Johan Bender is living proof that one class can take someone a long way.
Bender, who graduated from the Copenhagen Business School in 2012, spent a fall semester at USC, where he and co-founder of FreeBike Project, Kim Sanderhoff, took an entrepreneurship course and developed their idea for the business.
FreeBike Project, just like how it sounds, leases free bikes to college students while integrating innovative marketing strategies. Bender said he and Sanderhoff were inspired by the lack of marketing on campus.
“We noticed that there are not a lot of billboards on campus so it’s hard to reach out to students,” Bender said. “We thought we could use bicycles as a way of communicating with students.”
And FreeBike Project does just that. Each bike, out of the 88 currently out and about, has a special advertisement plastered on it, with sponsors including restaurants such as Jacks ‘N Joe and Margarita Pizza Bar and startups like mySocialCloud.com.
Moreover, the company has a philanthropy component. Each semester, after leasing a free, branded bike, FreeBike Project then donates an equal number of bikes overseas to underprivileged children.
Bender said most startup companies do not start with anything charitable because it’s not smart from an investment perspective and the companies usually want to see their money grow, but they decided to do it because they knew they had a chance to make a difference.
“Even though it sets us back on how fast we can grow, we thought the value of doing something greater than just marketing outweighed the extra capital that could drive us forward,” Bender said.
Marc Fernandez, an instructor at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy, said Bender is a great role model to students in his Digital Media for Business class. Fernandez admires many aspects of FreeBike Project, but one attribute that impresses him the most is that Bender and Sanderhoff have managed to combine an entrepreneurial vision with strong social ethics.
“I think it’s really tough to do in a way that comes across as legitimate and credible. A lot of people tack on ‘we’re going to give ten percent of our profits to wherever,’ as a marketing tool,” Fernandez said. “But what they’ve managed to do is incorporate [the service aspect] into the business and make it seem genuine.”
As a teacher, Fernandez is not outrageously surprised by the success of Bender’s business. “I think the purpose and the goal for these classes is to take people that are entrepreneurial already and give them the skills they need to actually realize their vision,” he said.
Fernandez said that Bender is a great example of what students can do when given the chance through their coursework.
“One of the things that I really like is that it shows that even when you’re a student you can start working on your entrepreneurial vision and you can make stuff happen,” Fernandez said.
For Bender and Sanderhoff, home is a long way away — and when their classes ended, the two had to find a way to stay in the States. They found a way to get new visas and completed their Copenhagen Business School studies online.
“I thought we might have an opportunity to do something for real, instead of doing everything in class as projects,” Bender said.
And so with an idea, a philanthropic element and innovative marketing plans, FreeBike Project was born.
“We started working on it step-by-step, building our prototype, creating our website and making a lot of mistakes along the way,” Bender said.
The hardest part in the beginning, according to Bender, was attracting the first client. “Before you have your first client nobody believes in you and people just assume you’re not good enough,” he said.
But after gaining a few clients, things got a lot easier. “As soon as you can say you have someone else believing in you, it makes it a lot easier,” Bender added.
FreeBike Project has worked on ways to increase marketing strategies, improve digital media use and expand its name through various social media campaigns and giveaways.
According to Fernandez, FreeBike Project’s intensive media use, “embodies a lot of the things we try to teach which is initiative, using the tools of digital media and making stuff happen.”
Lindsey Caldwell, a senior majoring in theatre and business, is one of the 88 FreeBike participants riding through campus. Caldwell initially participated because she admired the community service aspect. Adopting a similar one-for-one model like the famous Toms shoes brand, FreeBike Project aids in donating bikes to the Philippines, and Caldwell was impressed with this philanthropic business model.
“USC is such an awesome place where a lot of people have amazing, incredible and really talented ideas. But 90 percent of the time they never get implemented and people never try,” Caldwell said. “It shows a lot of maturity and that they have ownership in their company.”
In the end, every participant working with FreeBike Project helps to bring the duo of Bender and Sanderhoff closer to their vision.
“Our goal is to develop a green and innovative marketing platform that benefits students, businesses and charities,” Bender said.
Bender said that he likes how all of the different pieces fit together in the FreeBike Project.
“It’s not a zero sum game. Companies, sponsors, students and charities can benefit and nobody stands out as a loser,” he said.
But FreeBike Project is not ready to stop at USC. In the future, they hope to be at all bike-friendly campuses in the United States and to connect with those students and sponsors from all over.
“The thing I enjoy the most is connecting with people, whether it’s students or startups,” Bender said. “We have the ability to provide them with something special.”