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Update from the Wood Enterprise Institute (WEI)

May 28, 2012 – By Earl Kline

Congratulations to the WEI 2011-2012 student team for concluding a successful year at learning how to organize and run their business! This year, the team designed, manufactured and sold a wooden napkin holder to complement last year’s drink coaster set. The design focus was to create a beautiful and sustainably produced wood product to be used and displayed as a home centerpiece. During the Fall Semester, the WEI team worked diligently to develop a business plan to outline how their product could sustain the business. This plan carefully described all of the market research, product design specifications, operations, cost assumptions, and various contingencies necessary to market and sell the product. Then, the challenge began in the Spring Semester when the student team learned that no matter how carefully detailed their plan was, there were many “little” things that got in the way of delivering according to the plan. How the team responded and then adjusted to these challenges is where the true entrepreneurial learning occurs! The right answer is not found in a book or from a lecture; students must problem solve and learn from experience. In essence, the WEI business acts as a laboratory that provides many learning opportunities whereby students can practice a scientific problem-solving discipline to find and apply knowledge in ways to adapt and improve their business.


WEI group


This year’s WEI team had to solve anticipated problems concerning maintaining the highest wood machining quality standards while creating a safe work environment that led to high worker productivity. But when unforeseen events happen like working out bugs in the product design, waiting for suppliers, dealing with personnel issues, and keeping the business up and running, the students gain “hands-on” experience on how to make proper adjustments. One considerable challenge for this year’s group was losing a key team member who was in charge of the business’ information technology (IT). The team had to adapt quickly to this loss during a critical time when the business depended on IT to market and sell products while collecting money. By keeping score in terms of the operational and financial health of the business, the students saw the impact of their actions and adjustments on the business’ bottom line.

The bottom line? Compared to previous WEI business cycles, this year’s team generated record earnings considering all operating costs such as materials, labor, facilities, and services. However, the business startup expenses still exceeded these record earnings. The unique challenge with the WEI business is that every year there is 100% turnover, and the business must start with a new team. To get the new team up to a level that matches the previous year’s performance has historically taken at least a full semester. WEI’s target is to be able to speed up the training cycle so that a new team is up and running sooner. The sooner the new team is up and running, the sooner business problem solving skills can be practiced to help drive the business toward a positive and sustainable cash flow.

The Wood Enterprise Institute is a student-run, faculty-supported organization at Virginia Tech that is recognized and respected as a leading learning environment for creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
The learning goal of the WEI is to gain hands-on experience on how a business
is run from the ground up; a “concept-to-market” principle. In meeting

this goal, leadership opportunities are provided to coordinate the all business activities such as design, marketing, procurement, production, sales, and finance.

Many thanks go to our sponsors and donors who make the Wood Enterprise a premier learning experience. Please visit www.vtwei. com for more information.

The 20011-12 WEI product: Napkin holder and coaster set.



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