big name study guide companies?” I never meant to create a business that large—I just wanted to create something viable—even if that meant I only made $10.

At that point, I really questioned whether I would even make $10 and if the effort to get the study guides ready would be worth it. I decided that it wasn’t.

It is not that I hadn’t had a good idea, it’s just that it was already done. I’m one of many who had a brilliant idea and later realized somebody already thought of it. I don’t believe that you need to think of a completely original business idea. Many businesses usurp others everyday. Mark Zuckerberg was not the only person who thought of creating a social networking site. Many people believe business is all about luck and that Zuckerberg got lucky. I don’t believe that.

I do, however, realize that Course-Notes is a competitive business that has been around for a couple years with a staff and a strong following. I am but one person who just wants a business that won’t die.

I do not regret pursuing my idea though. I did learn a lot—mostly from asking advice from successful businesspeople such as Sylvia Scott, the founder of Girl’s CEO Connection. It is one thing to just ask businesspeople how they started their business and how they made it success; it is another to try to start one yourself and ask them what they would do then actually consider if you want to adopt their suggestions. The latter requires analytical skills and good judgment.

Even if my efforts have not paid off yet, I know that the work I put into this will pay off when I do pursue something more worthwhile such as helping Sylvia with Girl’s CEO Connection. It is like how teachers assign us essays that nobody but they will read. The point isn’t to write something for many to read but pretend you’re writing something for many to read. You pretend because one day, you may write a blog posted online that people will read and you don’t want it to be incomprehensible. I still have faith that I will find something I am willing to pursue, something that will excite me and give me energy. I will do something worthwhile in business—just not by selling my old outlines.

[1] Thanks to my mommy and daddy.

[2] I do not recommend burning your homework. I’m generally a hoarder but I rejected the hoarder in me for the catharsis—not the best time to betray my natural ways.

[3] I recommend this site for AP students.